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Stance is about the position of the feet relative to one another. Think of it in terms of balance, stability and mobility

Two feet

Students often get deeply confused about stance. People have two feet.
It does not matter whether one foot is forward or backwards - relative to the other - the relationship between the feet is unchanged because you only have two feet. What does matter is balance.

How far apart?

The distance between the two feet and the angle of foot position will radically affect balance. A yoga person may place their feet very wide apart. This is fine if your aim is to stretch.
Yoga is usually static after all.


In tai chi we engage in combat so our aim is to adjust, to move, to fight. Under no circumstances do we want to over-stretch. Over-stretching weakens the muscle and compromises balance.

Shoulder-width stance

The ideal tai chi stance is shoulder-width. This can be measured by placing your shoe length-ways between your parallel feet. It may seem quite wide. Look in a mirror.

Problems with

If a student has an inflexible groin, tense legs and balance issues, the shoulder-width stance may be a problem. In that case, reduce it to hip-width.
Improvement with leg stretches and horse stance will help you to achieve a wider stance. Whatever you do, don't brace in order to maintain stability.

Squaring the pelvis

Tai chi practitioners may seek to square their pelvis to the front during a bow stance. If the stance is too long, too narrow or the individual lacks the requisite flexibility, this could be a problem.
Often, exponents seek to overcome the obstacle by buckling the rear knee (or straightening it) rather than the more obvious solution which is to square-up only to the degree that is comfortable...


Many inexperienced tai chi people are concerned about their hands. But their legs are awry... Without a balanced foundation the art cannot work.
The stance determines the method in which power is generated, how the waist turns and the role of the hands.


The basic stances are easy to learn:

  1. Parallel stance

  2. Turning stance

  3. Bow stance

  4. Rear bow stance

  5. Single whip stance

  6. Pigeon toe stance

  7. Empty/cat stance

  8. Heel stance

  9. Horse stance

Become skilled with each.


The qigong exercises that begin a typical tai chi class focus upon lengthening and strengthening the major muscle groups that support the body.
Form practice continues this, with the added benefit of mobilising the joints. Many students are not so keen on qigong because the exercises require stamina and endurance.
Very few people give form practice the time, effort and mindful training it requires.


If your tai chi looks and feels like karate, you are undoubtedly doing it incorrectly. For your joints to flex appropriately, your muscles need to be quite relaxed.
Only use the absolute minimal amount of strength required to hold your limb in place.
In most cases this will still be far too much, because your 'faulty sensory appreciation' will tell you that you are relaxed, when in reality you are far from it. Locked muscles produce stiff, immobile joints.
We want mobile joints, supported by a supple framework of elastic tissue.

If the body is clumsy, then in advancing or retreating it cannot be free;
therefore, it must be agile.
Once you raise your arm, you cannot appear clumsy.

(Li I-Yu)

Stability/mobility ratio

Your tai chi practice must balance stability and mobility. Without the stability and support of the muscles and a correctly aligned skeleton, joint movement can become sloppy and careless.
Beginners work extensively upon stability and strength, only moving onto a more dynamic performance of tai chi once the body has found balance.
Wayward joints and exaggerated movements need to be identified and corrected long before reeling silk and applications are introduced.


Think of your stance in terms of a triangle: two feet and crotch? An obtuse triangle would be a horse stance, whereas an acute triangle would be a shoulder-width parallel stance.
Which is more stable? Many martial artists would say horse stance, but they are wrong.
The horse stance is inherently unstable because the distance between the feet is wide; far from the centre... and this adversely affects balance.

Just enough

In tai chi martial terms, we need the stance to afford us the optimal degree of mobility and strength at all times.
A horse stance is fine for low movements such as 'snake creeps down', large rollback or for certain (bend over the thigh) shuai jiao applications.
During everyday body use and combat, the feet need to be closer to the centre. This makes for a more compact, natural stance that optimises the relationship with gravity.


In a horse stance, the angle is obtuse and the feet are essentially sliding away from one another. The feet and ankles must work to prevent this from happening.
This compensation process costs energy and is tiring for the legs. Additionally, the torso mass is falling between the feet - there is nothing underneath the trunk - no base.


When stood normally, the feet are beneath the body so the legs are not
fatigued. Your form stance should emulate this as closely as possible.
Make sure that there is at least one inch distance between the lead heel and the rear toe. A realistic combat stance does not waste energy.


Think of the body in terms of 3 dimensions. An external martial artist emphasis the horizontal plane (waist turn) and shifting the weight forwards. This is required to produce striking force.

Vertical power (central equilibrium)

External exponents neglect the vertical. Tai chi has no need to exert since we only use 4 ounces of pressure. Therefore an external stance is redundant and unnecessary.
We aim to combine all 3 dimensions to produce reeling silk.


Some people may argue that large stances exercise the legs. Yes they do. Walking around the room in a smaller stance also exercises the legs.


In tai chi, balance must be maintained without tiring the legs. If stance is to be quick, lively and nimble, it cannot be exaggerated.
A yoga posture or horse stance can be strengthened by tensing the muscles, but this is not a tai chi method. The legs must be dense and strong without any tensing.

Stepping drills

Beginners learn a variety of stepping drills:

  1. 90

  2. Diamond stepping

  3. Leading & following (eyes-closed)

  4. Relative distance (tig)

  5. Avoiding line of force (solo & melee)

  6. Riding the attack

These immediately prove that a compact, natural stance is highly agile and mobile whereas a conventional martial arts stance inhibits free movement.


Students explore example stances from the form and how to practice them. They come to understand what each stance means.

Length strength

'Connection' is a major theme for tai chi students. Without it, nothing will really work in application. Qigong teaches basic connection by lengthening the soft tissues of the body whilst the feet are static.
Form explores an enormous range of dynamic connection possibilities whilst moving. The feet are required to step in coordination with the rest of the body; ensuring length strength at all times.

Gaps & deficiencies

The relative position of the feet in conjunction with both the attacking limb and the opponent will determine line of force, along with angles of strength and weakness.
Being aware of these angles and the ability to exploit the weaknesses in others is crucial to the martial expression of tai chi.
Our aim is to avoid vulnerability when we can, and be willing to adapt when necessary.


Try doing form applications with both a large and a small stance. A large stance will probably work but the effect would be classified as 'li' - bone/muscle-based power.
Jing-based applications require a more flexible framework. They produce vibration and whiplash, rather than a dull thud.

The highest level of tai chi practice is high stance and small circle. In high stance and small circle you can conserve your energy to a maximum level. This is very crucial in battle. Endurance has always been the crucial key to survival in a long battle. Moreover, due to high stance and smaller shape you can reach to the deepest relaxed stage, the mind is highly concentrated, and the sensitivity and alertness can be extremely sharp.

(Yang Jwing-Ming)

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Page created 21 May 1997
Last updated 16 June 2023