Understanding Your Knee in Tai Chi.
Understanding how to use your knee in Tai Chi. Your knees position and movement is very important to your Tai Chi. If your knees are well aligned and you are using them correctly they will feel strong and help you maintain strong stable stances and steps. Having a poor understanding of your knees, and bearing your weight on your knees while they are not properly aligned can lead you to strain your knees potentially weakening and injuring them.
So lets look at how to properly align our knees during Tai Chi practice. The first thing to understand about your knees is their function. Our bones give our bodies structure so we aren’t basically jelly fish. Our muscles give us the strength to support our body and move. Our tendons and ligaments hold everything together. The joints serve as points of articulation where we can bend and move. The key thing here is to realize that the joint, especially the knee, are designed to transfer weight, not hold it, or support it. Supporting and carrying weight is the function of the muscles. The knee should transfer the weight of the upper body to the ankles and feet. The muscles of the thighs, shins and calves are supposed to carry weight.
When you stand with your legs straight and your knees locked you are reversing this. Then your straight legs cause your knees to carry far more weight and the thighs and calves carry almost none. People stand like this because it does not strain their leg muscles. However, it does gradually strain your knees. When you bend your knees with proper alignment then the knee does not carry the weight and instead the thighs do. This is good for your legs, your muscles get stronger, which is healthy for them, and your knees move without pressure which is good for them. The reason most people don’t move and stand like this all the time is simple: their legs are weak. They sit more than they stand and their thighs get sore and painful quickly when they bear weight.
By now you have probably figured out the first thing about using your knees in Tai Chi. Your knees will always be bent and your thighs should always be carrying the weight of your body. This will help you build strong legs and lower your center of gravity improving your balance.
Four Common Errors in Tai Chi Practice
Now lets look at how to correctly position your knees and the common errors people make and how to correct them.
Your knees strongest position is found on a line drawn from the center of your hip down to the center of your foot. One this line your knee is very strong from directly over your heel to directly over your toes. The main errors are dropping or collapsing the knee inward, twisting the knee outwards to the side, or pushing the knee past the toe, and standing, or shifting your weight forward with your knee behind your heel. Let’s look at each of these in detail.
Collapsing Knee Inward
Collapsing the knee inward is the most common. This occurs for two primary reasons. One reason is the hips are tight. If you hips are tight and you start doing Tai Chi you may find you don’t really have enough flexibility to spread your feet in your Tai Chi stance, and flex your knees without collapsing them inward. The solution is to rotate your thighs outward, level your hips and then sit down into your stance only as far as you can without either collapsing your knee inward or tilting your pelvis. Then use deep breathing and stretch your hips gradually. If you continue to practice placing a priority on keep your knee form collapsing or your pelvis from tilting you will slowly but surely stretch your hips until it becomes easy to maintain this position. This is also great for your hips. By stretching your hips, bearing weight with your thighs and hips and opening and closing your hips you will strengthen your hips joints and promote blood circulation to maintain healthy hip and thigh bones.
The other reason people collapse their knees inward is often linked to the first. This is instead of turning by using your hip joints opening, and closing, you turn your body people using your knees. This means if you need to turn your body with moving your feet you might by sort of swishing your knees from side to side. A little of this is no big deal, it could even be a dance step;-). However, if you practice often, your knees will definitely suffer. So learning how to use your hip joints properly is super important to using your knee correctly in your Tai Chi.
Knee Too Far Forward
Pushing your knee past your foot is the second most common error people make with their knees in their Tai Chi . This is simply putting your knee past your toe. This happens when people try to reach too far with their arms and when they try lower their stances. In both causes your stance is much weaker. When you reach too far and your knees are over your toes this is called being over extended. It is very easy for another person to pull you forward off balance. It is a dangerous fault in self defense. And it strains the intrapatellar ligament underneath your knee cap. The solution is simple: don’t reach so far, and stay mindful of your knee.
When people try to lower their stances sometimes they shoot their toes far over their toes. This also results in a weak stance and knee strain. It takes strength and flexibility to lower your stance. Their is no easy way. The better way to lower stances is to gently press down your toes, gripping the ground, keep your hips level, and sit like you are trying to sit on a chair behind you with your tailbone. This will cause the direction of your thighs movement to be downward instead of forward. Lowering your stance while gripping the ground, leveling your hips, and lowering your tailbone can give you a very strong, stable stance.
Twisting the Knee Outward
Twisting the knee to the outside is far less common than the first two error. In fact, most people simply are not loose, or flexible, enough to make this error happen. Usually the people prone to this are double jointed, or super flexible types, whose hips are so loose they just move all over the place without barely noticing it. Although this generally means their joints are so loose they never get hurt, the knees can be gradually weakened by bearing the weight in poor positions. Then, they become vulnerable to sudden injury. In any case, twisting the knees outward means your stance is weak and your balance is poor. To correct this bad habit you’ll simply have to pay more attention to how stable and balanced you feel and where your knees are in relationship to your feet and hips.
The next way people use their knee incorrectly in Tai Chi is when they are in a long stance and want to move forward or stand up into a crane stance and their knee is behind your foot, not above it. In this case, your knee simply is in poor mechanical position to pull yourself forward, or up. Trying to pull yourself forward before correctly positioning your knee is difficult, awkward, and strains the intrapataler ligament under the knee cap. The solution is simple: before pulling forward to stand up push your thigh and knee forward until the knee is over your heel. Then when you step forward or stand up you will be much better balanced with far less strain.
Compression of the Knee
There is one last way people strain, or injure, their knees causing pain in Tai Chi. It occurs almost exclusively to more advanced practitioners. Our joints all have a little space between the two bones. This space allows the joint to move. It is a little like a shock absorber on your car. This space can larger which is good, or it can become smaller and be compressed like a bottomed out shock absorber trying to support too much weight. This happens to more advanced Tai Chi practitioners who have learned how to relax their upper body and have started sinking their Qi downward. As their upper body relaxes, peoples weight is no longer being held up by tension. This causes the legs to feel like they are supporting far more weight, and this can compress the knees, leading to pain and injury to the knee. The solution is to pluck up the head, and back so much you subtly lift your hips open, so the hips in turn lift the knees open slightly. This is difficult to do if you haven’t practiced Tai Chi for awhile, and it will strengthen your Peng or Ward Off energy a great deal, and relieve pain in your knees.
Perfecting how you use your knees while practicing Tai Chi is one of the best things you can do to improve the quality and beauty of your Tai Chi. It will also help you develop good balance and a stable stance for pushing hands or self defense. Good luck with your training!
I Teach Tai Chi and Qi Gong in San Rafael and San Anselmo California in group classes and private lessons.