by Robert Amacker
Unfortunately, we cannot begin any discussion of root and “rootedness” without addressing first a few possible linguistic areas of confusion. I will try to dispense with these as quickly as possible before going on to more interesting perspectives. Perhaps the most common use of the word is in reference to the origin or source of something. We will progress most quickly if the reader simply accepts that, in the lexicon of Taijiquan, the word is never used in this way. Despite one reference in the Classics that might seem to belie this (“The internal force is rooted in the feet.”), that is an incorrect and misleading interpretation of this particular aphorism, and one that I will address a little later. The nuance that relates to Taijiquan is that of something fixed or immovable. This can in turn be further separated into the ideas of, on the one hand, something that is itself immovable, or, on the other, something that, by virtue of its fixedness, facilitates the movement of something else. Consider the nautical concept of an anchor, which can be thought of as a means whereby a ship is kept from drifting away from a given location, or as a means through which a ship may be pulled from one location to another. In one case it facilitates resistance to movement, in the other, a mechanism whereby movement may be accomplished.
The average student of Taijiquan can far more likely be expected to encounter the word in the first context. Even if it is not explicitly stated, the tuishou exercise can easily seem to applaud the ability to resist an opponent’s efforts to “push” you, the ability to “stand your ground.” I call this the receptive root, after the idea of “receiving” the opponent’s force. It should be obvious that this cannot be literally referring to our feet being “stuck” to the ground, as if they actually possessed roots, despite the fact that one very well-known teacher of Taijiquan suggested in complete seriousness to a group of my students that the secret of Chinese “gung-fu” slippers was to put a little glue on the soles. Many teachers have avoided this necessity by simply switching to modern running or basketball shoes, the rubberized bottoms of which accomplish the same purpose. I presume it is clear that I am not a fan of this solution.
We cannot go further without recognizing that traditional methods of gung-fu and karate employ the same lexicon as Taijiquan in terms of resisting the opponent’s force, but they do not use the same mechanism for achieving it. Traditional methods do in the last analysis utilize friction with the floor to resist being moved, but the greater percentage of horizontal force that is channelled into a vertical direction, the less force remains to act horizontally upon the body of the resister, and the greater is the applied pressure of his feet on the ground, thus enhancing whatever frictional resistance he might have to begin with. No static shape can redirect one hundred percent of applied force to a vertical direction, but some are clearly more efficient in this regard than others. The development of gung-fu stances can be looked at as an attempt to discover just what “shape” of the body satisfies this requirement best. The greatest stability is achieved when the “legs” of any object have equal pressure with respect to the ground. Since humans have two legs, this stability is referred to as double-weighted.
If the Taijiquan method of rooting is to be correctly understood, one must also understand the gung-fu and karate methods, lest they be unintentionally confused. Many otherwise correct practitioners of Taijiquan still utilize the “hard” boxing method, simply because, unless acquainted with the Taijiquan technique, there is really no other way to do it. The biggest mistake is to think that this older method, that is, the deliberate use of double-weight, can be dignified or otherwise changed into something acceptable by some form of visualization or other meditation technique. The term double-weight is a little confusing because it presumes the condition in which no outside force is actually being applied, in which case having the body’s weight distributed equally is synonymous with having equal pressure on both feet. It is this latter condition that must be satisfied for maximum stability to be achieved. When the opponent’s force is being applied at right angles to the line connecting the feet, this also produces a correspondence between actual weight and actual applied pressure, but when the force is applied at a more oblique angle, the mass of the body must be shifted proportionally towards the opponent. The first condition is referred to as the horse stance, and the second as the bow-and-arrow or simply the arrow stance. From our present point of view, it should be obvious that in practical usage, these stances are actually functionally equivalent. Since the nominal position of both players in the tuishou exercise is the arrow stance, in which the force is indeed at an oblique angle of incidence, many students simplistically assume that if they just avoid a position that is halfway between the placement of their feet, they are thereby immune to any accusation of double-weighted behavior. This of course inspires both players to refuse to retreat from an identifiable arrow stance, causing both to actually and quite instinctively equalize the pressure on both feet, as this feels like the obviously most stable and “rooted” placement. It is this conscious, carefully trained, or simply instinctive behavior that is double-weighted.
In order to understand the difference between this method and that of Taijiquan, two related points must be clear. The horse and arrow stance methods of “rooting” are both fixed stances, changing only if the direction of applied force is changed. Also the two definitions of the word balance must be investigated. In one definition, balance is synonymous with stability, in the other, it is synonymous with instability. A “balanced” object that is stable is, by definition, exerting equal pressure upon all points of contact, which means that, in three dimensions, it must have at least three legs. Recognition of this real-world requirement is the reason that the arrow stance is sometimes referred to as the “three-point-stance,” even though it is obvious that its users still have only two legs. It presumably has the kind of “rootedness” that would mimic such a condition (having three legs), even though untrue. When we see a circus animal balance a ball on its nose, it is obvious that the animal must remain in a state of constant motion and readjustment, the contact with the ball clearly only one point, and certainly not three, at any given moment. It is this kind of balance that is the stuff of true Taijiquan.
I mentioned that the traditional “double-weighted” stance still depends ultimately upon the use of friction. No matter how perfectly formed, or how low to the ground, this traditional stance, if the floor is slick enough (usually ice is sufficient), will still find its user sliding backwards. An analysis of this is enhanced by a rather formal definition of “rootedness” that can be applied to both traditional and Taijiquan methods. We might say that the rootedness of an object is measured by the percentage of incoming force that is converted into a vertical direction. If any stance or shape were capable of one hundred percent efficiency in this regard, it would indeed require no friction whatsoever to maintain its position, and would do so even on a sheet of the slickest ice. However, it can be proven by physics that there is no fixed shape or construction that can accomplish this, even though some work better than others. A chair with five legs is more stable than one with three or four, which is why office chairs are made that way. The more the incoming force presses directly against a leg, the more force is converted into pressure on the ground.
