“What does he think she is, a G.I. Joe action figure?” I said to myself.
I was taking a tai chi workshop and the teacher was poking, manipulating, and downright manhandling a 60-something student into what he dubbed “proper alignment.”
It wasn’t working, not by a long shot. And no wonder. The woman obviously had what we call kyphosis, an excessive curving of the upper spine that causes a slight hunching. With kyphosis, the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia gradually adjust to the hunched posture over a period of years. Kyphosis is very common and although it can be reversed, it’s not a quick fix. It’s certainly not something that can be solved in a weekend workshop.
Meanwhile, this teacher seemed convinced that, with enough prodding, he could fix this poor woman’s posture NOW.
Is Proper Alignment Necessary?
If you’re learning qigong and/or tai chi, then “alignment” is a word that you probably hear often. You probably hear instructions like this:
- “Your nose should be aligned with your navel…”
- “Sink the shoulders, drop the elbows…”
- “Keep your knee aligned with your toe…”
- “Sink the chest…”
- “Don’t lean forward…”
What are we to make of all this alignment talk?
“Alignment is critical,” the teacher said to the woman and the class as he adjusted her. “Without proper alignment, we can’t do tai chi.”
Is what this teacher said true? Must our alignment be perfect in order to do tai chi? What about qigong?
Clearly, this woman’s alignment wasn’t anywhere close to perfect. Nor was it going to improve much over the span of a weekend. So was she just wasting her time in the workshop?
During one of the breaks, I had a little chat with her. It turns out she had been doing qigong and tai chi for a few years. More importantly, she’d been getting pretty good results.
In other words — she’d been getting results DESPITE her poor alignment.
Functional vs. Aesthetic
Alignment isn’t limited to qigong or tai chi. Alignment matters in virtually all movement arts and sports.
If your alignment is bad, your golf swing will suffer and your arabesque won’t look right.
However, I think it’ll be helpful to differentiate between “functional” and “aesthetic” systems. Golf is a functional system whereas ballet is an aesthetic system.
What’s the difference?
In golf, it doesn’t matter how your swing looks as long as you get the ball in the hole. If someone invented a totally new golf swing that worked better, it wouldn’t matter how the swing looked. People would adopt it because it works. And eventually, this new swing would be considered “beautiful” because of how beautifully it functions.
The same is NOT true of ballet. An arabesque is, first and foremost, aesthetic. How it looks is what matters most. The aesthetics of ballet dictate the form.
In functional systems like golf, alignment is based on results. You can win The Masters with an ugly swing as long as you get the ball in the hole faster than your competition.
In aesthetic systems like ballet, the look is everything. You’ll never get chosen as a principle dancer if your alignment is ugly.
What’s Your Function?
Qigong is pretty to watch. So is tai chi. There’s just something about the flow that is aesthetically pleasing.
But we need to be absolutely clear here: Any aesthetic beauty that we perceive in qigong or tai chi is a bonus, not the primary goal.
What’s the primary goal? That depends on the type of qigong or tai chi that you’re practicing.
Let’s look at the functions of 3 different types of qigong:
- Medical Qigong is designed to help people heal themselves from pain and illness, to prevent future illness, and to promote vitality and longevity.
- Martial Qigong is designed to improve performance and power in martial arts.
- Spiritual Qigong is designed to help you wake up to the nature of true reality.
Now let’s also look at different types of tai chi, as well as other Internal Martial Arts:
- Health Tai Chi is any form of tai chi that has diverged from its martial arts roots. The function is similar to Medical Qigong. It aims for health and vitality and is unconcerned with self-defense. This is, by far, the most common type of tai chi practiced today.
- Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) is any form or style of tai chi that retains its martial roots. In these forms, the martial aspects supersede the medical aspects. Health and spiritual benefits are a bonus, not the primary aim.
- Xingyiquan is an internal martial art that has little-to-no spiritual aspects. It was designed purely for self-defense. Health is a bonus.
- Shaolinquan has both internal and external versions, but both are martial arts. Since this type of kung fu was practiced by Shaolin Monks, spiritual cultivation was also a goal.
As you can see, these are all FUNCTIONAL arts. Aesthetics are not a primary aim in any of them.
Pretty Tai Chi
However, in the 21st century we’re witnessing the rise of tai chi tournaments. There are even qigong tournaments now!
Tai chi tournaments focus on aesthetics. Alignments are adjusted not for martial arts, but for the judges. For example, many of the stances done in tai chi tournaments are impractical for self-defense. Ironically, these stances also inhibit the flow of qi because they are so extreme.
So you’re left with a version of tai chi that is not as good for the health, is totally useless for self-defense, but looks really really pretty!
Actually, I disagree that it looks pretty. To my eye, the alignments look ugly because they are so empty of meaning. To each their own.
Do You Need Good Alignment?
Let’s come back to our question from earlier: Is it necessary to have proper alignment in order to get results?
The woman I described above was practicing Health Tai Chi. She had zero interest in self-defense. The only thing she was interested in combatting was her arthritis. And she was doing a pretty good job!
Was her alignment good? Hell no. But was she getting results? Hell yes!
