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Book by Jan Kauskas: Laoshi - Tai Chi, Teachers, and Pursuit of Principle

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Venerable Teacher Knee

I have had my fair share of Aikido and Tai Chi teachers over the years.  Some are pretty famous and some quite obscure, some 'old school' and some more progressive, some scrupulously honest and some mere flim flam men.  Some I studied with for years, others only a weekend.  Some remember me fondly, others do not, but during all this time I have been a constant disciple of Venerable Teacher Knee.

Venerable Teacher Knee is very definitely old school, teaching by pointing out the bad rather than praising the good.  Discomfort or pain is province of this kind of teacher along with long periods of apparent disinterest until straying from the path invites, sometimes, withering intervention.

If it is not clear yet, I would point out that Teacher Knee is none other than the knee joint, a place of particular difficulty for the student of Tai Chi.  If we are to suffer a regular injury in our practice (leaving aside falls or the results of over enthusiastic pushing) it is most likely to be in the area of the knee.  Our American cousins refer to it as 'Tai Chi Knee,' and according to research quoted in Tai Chi magazines, knee problems are very common among teachers and presumably among their students too, since a diligent student copies their teacher's faults as well as their virtues.

One of my own teachers had the unfortunate experience of hearing a loud crack from the region of his knee, before it gave way - with him ending up on his backside in front of the new beginners' class.  Tai Chi for health indeed!

I should add he did make a full recovery and had been given plenty of warning by way of knee-pain for some time.  It was only as a last resort that Teacher Knee dealt the ultimate sanction.

This teacher has since become a devoted student of Teacher Knee and now understands better the role played by knees in teaching us about posture, or more correctly 'alignment.'  Previously he tolerated the ache instead of listening to its message.

As for myself, I have long had an appreciation of the particular difficulty presented by knees due to an injury caused 30 years ago by jumping from a truck.  In a state of youthful abandon, not to mention blatant exhibitionism, I leapt from the truck before the tailgate was down and only succeeded in landing painfully and ignominiously on my left knee.

Venerable Teacher Knee showed his displeasure at such treatment with pain and swelling and has continued to remind me of my youthful folly ever since.  Venerable he may be, but Teacher Knee can be unforgiving.  A subsequent operation did not improve matters in spite of the doctor's assurances. 'A boy scout with a penknife could do it,' was his reply when asked if the procedure was difficult.  I have since wondered if indeed a boy scout had conducted the operation, since the surgeon's confidence was misplaced.

I would like to say that my acquaintance with Teacher Knee ended there but, since it did not, I console myself with learning from my mistakes which is, after all, a key principle of Tai Chi.  'Investing in Loss,' as it is called, leads to deeper understanding but also instils in us resilience in the face of progress and setback - our steadfast companions every step of the way.

In dealing with the setbacks, I like to hear of the experiences of those who have gone before and so, I hope the following digest of knee niggles will be of help to those struggling to understand the mysterious Venerable Teacher Knee.

First, if the thigh hurts when holding postures for a time, then rejoice for you are getting stronger, pumping up your chi/blood/energy (use whichever word you like), and developing your root.  If, however, there is pain in the knee, something is wrong.  Raise your posture until you know why it is sore and then you can lower it again.  I read somewhere that Cheng Man-ching once told an over earnest student to raise their posture a little, adding 'you must earn the sinking.'  This not an instruction heard very often.  I understand Cheng Man-ching to mean that alignment must not be lost as we sink lower in our postures.  I have seen many students who worship on the altar of low stances by sacrificing alignment.  Ultimately, it is not good Tai Chi and not good for the joints.

Secondly, while doing the form we must generally separate transfer of weight from turning of the waist.  Not everybody teaching Tai Chi follows this rule but it is a very useful method to eliminate one of the fundamental problems arising from practising the Tai Chi form, namely twisting the knee.  The knees are designed to operate as a hinge and do not like to be twisted, something I used to do all the time.  Only when I learned to separate turning the waist from transfer of weight did this long standing problem disappear, along with the ache it produced.

