“Correct Knee Position” is not a topic that exactly quickens the pulse. For most of us it sounds like a real snoozer. We don’t really care.
That is, until there is PAIN.
For the first fifty years of my life I had little regard for this ingenious and delicate joint. I rode my knees hard and put them away wet. Playground pick up basketball, high school football, running through the woods, competitive push hands…I was pretty oblivious to the pounding my knees were getting.
Then I started getting sharp stabbing pains when I walked up and down stairs. My knees were shrieking, “Enough!” I had ignored the softer messages before that, figuring that taijiquan would resolve the matter. It didn’t. Because the same disregard for knee placement was there in my taiji practice. What worked so well for pushing large bodies around was extracting a toll.
On the plus side, the pain I was experiencing led to some of the discoveries I wrote about in Western Gate. Other taiji players reported knee difficulties too, even those who were just practicing forms, not pushing hands or sparring. The remarkable healing power of the body often cloaks gradual deterioration, so you can feel everything is fine for a long time. I was smugly unaware for years.
Often the strain appears in other parts of the body, not the knee directly. Osteoarthritis in the hips is a common result. Low back pain. Sciatic pain due to piriformis syndrome. Foot and ankle injuries. Hypertonified iliotibial band. Poor balance and a pervading subconscious anxiousness about standing and walking.
And just because I’m talking about taijiquan here doesn’t mean that it’s more likely to create problems than other forms of movement. No, but it does bring awareness to problems that would be ignored otherwise. In taiji we ask the body to do things it is not accustomed to doing, like standing on one foot while executing a complex movement. It brings our limitations into the spotlight and gives us an opportunity to correct our weaknesses before they become injuries.
The problem starts for most of us when we are about a year old (plus or minus a couple months) when we first learn to stand. We install programming at a very deep level that remains largely uninspected from then on. Adaptive behavior for a toddler learning to stand is not necessarily healthy or effective for an adult with at least ten times the body mass trying to run or ski or pick up large objects. It takes a very strong reason to question the hard-won lessons of decades of life experience.
Avoiding pain and injury is not the only reason for knee consciousness. Setting the knee is crucial in developing and expressing internal power (jin). If the knee is flopping around, then the foundation of the structure is unreliable. It’s really hard to be song (releasing into the intrinsic supporting structure of the connective tissue) when you can’t trust your base. And if you aren’t song, you will likely rely on li (muscular contraction) when you encounter a challenge.
It takes a lot of convincing to get the body-mind to change old patterns, particularly ones it considers fundamental and successful. Pain is the red light on the dashboard that tells you to, “Check Engine.” Pain is not the problem. It is the messenger.
Taijiquan is so effective for correcting flawed patterns because it demands that you SLOW DOWN AND NOTICE THINGS. Your body-mind won’t stop or start doing something just because you read an article online. Deep change requires gongfu, diligent practice over time. Gongfu demands that we continue to refine our practice based on the best information available. It is an ongoing conversation between your body-mind and the world it inhabits, and that conversation changes as circumstances change, internally and externally.
Let’s take a look at a very simple movement from the taijiquan form I have been teaching for almost 30 years, William C. C. Chen’s 60 Movements. I consider this the most important move in the form, one that establishes the foundation for everything that follows. It is also the FIRST one.
In this move, we go from Wu Ji (Undifferentiated Nothingness) to Tai Ji (Undifferentiated Somethingness). Tai Ji gives birth to Yang and Yin, the dance of polarities. We empty out to start, then take form as a unified wholeness.
1. Starting Posture. I start with my weight evenly distributed between my legs, knees unlocked, back relaxed allowing my coccyx (weilu) to drop, head suspended from the niwan (martial crown). I establish my Three Pillars of Energetic Connection (Energetic Coherence, Central Equilibrium, and Song Kua). This gives me a whole-body energetic connection (zheng-ti jin), structural tensegrity, and root. It also clears the mind and calms the spirit.
For this movement, I know I want to step to the side using my left leg. That means my right leg is going to be asked to carry 100% of my weight at some point, while also remaining rooted and stable. That is a huge challenge, and one that our prior life experience has left us ill-equipped to navigate.
The simplest (wrong) solution is to do what I always did when I “shifted” my weight, that is, I simply thrust the butt to the side and locked the hip joint (kua). My students have come to lovingly calling this “JBS” or “jutting-butt syndrome.” Initating with ANY lateral movement of the butt (sideway or backward) makes song kua damn near impossible, thereby killing your ability to energetically connect with the earth (rooting). Song kua is essential to the confidence, rooting, and stability that we are looking for when we make the empty step. (Please read this earlier post explaining song kua.)