Although she called it tai chi, she was really practicing Medical Qigong. In other words, the primary aim of her practice was medical, i.e. arthritis.
We need look no further than this example for an answer to our question about alignment. People with poor alignment can absolutely get results with Medical Qigong or Health Tai Chi.
The truth is that most modern humans have bad posture and thus bad alignment. And it’s not just the older folks. The younger generation has bad posture too, largely because of cell phones. There’s even a condition now called “Text Neck”. You can guess what that looks like!
If qigong could only be practiced by people with perfect alignment, then none of us would qualify, myself included.
Working With What You’ve Got
I would guess that 90% of my students had alignment issues when they came to me. I’m being conservative with that estimate. The number is probably closer to 99%, but let’s just use 90% to be safe.
If perfect alignment were necessary in order to get results, then 90% of my students would have failed! And yet, my students have gotten remarkable results with qigong.
And you know what? Even after years of practice, even after getting results that doctors described as “impossible,” many of my students STILL have poor alignment.
The tai chi teacher who was trying to poke and prod the woman’s hunched back — he refused to acknowledge how long it can take to restructure the body. It takes years, and sometimes it can take a decade.
And yet, we can and should work on our alignment, no matter how old we are.
Teachers who admonish against bad alignment aren’t wrong about the negative effects. Poor posture and poor alignment definitely block the flow of qi. (Click here to read a related article: Fix Your Posture, Fix Your Qi, Fix Your Biochemistry)
But that’s just life! Everything we do blocks the flow of qi, from the crap we eat to the way we sit. Pointing out things that block the flow of qi is easy!
Start where you are, and work with what you have. Whatever hand you’ve been dealt, qigong will significantly improve it.
What about Internal Martial Arts?
When it comes to Internal Martial Arts, then alignment is more important simply because we’re dealing with self-defense.
For example, the Yang Style Tai Chi pattern commonly called “Warding Off” is basically a defense against a punch to the face. If your alignment is off, then you won’t block the punch! Ouch!
These days, tai chi has lost its martial roots. Very few people can use tai chi for self-defense. And that’s fine as long as they acknowledge that they’re basically doing Health Tai Chi, which is really just a form of Medical Qigong.
In other words, it’s important for teachers to be honest about WHY the alignment should be this way or that way.
Mediocre Form, Great Results
In my 20s, I taught the violin to young kids. It’s truly incredible what a 4-year-old can do with a violin, but let’s be honest — it doesn’t sound very good for a long time! That’s just part of the process.
In any style of tai chi, no matter how athletic you are, your form is going to suck for the first few years. There’s just no way around it.
And yet, you can get remarkable health benefits despite having crappy form. This is even truer with qigong.
In my qigong classes, I actually encourage my students to butcher the form. And they do! If you were to watch my students doing a simple qigong exercise like Lifting The Sky, it wouldn’t be pretty!
And yet, my students get results. You’ll be hard-pressed to find qigong students who consistently get better results than mine. And results are what really matter.
My students don’t give a shit about how pretty their form is because they are busy beating depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and other serious issues.
Aligning the Qi
In my teachings, I talk about the 12 different skills that can be cultivated through qigong. These skills are as follows:
- Discovering the Qi
- Circulating the Qi
- Aligning the Qi
- Gathering the Qi
- Protecting the Qi
- Purifying the Qi
- Mobilizing the Qi
- Directing the Qi
- Consolidating the Qi
- Transforming the Qi
- Unifying the Qi
- Transmitting the Qi
As you can see, Aligning the Qi is one of the early skills.
Notice that I speak of Aligning the Qi, not Aligning the Body. This is critical. Aligning the body is not only impossible for some of us, it’s also unnecessary. The truth is that we can better align the qi even if the body is out of alignment.
And this makes perfect sense. This is why people with kyphosis get a wide range of health benefits before they fix the hunching in their back. The same is true of any alignment issue, whether it’s lordosis (excessive curvature of the low back), scoliosis (abnormal lateral curvature of the spine), or something as simple as a hip hike.
I speak from experience. I have the world’s flattest feet. While this may not seem like a big deal, your feet are your root. The angle of your ankle determines the angle of your knee, hip, and pelvis, which in turn determines the angle of your spine.
In that sense, my alignment has never been perfect, and it probably never will be. And yet, I get amazing results from qigong.
I’m able to align my qi despite my flat feet. This is how qigong works in the real world. This is how my students use it.
We’re not perfect. We’re all just trying to make the best out of the cards we’ve been dealt.
And I can’t think of a better art to do that with than Qigong.
How does your alignment affect your qigong or tai chi practice? Share your experience and let’s chat about it in the comments Best regards, Sifu Anthony I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong (pronounced "chee gung") to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. Today, I'm the director of Flowing Zen, an international organization with students in 48 counties. I've been teaching qigong since 2005, I've served on the board for the National Qigong Association, and I’ve helped thousands of people to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. If you're ready to get started with qigong, there's no better way than my best selling book, which comes with free videos and meditations. The sooner you read my book, the sooner you can start healing! Click here to see my book on Amazon.
