Incorporating Tai Chi Pivoting Technique as a Fall Prevention Method
by Sandra Balint
Last year I started teaching my older students Tai Chi to help them move more safely in their everyday life. In particular, I wanted to show them how pivoting technique could be applied to throughout their day, not only during their Tai Chi practice. It could be used to make a directional change in their gait at any time. In giving this advice I was especially concerned for those students whose legs were not strong.
During this same time last year, my longtime teacher Jianye Jiang passed his business, Capital District Tai Chi & Kung Fu Association, on to his former student, Lucas Geller. A knowledgeable martial artist, Geller renamed it, The Chinese Martial Arts Academy (CMAA), where both he and Jiang now work.
From the beginning Geller was well received and often shared with us stories about the close relationship he had with his 92-year-old grandfather, Norman. It was obvious that he was very proud of his grandfather's wit, intelligence, good nature and the rapid way in which he liked to move. But Geller also mentioned his concern that his grandfather moved too quickly, especially when he was changing directions, and Geller feared Norman might fall. That's when he started to talk to him about possibly slowing down and using pivoting to make his directional changes smoother and safer.
As time went on we wanted to know whether Norman had come around to our new teacher's way of seeing things. The answer always came back the same: Norman would just shake his head and laugh, convinced that his old ways of changing direction - turning around rapidly, then tripping over his feet and catching himself at the last second - were best.
This surprised me, as Geller and I had never exchanged our mutual views on the matter. Though obviously a great idea, even after a year of constant gentle haranguing, his grandfather still refused (albeit with great humor) to follow his grandson's advice.
Then just the other day Geller came in smiling. His grandfather had finally given in and tried pivoting, and he had given a thumbs up on how well it worked. So it seems only fitting now to have both grandfather and grandson appear in this article, to show that sometimes the young and old can teach each other valuable lessons: (1) always keep a good humor, (2) always remain patient no matter how long it may take, and (3) no matter how old we become, we always have the option to embrace a new idea.
For the uninitiated, the technique employed in Tai Chi that allows a safe transfer of weight from one leg to the other involves a shift-pivot-shift (SPS) process. SPS is a combination of moves that results in a directional change through a balanced transfer of weight. The process involves: 1) shifting your weight onto one leg to free up the other one (this is a set-up move that enables pivoting), 2) rotating the heel, or toe, of the lightened foot in the new direction, and 3) shifting the weight onto the pivoted (forward) leg, first through the pivoted heel, then through the foot as it settles onto the floor, and finally into the leg until it bends at the knee, though stopping short of letting the knee go over the toe).
Though the pivoting angle varies depending on the style of Tai Chi (90-degree pivots in traditional Yang style, 45-degree pivots in the new Simplified Yang style), the principle remains the same -- to gradually transfer weight to maintain balance. This is true for all the five families of Tai Chi. However, to eliminate confusion, Simplified Yang style Tai Chi with its 45-degree heel pivot will be used for this article.
Weight-bearing percentages also vary among Tai Chi styles. For instance, in Yang style, at the completion of a number of its movements, one leg bears 70% of the weight while the other bears 30%. However, the exact percentages will vary according each person's physical ability. That is why the shift being discussed in this article can be, for some, as simple as a lean to create a weight-bearing leg. As long as the individual can recognize the weight shift in order to maintain proper balance, it is acceptable.
In other words, no matter the style, or by whom, or at what age, the careful transitioning of bodyweight over the base is central to all. The shift-pivot-shift (SPS) method is one of the ways to do this. As long as an individual maintains proper alignment of the upper part of the body (head, spine, arms and torso) with the lower part of the body (hips, legs and feet), there must be some leeway when they are doing the best their bodies can manage. Practicing Tai Chi for health is not about perfection but about staying well, safely upright and serene.
Certainly learning how to move so that the body remains in balance is an important goal. It will lessen the chances of falling, which can lead to injury, trauma, or even death. Following are the steps for using shift-pivot-shift (SPS) techniques to achieve that objective.
The Basic Tai Chi SPS Method for a Safe 45-Degree Turn
Stand with your feet facing forward, parallel and shoulder-width apart. For reference, your starting position is north. Shift your weight to the left leg so that the toe of the right foot can be lifted and the right leg now rests on its heel. Next pivot the right foot using the ball of the heel as a fulcrum, turning the foot 45 degrees outward. At the same time, turn your body to the right so that upon completing the turn, your hips, torso and entire body now face the northeast corner.
Next, start shifting your weight to the right leg while lowering the right foot. Continue to transfer your weight forward onto your right foot as it is planted and facing the corner. At this point your weight has been transferred to your right leg, and your right knee is bent but does not go over the toe.
In Yang style, this is called a bow stance. The weight is 70% on the forward leg and 30% on the back, with the back foot turned inward at a 45-degree angle. Several Yang style movements end in this lower body stance (e.g., " Part the Wild Horse's Mane" and " Grasp the Bird's Tail" ). But for our purposes, what is important is that these three simple movements have changed our direction by 45 degrees. Norman, or anyone using this technique, can now resume walking in this new direction.
