Stances and the Feet

by Mat Beausoleil on 2012/03/26

Eventually, the positioning of the feet and stances must also be taken into consideration and perfected. When the body is properly connected, the legs are naturally brought in and the knees pushed out as far as possible without compromising the structure of the rest of body. If the feet are in their proper positions and the knees pushed out, a very tight spiral can be felt connecting and tightening the tendons and ligaments throughout the rounded arch (dang) of the legs all the way into the ankles. There are two main stances in the Taijiquan Practical Method system; the horse stance and the bow stance. These two stances however are the foundation for different variations of stances used throughout the forms. The three main double weighted positions are the bow stance, the oblique bow stance (flat stance) and the horse stance. The two main empty stances are the cat stance and the oblique cat stance. Even though there are other variations of these, such as the cross legged stances used in cloud hands and walk obliquely with twist steps, I will limit the discussion to the main stances mentioned above.

In the bow stance (used in block touching coat and single whip) the rear foot should point to the front at 90 degrees and the front leg should point out at a 45 degree angle, pointing to the opponent. The heel of the front foot should align perfectly with the toes of the rear foot as if there was a perpendicular line drawn across the toes of the rear foot to the front heel. The oblique bow stance is a simple variation of the bow stance. In this stance (used in brush the knee and flash the back) the rear leg points out at a 45 degree angle and the leading foot points toward the opponent, directly to the front. As with the half horse stance, a line perpendicular to the rear foot’s toes could be drawn which would touch the heel of the front foot. In these two stances, the weight should be shifted predominantly on the front leg with the rear leg relaxed in its proper position. In the horse stance (used in the final move of Buddha’s warrior attendant pounds mortar) , the weight should be distributed evenly onto both legs with the feet pointing to the front and slightly wider than shoulder width apart. In every stance, the leading foot and the eyes should always be pointed in the same direction, towards the opponent.

In the cat stance (used in white crane spreads its wings and second closing), the same rules and foot positioning as the the oblique bow stance apply. However, the weight should be shifted mainly onto the rear leg with the front leg resting on the full length of the toes. The oblique cat stance (used in six sealing and four closing) is basically an oblique horse stance with the weight shifted onto the right leg.

I believe an important point to remember when doing the single weighted stances is that the front foot should always be rested on the full length of the toes and not the tips. The reason for this is to ensure that the arch of the legs has two solid bases to support it and evenly distribute the tension throughout the dang. Even though most of the weight must be put on the rear foot, simply setting the foot down on the tips of the toes compromises the strength of the arch in the legs leaving the body totally weighted on only one leg, a very vulnerable and unstable position. It is therefore important that the front leg also have some weight on it and not be totally empty. If the stance is too small and the feet not properly spaced, the connection at the top of the dang will be lost because the kua will not be stretched open enough. If the stance is too wide, the majority of the weight will naturally be shifted to the front leg, which is wrong.

There are also a few important things to remember when stepping into the bow stance and the oblique bow stance. First of all, the eyes should always turn to face the opponent before the leg shuffles out. Also, the path of the foot should always be curved and brought in towards the supporting foot before being pushed out to its correct position. The rule in Chen style Practical Method states that the knee should look for the knee, and the foot should look for the foot. This clearly means that the foot should never be raised up off the ground but should always glide along the surface of the floor. When the foot is being pulled in, the foot should remain in contact with the ground through the toes. When the foot is being pushed forward, the foot should remain in contact with the ground through the heel. As the shuffling foot slides out on the heel, the toes should be hooked and pointed inward. This ensures that the leg is properly spiraled and flexed onto a solid line.

A common mistake when sinking the body is to try to sink too low. Even though in the beginning stages it is important to over stretch the legs to recondition and open up the joints and ligaments, when the body becomes more connected, the stances will naturally become smaller and thus tighter. If the body is sunk too low when shuffling out, the vertical axis of the spine is moved from its original position as the knee is moved to redistribute the weight. This weakens the stance and in my opinion should be considered a form of tossing. The body should sink to the furthest possible position without moving the core of the body.

As the weight is shifted onto the leading leg, several things must happen simultaneously. First, the toes should automatically turn out into their correct position as the weight is transferred forward (this automatic reaction will depend on how well the practitioner’s legs are connected and spiraled). In my opinion, the most overlooked point when shifting the weight to the leading leg is that the waist must lead the push forward, not the shoulder. If the weight is shifted with the waist leading the push, the torso will retain its vertical alignment. Many people have the habit of leading the shift with their shoulder which naturally bends the torso forward in the direction it is moving and breaks the vertical axis of the spine. If the weight is truly shifted from the waist and not the shoulder, the whole kua area will become locked into an extremely tight and solid structure.