What about alignment in zhan zhuang (using the common “Holding/Hugging the Ball” posture as an example)? I’ve heard of people getting really good results with this type of qigong, learning from a book like Master Lam Kam Chuen’s “Way of Energy”. But at the same time, I’ve read the website of one of your previous teachers, and this master makes it sound like without an instructor right there next to you, learning even a simple zhan zhuang posture on your own will have you vomiting blood, and lead to horrific problems, guaranteed. I really like your practical, no BS approach and explanations, and would love to hear your stance on doing this type of qigong on your own, without a teacher.
Thanks for your time!
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Hi Kevin. So you want to know my stance on stances? 😉
No offline teacher is one thing. No teacher at all is another thing entirely.
I teach zhan zhuang in my Qigong 101 program, which is online. But I teach a bit differently than most. First of all, I teach systematically. By the time you start learning zhan zhuang, you’ve systematically learned the fundamentals of qigong.
Secondly, I also teach using what I call the “Inside-Out Method”. In short, I teach students to feel their way into zhan zhuang postures rather than try to mimic an idea of a posture. This works because, by the time they learn zhan zhuang, they have enough skill to actually sense the qi in their body.
Master Lam’s books is a great resource, but it’s just a book. You can’t ask questions, there are no videos, and his whole approach is more traditional.
I found this really useful.
Plus I can relate to this :
“..whatever hand you’ve been dealt, qigong will significantly improve it.”
Hi Kevin, I’ve been taught Zhan Zhuang by both Master Lam, and in Sifu Anthony’s online classes and learned a lot from each teacher.
I can confirm that the Flowing Zen teaching gave me a better understanding of what was going on, the points which would give me the best results and also the areas which weren’t so significant.
If you haven’t already started training with Flowing Zen, I can really recommend it. I didn’t find it less accessible despite not being in the same room as the teacher.
Ishan das says
Hi Sifu! So happy to hear that you are doing the written blogs, as I can’t stream from my location. Glad to read your answer to the question of alignment. I’m 75 and I’ve got obvious kyphosis. At the same time, by following what I have learned from you in Qigong 101 my life has changed and continues to change in a wonderful way, emotionally, mentally (logic, planning, etc.), focus (approaching a project and staying with it to bring about a great conclusion), and health. I attribute all of this to practicing qigong as I have learned it from you.
One very interesting aspect is that when I do a set of Qigong movements, my posture changes in a nice way, not because I think it should, but because the Qi seems to want my body to take on a nice upright form. It feels very nice and very natural, as if my body is waking up to the understanding of how nice it feels to be in alignment. This “waking up” is what the movement of the Qi is inducing in me.
There is this preoccupation with form in various mediums. Sometimes, when I’m on hold on the phone and they play some classical piano music, I can understand that the guy’s form is perfect, but that it sounds like a robot is playing. There’s no feeling. It is even irritating to listen, even though I know the guy is highly trained. I can imagine how the same lines could be very beautiful if played with a “smile from the heart”.
That preoccupation with form will always be there. Many of the classical masters (in different in different disciplines) were denounced in their day because they were introducing something new. But when it becomes accepted, it becomes like a religion of some kind.
In short, there is form and there is content. Form without content is useless; because content is the goal of the form. In this case the content is Qi. Form is secondary. The Qi has all wisdom, and will make the most of what we have to work with.
Also, I am finding that the Qi is the leader and I am the follower. I try to tune into the Qi and it “tells” me which way it wants to move. In this way, I find myself moving in ways that I have not expected or been instructed. But I love it. We come from a culture in which everyone is being pushed into conforming to a given mold, and it simply doesn’t work. Qigong is about tuning into the higher intelligence that the Qi provides so that we can find out what works for us as individuals.
So nice to be in touch again Sifu Anthony. Please continue posting written material. Your student, Ishan das
Daniel Banfai says
Thanks I really like the idea of aligning the chi rather than aligning the body.
Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge on Qigong and Tai Chi. I really like your approach.
My experiences is that alingment is important to feel and work with qi better. At the same time I agree with you, that you can benefit from Tai Chi and Qigong without perfect alignment.
I think the important thing is to have a teacher who can help you improve your Qigong wich also includes adjusting your alignment over time.
I have been to a couple of tournaments and it does take the fokus away from working with qi for a while, but it was also a huge stepping stone for me to improve my work with qi. And I have to say this. Qigong-people are amazing to compete with. I have never before experienced a competition where people help the other competitors improve. I was blown away by this kindness and willingnes to share.
All the best
Pauline Irving says
Thank you for this article. Aligning the Chi sounds interesting as in my mind it flows like a smooth waterway or river.
My second big AhHa from this article….the first was let the form follow the breath. This article has added align the qi not the body. I have wondered about alignment. In doing yoga years ago, it seemed after class I would have energy flowing and the teacher talked about alignment…and what meridians were being activated. I had the impression the way to create better flow was to get close and closer to the precise alignment. I really took alignment seriously and wanted to be corrected to be perfect. Focusing on the qi and letting the rest follow will be a much more graceful path….even though I do love precise form : )
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Some teachers will indeed tell you that precise alignment is the key to qigong. But that is verifiably false. As you’ll see, you can still do powerful qigong despite imprecise form and alignment.