Following is a description in photos and text of Lucas Geller instructing his grandfather, Norman, on how to make, and how not to make, this directional change.
In photo #1, Geller has Norman carefully position his feet parallel and forward about shoulder-width apart. Geller has his grandfather demonstrate how he usually turns. (See Photo #2) Norman crosses his left foot over and into the path of his back right foot, which he has turned in at a 45-degree angle to his left leg. From the photo, the move appears awkward, as the right hip is rotated inward, and his gait is dangerously unstable. In this position Norman looks like he is about to trip over his right leg as his momentum moves counter to the direction of his left leg and foot. Clearly his body is out of alignment and unbalanced. (Geller supports his grandfather to prevent his falling in this awkward maneuver.)
Next Geller has his grandfather return to the starting position. (See photo #1) With Geller's guidance, Norman now shifts his weight slightly onto his left back leg. He can now lift his right toe so that the heel of the right foot becomes a fulcrum for turning. Pivoting on the right heel, Geller turns the right foot outward, demonstrating the correct 45-degree turn. (See photo #3) Geller supports Norman as he tries to execute the move.
Maintaining his balance, Norman shifts his weight forward through his center and into his heel. (See photo #4) Norman continues transferring his weight onto his lowered right foot, bending the right knee. Geller points out that Norman's position is now correct with his back foot at a 45-degree angle, unlike the earlier unstable 90-degree angle. His front foot points straight ahead in alignment with his bent right knee. In this position Norman is in a traditional bow stance with roughly 70% of his weight on the forward leg and 30% on the back leg.
In photo #5 Geller and Norman have completed the move so that the forward right leg now bears most of the weight. Both Geller and Norman face the northeast corner with their hips aligned with their right foot, which is pointing straight ahead. The back foot is at a 45-degree angle for maximum stability. Norman can now resume walking in this new direction. If, however, he wants a greater change in direction, he would follow the next set of instructions.
Repeating SPS to Affect a 90-Degree Turn
To make another 45-degree directional change, Norman would bring his left foot forward next to his right foot as seen in the starting position Photo #1. With both feet now parallel to the corner, he would repeat the exercise so that, when finished, he would face east. In total, he has turned 90 degrees.
Using SPS to Affect a 45-Degree Turn in the Opposite Direction.
To change directions and go clockwise, simply return to the starting position facing north and follow the procedure described above, substituting right for left, and left for right.
Using the SPSPS Method (the Back Foot Pivot Method) to Make a 90-Degree Turn
This is a longer version of the SPS, involving an extra pivot and shift. It sounds complicated but is not. First stand with your feet parallel as in Photo # 1 facing forward and north. Shift your weight to the right leg, then pivot your left foot inward about 45 degrees, or whatever is comfortable for you ankle. Once this is done, shift back so that the forward right leg is now free and the right heel can be pivoted 45 degrees outward. Your body will now be facing east having affected a 90 degree turn. Lower your right heel and shift your weight forward through your base and onto your right leg. Finish in a bow stance with the right knee bent and your back foot at 45 degrees. Once you get comfortable with this movement, it will feel very much like you are rocking your own cradle. This SPSPS can also be reversed so that you can do it counterclockwise 90 degrees.
These different methods of turning with the SPS technique are effective and very useful. Pivoting in these ways has benefitted me as well as my students. When arthritis prevents me from turning in my usual quick manner, I find that the last one (the SPSPS technique) is a very comfortable and safe way to make a 90-degree turn. Even if you have never studied Tai Chi (like Norman), these movements are easy to learn. Always be mindful of your body's limitations and adapt these techniques to your own particular situation. In this way, you become your own best teacher.
Norman proudly reports that he uses these pivoting techniques everyday in his small kitchen as he goes about his favorite pastime, cooking. He made a commitment to improve his mind-body coordination, and to learn to move in a more efficient, effective and safe way. Anyone who applies themselves to learning these techniques will develop a greater awareness and appreciation for the aesthetics of movement, along with increased confidence and empowerment.
Tai Chi practitioners are well aware of this state of well being and balance. Purposeful weight-shifting and pivoting is at the core of their practice; it is the key to staying balanced and aligned. In practicing Tai Chi, they gain a truer picture of what their body's weaknesses are, so they can address them.
Shifting and pivoting are time-tested ways of moving efficiently and safely. With aging, muscle weakness, stiff joints and tight ligaments are real concerns for many older adults. To compensate for these natural changes, people must stay focused and aware before they move, as well as during the move.
Pivoting is a technique that allows all ages of all abilities to keep moving. With practice, your awareness of center of gravity will become automatic, something you'll carry with you even outside of practice. As Master Jou Tsung Hwa says in his The Tao of Tai-Chi Chuan/Way to Rejuvenation, " The only way to understand it is to do it... Practice again and again by yourself to gain tong chin (self knowledge)."
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About Sandra Balint:
Sandra Balint is a certified Tai Chi and Qi Gong instructor and owner of The Healthy Mind and Body Studio. She studies under her long time teacher, Jianye Jiang and Lucas Geller, his student, protégé and owner of the Chinese Martial Arts Academy of Latham, NY.