Notice how far to my left I have my butt go in the photos here to take a step this way. If you have any doubt about the strain this puts on your knee, hip, ankle, foot, and ITB, just try holding that position for a couple minutes. Ask someone to test your root by pushing you and see how much effort it requires to maintain your position.
Here’s a rather detailed analysis of the internal changes I use when executing the “Opening Posture.” Breaking it down this way shines a light on a sequence that establishes the root and energetic connection that remains unbroken throughout the whole form.
2. Support on medial line of foot. Consciously establish the right foot’s position on the floor. Notice which part of the foot is going to carry the load: Is it primarily in the heel? The ball? Lateral (outside, along the fifth toe)? Medial (inside, along the big toe line)? (See Master Chen’s “Three Nails.”)
How do I do adjust that? By where I set my knee.
This is important. If my weight is primarily in the heel or the outside of the foot, there is a tendency to lock up the hip joint and push the butt laterally (JBS). I know martial artists who get away with this by developing powerful muscles to compensate, but long term it leads to hip, back, and knee problems. Since you are closing the qi valve that is the kua, you have made a choice to rely on li (crude muscle power) rather than jin (internal power directed by the living matrix of the connective tissue system). (See Chapter 12 “Force versus Power” of TTWG).
I do this by carefully positioning the knee, BEFORE loading it. The knee and foot provide the foundation for the structure I am creating. Notice that the weight is centered along the big toe line. It is also forward of the arch, toward the ball of the foot, not in the heel. This helps establish central equilibrium.
3. Spiral down to the left. Once I activate the ball of the foot, I begin to load the leg by releasing the kua and spiraling down to the left. It can be a very subtle turn, but the release is essential. It’s not forced, more like easing down into a barstool. This loading is a gradual process, not a lunge. The weight is still centered on the medial line, and the knee hasn’t moved. I have gone from 50% of my weight in my right leg to about 70%.
4. Turn to the right. Notice that my butt hasn’t moved laterally and my weight is still centered forward of the arch on my right foot. The knee hasn’t moved and the turn is smoothly from the kua (not forced). I have gradually loaded my right leg to about 95%, carefully feeling my central equilibrium throughout the process. I am rotating around a central axis, like the movement of a revolving door. My spine remains erect.
5. Lift the heel. My knee remains set and my weight is still centered medially, now 100% supported by the muscles and connective tissue of my inner thigh. Right hip and knee are relaxed, as are the butt muscles. Lifting the heel allows the body to maintain central equilibrium as I prepare to lift my left leg and step out to the side. If I don’t maintain central equilibrium, I will feel that irresistible urge to lean to the right to counterbalance my left leg extension. I don’t want that.
6. Lift left foot. Lifting the heel first gives me a fraction of a second to adjust my interioception (internal awareness) and maintain central equilibrium. As a result, I remain rooted and stable as I step. I can step out and step back in any direction easily and confidently, and can issue power while on one foot.
This is the moment of truth, and the one that sends us scurrying back into “safe” old patterns. To overcome the very natural tendency to tighten up and lean right, I would practice maintaining central equilibrium while first just lifting the heel dozens of times, then stepping back and forth until I could do it confidently.
7. Place left foot. It is an empty step, that is, the foot is placed consciously without transferring any weight to it. The empty step is essential to taijiquan practice and is repeated in every movement in the form. It allows for a conscious dialog between your body and the earth that supports it. The yin qi of the earth replenishes you with each step.
The step is about a hip width, so that the feet directly support the kua. The foot point forward, using the big toe as your compass. I repeat the process of #2 above: Make contact with the medial line of the foot, forward of the arch and prepare the ball of the foot to receive the incoming load.
8. Spiral down to the right. I set my left knee and begin the process of the loading my leg by spiraling down to the right. This is done by releasing the kua and easing about 30% of my weight into it, carefully maintaining my root and energetic connection. The knee does not move. The foot and knee are the stable foundation that permit the kua to easily and fluidly do its work. The kua won’t release if the supporting structure is weak.
9. Turn to center. I rotate my spine to the left and pivot on my right heel until my body faces directly forward. My feet are parallel (medial line) and my weight is 50/50.
This completes The Opening. My body is rooted and energetically coherent. I can feel an energetic fullness in my hands. I am song and ready to carry this forward through the complexities of the rest of the form.
I hope you can see why I consider this the most important movement of the form. I have broken it down into nine steps, but I could have easily doubled that. There is so much going on in these simple movements.
Is this the only “correct” way to do the Opening? Of course not. But it’s an effective way to get a whole lot out of a movement that is often performed perfunctorily. It’s a way for even a beginner to haver a bigger root that I had after ten years of study. It provides the strong energetic foundation for every move that follows so the qi remains an unbroken thread.
Every movement in the form will have its own unique challenges. Every different form will also. My experience confirms that Setting the Knee correctly is essential to protect the joints and to generate internal power.