“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 From the heart, Sifu Anthony