This problem usually manifests when we are changing direction in the form, i.e. when the feet are at 90 degrees.  The weight (hence the root) must be shifted off the foot before we turn the corresponding hip and leg.  This applies particularly to those of us with limited hip flexibility who compensate by twisting the knee causing a niggle, usually in the inner part of the knee.  Transferring sufficient weight off the leg before turning it will correct the problem immediately.

Thirdly, the feet must be flat on the floor - except when the form explicitly asks us to lift either the toes or heel.  This may seem a little obvious but relaxing the foot on the floor is something of a skill and needs some careful attention, at least at the outset of our study, and also when we try to improve our form by sinking lower or stepping longer.

You may be thinking that only an idiot would not know when their feet are flat on the floor.  If so, I am that idiot.  Unfortunately, poor alignment begins to feel so normal that it goes unnoticed until, in my case, Teacher Knee took the matter in hand.  The ache in my knee 'helped' me to discover a habit I had in favouring the inside edge of my right foot.  When corrected, the pain in the knee disappeared instantly as did a significant callous at the root of the big toe.  The speed at which these joint aches can disappear is nothing short of staggering even if they have been present for years.

Fourthly, in normal front posture, sometimes known as the bow stance, the front knee should not be further forward than the toe.  Some teachers even advise no further forward that the root of the big toe.  This can be confusing because the rear or 100% posture is not subject to the same rule.

The rear posture, with crown of head, Tan tien and Yung Chuan point (also known as bubbling point) all in a straight line, channels the weight through the centre of the knee.  The front posture, however, has the body behind the front knee, potentially forcing the knee to restrain the body weight rather than channel it into the foot.  It is akin to rocking back and balancing a chair on its back legs only, causing pressure in an unintended direction.  This pressure builds up in the knee if the leg is bent too much and cannot be channelled into the ground effectively.  

Furthermore, channelling or rooting into the front foot correctly is indispensable in developing a correct push during Push Hands practice.  Power can only be transferred correctly if the alignment through the front leg is not broken at any point between foot and hand.

Neither should you compete, even with yourself, over how low you can go.  A former teacher of mine used to say 'go to your bargain basement.'  Forcing a low posture, however, does not help.  A better analogy can be taken from the Buddha's teaching about the strings on a sitar or other similar instrument.

'If you make the string too tight it will break, if it is too loose it will not sing.' 

As with the sitar string, we only sink the posture till it 'sings,' i.e. till there is a feeling of dynamism and power in the legs.

An indication that things are going well with our alignment is when the Yung Chuan point, i.e. the centre of the foot just behind the ball of the foot, tingles or heats up during practice.  While, by itself, it is of limited practical value, it is nevertheless a sign of progress.

Fifthly, I believe that when the backside is allowed to stick out in either front or back posture, the knees can also be thrown out of alignment.  That the lower spine should be allowed to 'drop,' as if the 'ten thousand things were hanging from it,' is not just about lining up the spine but also lining up the knees.  That the knees and the spine are linked in more than just the obvious way, (i.e. knee bone connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone connected to . . . ) can been seen right at the beginning of the form in Preparation or Beginning Posture.  Standing with the feet pointing forward and knees a little too straight, will result in a sore back.  Guess how I know.

Correct positioning of the lower back not only affects the knees but centres the weight in the Yung Chuan point so that it feels as if the weight is rooting through the centre of the foot into the floor.  A way to check alignment of the lower spine is to feel your buttocks to see if they are soft.  No, I am not kidding.  This goes for both legs not just the one with less weight on it.  If the lower spine is not 'dropped' the muscles in the buttock can be felt supporting the weight of the spine and thus hindering the fall of weight into the middle of the foot.

As a final piece of advice, do not try to put the knee where you think it should go.  If the above principles are adhered to, the knee with naturally be in the right place.  It actually 'knows' where it is supposed to.  If we stop trying to force it to do what it cannot, it will be fine.

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