Thursday, January 6, 2011

Guang Ping Yang Tai Chi: Martial Stances

This is the first of a four part series presenting what I learned while briefly studying with Master Gary Torres from January to September 2000. Gary learned from Peter Kwok, the founder of Peter Kwok's Kung Fu Academy in the Guang Ping Yang Tai Chi lineage. Gary is the head of the Phoenix Dragon Kung Fu Academy.

Learning Tai Chi as a martial art requires developing a solid foundation in stance work. When I studied with Gary Torres who taught from the Guang Ping Yang system, I learned more about stances ( 步 法 ; bù fǎ ) than I did in my previous Yang Tai chi training.

Here we go. (My current comments are in italics.)

* Primacy of stance. Structure determines function. 10,000 techniques are useless without the proper foundation. All applications are built on different stances.
(I think this is where I realized the shortcoming of my original Tai chi training in the Cheng Man-ching Yang Tai chi system which taught forms without teaching stances; like building a house without first building the foundation.)

* Stance must become your nature. Not your second nature, but your nature.
(I didn't have a clue what this meant at that time. I think I'm getting a better sense of this now. Practicing stance is slowly transforming my body. The effect of stance work is becoming my natural body. Maybe this is the same as saying, whatever you do a lot of, is what you become.)

* Purpose of stance is to train the body. It is not to build strong legs, however, this is a peripheral benefit.

* Do the stances to: learn the "rules", learn where a "rule" is broken, learn if you opponent is following the "rule", learn where the opponent is vulnerable to attack.

* Stances are the foundation. Stances are "the rules". EVERY move comes out of a stance.

* The correct stance and posture is "the rule". When you see your opponent following the rule, you know you have ABC options. When you see your opponent breaking a rule, you know you have XYZ options. For example,
  • If opponent is not standing straight, then you have 'X' option.
  • If opponent's back foot is not at a 45 degree angle, then you have 'Y' option.
  • If opponent's attacking elbow is up, then you have 'Z' option.
*Question: Why is the rear foot at 45 degrees? See for yourself. Face a wall. Put right foot on the wall about waist high. Left foot heel and toe on perpendicular line to wall (or parallel with raised leg). Push wall with right foot. Some strength, not much side-to-side stability. Next, turn left foot parallel with wall (or perpendicular to raised leg). Push wall with right foot. No strength, better side-to-side stability. Next, turn left foot 45 degree angle to wall. Push again. Much stronger, much more stable. A 45 degree rear foot provides optimal power and stability.

* Here are the eight basic stances and how to do them correctly. Each person's physical structure determines their stance, or said another way, the stance is unique to each person. Find your correct stance.

* Tiger Stance ( 虎 步 ; hǔ bù )
Begin with feet parallel about 1 & 1/2 shoulder width apart. Heels on line. Turn right foot out 45 degrees. Drop down into right foot so that the ischeal tuberosity (sitting bone - bottom of pelvis) touches and is directly over the right heel. Slide left foot straight out to side and keep knee locked. Keep left heel and toe on ground and in same position with toe facing forward. Heels on same line.
Back is straight up and down. No leaning, no curving.
Hips are turned to the tiger - toward the long, straight leg.
Keep arms off legs.
Bent knee must be in line with toe, not torqued in or out.
Note how far apart the feet are. This is your maximum. Never let your feet get further apart than this. The Tiger Stance is first because this determines the maximum distance the feet can be apart from each other.

If the body wants to lean and cannot be straight up and down, or the heel raises and you balance on your toe, then the problem may be tension in the ankle. If another person pushes down on the bent knee, to hold you from falling backward and this allows the back to straighten, and if the person lets go and you fall, then exercise to loosen the ankle.

* Horse Stance ( 马 步 ; mǎ bù )
From Tiger, keeping feet in same position, rise up and shift to center. Turn right foot in on heel so again both feet are parallel. Sit down so knees are parallel in line with toes. Back straight and vertical. This is your maximum Horse Stance.

* "L" Stance or Half Horse Stance
From Horse, turn right foot out 90 degrees.

* Bow and Arrow Stance ( 龚 剑 ; gōng jiàn bù )
From "L" stance, turn left toe in 45 degrees. Straighten and lock the left knee. Right knee pushes forward on line parallel with toe. Hips and shoulders turn in direction of front toe. Back straight and vertical.

* Lotus Stance
From Bow and Arrow, turn front (right) foot out 90 degree (toes facing three-o-clock). Back heel will lift off floor. Lean forward onto front foot. Pick back foot off ground. Back straight and vertical.

This ends this series of stances.

Other stances include and each begin with heels together, toes rotated out 45 degree off center line.

* Rooster Stance ( 獨 立 ; dú lì )
Shift to left leg. Pick up right foot. Bring knee straight up as high as it will go. Toe points down. Rotate femur/knee so femur covers groin and right toes over left toes.

* Empty Stance and Short Empty Stance ( 虛 步 ; xū bù )
Pick up right foot. Move right toe to be in front of left instep and then straight forward. Right toe points to ground and only toe touches ground. From Empty Stance, move right toe to touch ground immediately in from of the left instep. This is the Short Empty Stance.

* Tai-chi Stance
This is the same as the Empty stance (standing on left foot) but the heel touches the ground and toes are pulled up. Right leg is straight.

* * * *

(After this training, I began watching other tai chi players to see if in their form they were transitioning between stances or just moving their feet around like I had learned to do. It's very interesting what you see when you can see.

For a while I did go back and re-learn my form with the perspective of stance. I'd ask myself, "Which stance is this posture?" and rather than transition between "postures" as I'd always done, I practiced transitioning between stances. The form became about a series of stances.

I also noticed how many different postures are based on any given stance.
Doing this, I found that knowing and playing from stances, rather than "postures", developed a certain intentionality in the placement of my feet and legs in relation to what was going on "up above". This completely changed my experience of my form.)

See also:
Gary Torres: Journal Notes #10
Guang Ping Yang Tai Chi: Basic Training


  1. You said that stances are to train the body. I would go further and say that a purpose of internal martial arts training methods is to teach the body to habitually move in a certain way, which you will hopefully carry over into your daily life, 24/7. At that point, you're practicing every waking moment of your life.

  2. Hey Rick and Mike,

    I agree with both veiw points... Here is an important factor to concider: There is a chunk size and generalization distortion that shows up when people look at purpose from different frame works. In Wujifa we say you are where you are and that's where you start. Also, as both you you know we who train Wujifa enjoy the saying "The method is not the truth..." often. I believe what Mike is saying is VERY functional and a very important step and chunk size to explore which is often skipped or glossed over and a key to training and getting the body progressions that are key in IMA.

    So Yes... Stance and stances are a very key "Method" (as said before often overlooked) to developing the body. The method of shifting into stances instead of just doing the movement form "willy nilly" will offer people a lot of practical insight. Many systems have stances as a foundation and the frame of this chunk size an interesting one to explore.

  3. Stances are the root.