It is my belief that when adjusting a stance, the rear heel should always be pushed out rather than the toes pulled in. The reason for this is that if the body is truly connected throughout, the pulling in of the toes actually collapses the knee inward, pops the body up and pushes the structure of the body forward a few inches. If the heel is pushed out instead, the knee remains in a fixed position as the spiraling tightens down into the ankle, the body sinks and stretches out instead of popping up, and the structure of the body does not move forward.

Another important principle of the Chen style Practical Method system is the positioning of the knees in different stances. Many practitioners don’t seem to care about this principle as their knees carelessly wobble and toss about with every rotation of the waist. I believe this to be one of the worst mistakes a practitioner can make in relation to the lower section of the body. The rules of the system clearly state that both knees must not move about from side to side and that every rotation of the waist must push them out further into opposite directions. When this principle is truly adhered to, the kua is forced to stretch and open to almost inconceivable degrees of flexibility. The result is that both knees, more importantly the rear one, are positioned above the heels of their respective feet. Anybody can place their front knee above their front heel, but to keep the rear knee over the rear heel, even during kua rotations, is extremely difficult and needs to be trained specifically. The rules set by Grand Master Hong Junsheng state that even though the knees are not allowed to move from side to side, they should slightly move up and down, depending on the rotation of the kua; the rear knee being slightly lower than the leading one.

As most people don’t seem to be aware of their foot positioning during practice, a practitioner should go through the entire form making sure that every stance taken is actually one of the stances recognized by the Practical Method system and that the feet are positioned at the correct angles. This should be done consciously and meticulously if the energy of the legs is to be properly spiraled to its maximum. Even though these instructions seem very unimportant and petty to most people, the difference they cause in the lower body’s ability to become more connected and rooted is enormous.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

bruce.schaub March 27, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Thank you for all the well articulated details……Very helpful.


Hugo Ramiro September 6, 2013 at 9:25 am

Matt, thanks for the article! I have a question – when you write “I believe”, are you stating a practical method principle or are you reflecting on your current understanding?


Mat Beausoleil September 6, 2013 at 8:10 pm

Hey Hugo. That’s actually a very good question. Even though most people might think that the Practical Method system has many principles, there are actually not as many as people might think. Most people have trouble seeing the difference between principles and training methods. Principles are basic rules which are constant and are not open to interpretation and definitely cannot be changed by anybody, including the great masters. These principles are extremely simple ideas which should be taken quite literally. A good example of this is ‘no tossing”. No matter how you want to interpret this principle, no tossing means no tossing. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about the torso, the knees or anything else you could think of. It applies to everything. What can be changed or modified however are the training methods and the different ways of adhering to these principles. This is where personal experience and experimentation come into play and where slight variances between different Taijiquan players might be seen.

The principles Master Chen talks about are constant and do not change and we should learn to carefully listen for these as they are the keys to understanding Taijiquan. Once we get the principles however, it is our responsibility to go out and try different methods to see which ones are more effective at keeping the body in the correct structure with the proper energy alignment. Unfortunately, most of us get so caught up in what we hear or read (which is normally misunderstood) that we forget to try to see what actually works best in our own bodies. My suggestion then is to listen to Master Chen very carefully to find these ‘constants’ and then go off and try as many different methods as you can to see which one helps you follow the actual principles without deviating.

As practical method students, we should all learn to become independent learners who experiment with the art. Always put what you hear and read to the test and actually see and feel if it is true. Most of the people who have become true Masters of their respective arts (from Einstein and Newton to our beloved Master Chen) have all gone against the norm and followed what they found to be true.


Hugo Ramiro September 13, 2013 at 11:39 am

Thanks Matt for a cogent reply. Yet another fine line to walk is the one that describes “what we find to be true”.
Going back to your article, I have also found that it is more effective to push the heel out in order to increase elastic force.
One more question or clarification: can you write a bit more on your point regarding stances becoming higher and tighter?


Mat Beausoleil September 13, 2013 at 12:37 pm


At the beginning, Master Chen emphasizes using large and low stances which really stretch out the tendons in the leg and kua areas. This over stretching causes an actual sensation of continuous tension which runs through the legs (as long as the knees don’t toss about). At the beginning, this over exaggerated and low stretch is necessary to feel the connection, but after a while of training in these low and ‘connected’ stances, the stances don’t have to be as low to feel the same tension because everything is tighter (meaning the tendons have been reconditioned). Eventually, you can hold a very high stance but still feel the stretch and internal tightness you had in the super low postures; the arch of the legs becomes rounder and the spiral twist can be felt down to the ankles.

Low postures have their purpose in training but they are a stepping stone as they are too low and not practical when facing a real oppenent. The body should eventually be able to keep the stretch, tension, connection (or whatever you want to call it) in whatever stance you are in.


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