Strategic stepping

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In order to get closer to something, we step. This is a fundamental human skill, yet so many martial artists reach beyond their natural range instead of stepping. Why is this?
Laziness? Poor body awareness? Naivety? If you reach rather than step closer, you sacrifice your balance, and with it your strength.

Natural range

Standing qigong 'hugging a tree' posture teaches you to feel your natural range. As soon as you ignore this sensibility, you stretch, you reach, you over-commit.
Your tendons, ligaments and muscles are hyper-extended. This locks your joints, preventing mobility and resilience. Essentially, your body loses its pliability and agility.

Don't over-stretch

Unless you are performing one of the very specific stretching exercises from our syllabus, you should not be over-stretching. Tai chi is always comfortably within your natural range.


In order to strike, maintain the 'hugging the tree' range/shape, and step closer. Your foot should be beneath your hands. Be very careful not to 'cock' the shoulder or elbow.

Lower grades

It is important to lay the appropriate foundation during the lower grades.
Everything that follows assumes a fundamental layer of knowledge and ability, and simply will not work if the basics are not familiar.
Students explore these simple topics in order to increase whole-body awareness:

  1. Walking within your natural range

  2. Cat step

  3. Walk like a sage

  4. Pendulum step

  5. Stepping around

  6. Step behind

  7. Not stepping

Stepping needs to be easy, natural and comfortable. The legs must become as dexterous as the hands, so we begin by exploring leg usage via pushing legs, stepping drills, standing post and form.
Once these basics are comfortable, strategic stepping will be addressed.


Students explore these topics:

  1. Kwa

  2. Leaping

  3. Maintain distance

  4. Evasion

  5. Counter

  6. Relative positioning

These prepare the way for the forthcoming challenges, where comfortable footwork needs to be a given.


When you develop the ability to move the leg using kwa, the leg is better connected to the torso. The centre leads and the leg follows. Its path is a little unpredictable but the power is quite surprising.


This kind of step is not to be confused with a lunge. Essentially it is a longer step that forsakes natural range in order to secure a strategic advantage.
The rear foot must follow in order to maintain a strong stance. Lunging assumes an abandonment whereas this is more of a leisurely drift.

Ghost walking?

In Asia, ghosts are depicted as having no feet. They float. A tai chi student cannot literally float but their sense of being 'suspended from above' should feel as if they do.
Asian ghosts don't have heavy footfalls. In fact they make no sound on the ground at all.
Many people have very loud steps. Concussive. Vibrational. Loud. This indicates weak, collapsed muscles. They have succumbed to the pull of gravity...
Instead, we must lengthen upwards and be light and silent. Like the old Kung Fu TV show where Kwai Chang Caine must walk on rice paper without tearing it?

Maintain distance

Students are trained to close the gap between themselves and the opponent. You need to be versatile and use range in a creative fashion.
If you were to immediately dive forward whenever attacked, your strategy is predictable. It is also important to yield.
We train a variety of leading and following exercises that increase the flexibility of your spatial relationship. 


To avoid a punch or kick effectively, you should step. Using the arms alone is not the tai chi way; you must move the body and rotate the spine.
Evasive footwork is not showy or fancy - it is slight and subtle. The ability to yield and be soft is absolutely necessary if you want to move unnoticed. Working against two people is now necessary.


Having evaded, you counter. Hands and feet are unified by body and you yield to kicks and punches, eventually countering the attack naturally.
For combat to work, countering needs to feel comfortable. San sau will provide some ideas, but the drill simply serves to start you in the right direction - freeform.

Relative positioning

Your positioning relative to multiple opponents is an important consideration in combat. It is quite different to the usual one-to-one fighting approach.
We look at how to combine skills, explore range and increase our options. Ideally, you should make numbers work to your advantage and make the attackers an impediment to one another.

When you dwell on the sound of your breathing,
when you can really hear it coming and going,
peace will not be far behind.

(Paul Wilson)

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Page created 18 October 2001
Last updated 10 November 2023