Suspended Head

by Todd Elihu on 2013/05/17

In 2009 on Daqingshan, Master Chen Zhonghua instructed me to keep one point on my body stable and fixed during push hands practice. The location of the point was up to me; I could make it be the lower back, rear foot, etc. However, the most important thing was to maintain the integrity and stability of the chosen point. I could move the rest of the body in any way that I wished as long as this point did not move. When I started experimenting with his instruction, I felt an immediate improvement in my push hands. It is still something that I am working to perfect.

Lately, during form and push hands practice, I have been trying to establish the crown of my head as my nonmoving point. I may have other points that are also nonmoving on my body at the same time, but my main focus has been on the top of the head. I am specifically referring to the baihui point, which is an acupuncture point that is at the vertex of the head on its midline. There is a small palpable depression at this location. Baihui is a very important point in many systems of Qigong, yet its meaning and function in a Qigong context are not related to its terminological usage within the Practical Method system.

My motivation behind this recent focus on the top of the head stems from the insightful advice that my disciple-brother Michael Calandra gave me at the Seishinkan Budo Camp that he hosted last June. Michael had observed me pushing hands with several people and identified that I was leaning forward too much, and thereby compromising my structure. I have since been working to resolve this problem.

The top of the head is a challenging point to put under one’s conscious control. This may be because it is below one’s normal field of vision and is therefore normally “out of sight, out of mind”. This relative lack of awareness might explain why sometimes, even though my eyes are very near and should conceivably take notice of something so close to them, I end up bumping the upper portion my head on low-hanging objects. Another reason may be that the head sits atop the frame of the body and is therefore more susceptible to being set in motion by various moving parts of the body which serve as its base. Within the Practical Method, according to Master Chen, we generally train things that other people do not train. It follows then that bringing awareness and utility to the top of the head, an area which many may ignore and underestimate, would be something we should attend to during training. We also train to separate the functions and orientations of different body parts from one another, instead of moving them all as one piece, which is the default way of movement for many people.

In Grandmaster Hong Junsheng’s commentary on the Taiji Treastise of Wang Zongyue in Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method, Volume 1: Theory, he discusses the phrase “虚领顶劲”, which Master Chen literally translated as “empty collar push-up energy”. Hong writes that “empty collar” refers to the line that must be formed and maintained between baihui and changqiang, which is located on the tailbone. I was discussing this with my disciple-brother Carl Lindberg last night and I was conjecturing that if you were wearing a collared shirt and slouching forward, the collar would press against your neck, however, if you were to hold yourself so that there is a line between baihui and changqiang, the collar will become loose and free of the neck, i.e. “empty”. Regarding “push-up energy”, I have felt such an energy from Master Chen before. He once had me stand on a chair and push down on his crown. When I applied pressure, he firmly connected our point of contact with the ground by means of excellent structural alignment, matching the power applied from above. Furthermore, he was able to freely rotate various joints on his body, and even perform movements with fajin, without any change or movement of his head.

I know from Master Chen’s instructions that there can be many lines of force present on the body at one time, both straight and curved. There are actually 18 lines on the body. When they can be aimed at the right location, the resultant power can be amazing. Just by being able to precisely aim 4 or 5 lines, Master Chen is able to move me from a stable and rooted stance to being pushed backward. He often uses the line connected to the baihui, which is very hard to perceive when pushing against him.

My disciple-brother Ronnie Yee related that he once showed the video of Grandmaster Hong’s form to a friend who had studied the Alexander technique, a process developed by a Shakespearean actor which teaches people how to unlearn bad postural habits and return to a balanced and well-aligned state of poise. After watching, his friend was very impressed and remarked that Hong was the only person she had ever seen whose energy went straight to the top of his head in every move that he made.

I have heard some martial artists from other systems say that Taijiquan practitioners are too concerned with keeping the head upright, exposing them to blows to the head and throat. They advocate for crouching, slipping, bobbing, and covering up, techniques which all involve some sort of tucking of the head or bending from the waist. However, such folding disconnects certain lines of force and places one in a weaker position to both defend and attack. In the Practical Method training, we seek to maintain the integrity of the baihui to changqiang line, even if that line is inclined as in “Punch to the Ground”. Moreover, when Master Chen teaches one-step or two-step sanshou drills, he changes his relative position with speedy and agile footwork in response to an attack, rather than compromising the structure of his head and torso. In these drills he usually moves his head-torso column slightly off the line of the incoming force so as not to take its direct impact, yet remains on it enough so as to connect with its source. While undermining the center of an attacker’s movement, his foot-connected hand is used to deliver a strike to a soft target on the opponent’s body. This type of fight training is not for Queensberry rules bouts which presume an extended slugfest, rather it is aimed at ending a conflict quickly and efficiently.

All this thinking about the top of the head and its columnlike connection to the lower torso has led me to reflect on the nickname of Chen Changxing, the 14th generation standard bearer of Chen Family Taijiquan – “Mr. Ancestral Tablet”. An ancestral tablet, which is analogous to a tombstone, is not meant to sag, fold, or bend, it is meant to unflaggingly maintain a certain structure for perpetuity. Like Chen Changxing, I hope to one day to be known for the quality of my posture and the integrity of my internal connection. To reach such a level of achievement I will continually seek to refine my understanding of the method and its principles and will consistently practice to physically realize such understanding.

If you have any teachings you have received about “suspended head” or other insights on this topic, please share in the comments section below. Thank you in advance!


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Niko May 18, 2013 at 11:34 am

Thanks for the report, Todd. I heard Master Chen explaining an analogy on that topic. An errect spine is similar of a hose with water running through. The stream stabilizes the spine and gives it a polarity compared to an empty hose.
It is special to Taiji internal training and must not be overlooked as other stylists might think. They are wrong and misunderstand the meaning of it when comparing an errect spine to fighting situations.


Niko May 18, 2013 at 11:39 am

The water stream is the “internal energy”.


Niko May 18, 2013 at 11:45 am

I believe, if you train Taiji, that maybe your head is suspended someday. What does it mean ? It just means that your head is suspended !


Calvin Chow May 20, 2013 at 12:08 am

My understanding is head suspending and sinking dantian is a pair of yin yang. The opposite forces stretch between head and coccyx and make sure the spine erect and maintain stable upright axis of rotation. Ceiling on both head level and on waist level gets to maintain throughout Yilu practice.


charlie wishon August 19, 2013 at 11:40 pm

My eldest teacher uses the term polar axis tai ji … even if you have to bend the energy still goes from top to bottom / bottom to top. in the breath work of pulling in the golden thread. and facilitating the lower posture. (opening the dang) the positive energy cultivated helps to suspend the head as the energy naturaly wants to rise. Kuntao shares the same principles and concepts. which in turn help the body to produce HGH ( Human growth hormone). And new cells. as for not getting hit you must trust the form and practice/utilize timing. within the form. but most importantly trust the form… then bending is not needed to get out of the way. what you need is already there. Trust the form !


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