Even though there is no fixed shape that accomplishes our ideal result, it can equally be established that a dynamic mechanism can, without breaking any physical laws. This is roughly equivalent to the statement that there is no fixed shape that can balance itself on a single point (the “one-legged” chair, if you will), but a constantly changing single point of contact can be continuously balanced by an active dynamic mechanism (the animal with a ball on its nose). According to this reasoning, such a method should be workable on the slickest ice, assuming that it does indeed convert one hundred percent of an incoming force into a vertical direction. So it is entirely true that the Taijiquan method can be theoretically capable of such a feat. This not the same thing, however, as saying that Taijiquan works equally well on such a frictionless surface. For the whole technique of the art to obtain, there is more to consider than this single concept. The circus animal can stay on its pedestal because it can also control the way that the ball is tending to fall, thus keeping its task within a certain range of movement. The Taijiquan adept, no matter how skillful, does not have this luxury with respect to the opponent. He must also move his center of mass through external space to follow the movements of his opponent, and his proper method of accomplishing this, which relates to our alternate definition of root, does not work on ice. I am sure I will annoy certain readers considerably when I say that if your method of moving your body through space does indeed work fine on ice, this is actually proof that it is incorrect.
If that annoyance can be contained for the moment, I will attempt to justify these assertions, but first I would like to elaborate a bit on proper root in the sense of the ability to exhibit immovability, or the conversion of all incoming force to a vertical direction. This, if you will remember, I call the receptive root. I must emphatically state that having a technique that is capable of competing with the “rootedness” of the fixed stances of most traditional Oriental boxing is not synonymous with dictating that it be used for this purpose. One problem with the traditional double-weighted technique is that it produces a condition that is not ideal for responding to the opponent with movements of the center. Certainly this drawback is most evident when these powerfully rooted stances are utilized in contests with western style boxers, whose constant movement challenges opponents to employ light and responsive footwork. This is not the case with the Taijiquan method. In fact, the correct “rooting” method produces the lightest and most responsive footwork of all. This can be tested at one of the highest levels of Taijiquan practice, using the “discharge” protocol. Discharge is most comprehended when it is realized that the critical skill is being exhibited by the “dischargee,” rather than the person doing the “discharging.” The phenomenon can be effected even when the person discharging is entirely double-weighted, but there is an inevitable consequence to this. If he is not double-weighted, he will be able to follow the discharged opponent with an immediacy that preserves, more or less automatically, his superior timing, resulting in his ability to catch the opponent in a totally disadvantageous situation. If he is double-weighted, however, he will need an extra “beat,” in terms of timing, to get going, with the result that his subsequent advance to the opponent leaves him, at best, in an equal standing, and, at worst, disadvantageous himself.
Many exponents of Taijiquan seem to feel that the highest level of Taijiquan is exhibited by the ability to fa-jing, or perhaps to discharge (two words, by the way, that do not mean the same thing, but that will have to be a subject for another time). However, I strongly disagree. For one thing, there are several martial arts that develop chansijing and fa-jing ability; Taijiquan is not by any means unique in this respect. For another, this kind of “power” has nothing whatsoever to do with the real “art” of boxing, and it is in its ability to guide students of even mediocre talent into the experience of this art that Taijiquan is more than unique; it is breathtaking. Real art in boxing, I am sure almost everyone qualified to comment on the subject will agree, is the product of one thing: footwork and timing. No, I did not mistakenly say one thing when I meant two. These two things, footwork and timing, are not two separate things, for there is no such thing as the right step if it is not taken at the right time.
The right step may be characterized as one that positions oneself advantageously with respect to the opponent’s position. If our opponents were capable of being frozen in a motionless position at our whim, timing would be an unnecessary consideration. But they are not, and our advantageous position is only advantageous for the briefest of moments, something that no amount of geometry, targeting, or ability to fa-jing will obviate even the slightest. The reason that the Taijiquan method is so breathtaking is that this process of “dynamic rooting,” which is the method of receiving an opponent’s force, is completely arrived at through the construction of mutual taijis with the opponent, and this construction not only dictates the placement of one’s steps through the mechanism that is referred to in the Classics by the phrase: “the steps follow the changes of the body,” but also determines, completely automatically, exactly the timing of those placements. The technical term for the utilization of the taiji principle in this way is adherence. The result is footwork and timing of unmatched and deceivingly natural elegance.
However, this whole study, which encompasses the topic of rooting and is called the Civil aspect of Taijiquan, relates mainly to only one of our meanings for, or perhaps more properly uses of the term root, that is, the reception of the opponent’s force. It is the skillful reception of this force that tells us exactly where and when to step. However, having acquired this priceless information, we still need the physical means of doing so. Here is where I need to move my center of mass, and here is how I need to turn my waist. What, one might be inclined to ask, is the problem? I have been moving my center of mass and turning my waist since I knew how to walk. Tell me just what is desired in that regard and I will just do it.
It is interesting how rarely anyone ever stops to ask themselves just what it is that they actually do when performing such a commonplace and almost infinitely repeated act. To simplify the problem, how exactly does one get from, say, one hundred percent weight on one leg to one hundred percent weight on the other? I have asked this question to doctors, athletes, kinesthesiologists, physicists, and yes, self-proclaimed masters of Taijiquan, and, apart from bizarre and totally nonsensical answers (“I will my qi to go there and my body follows,” etc.), no one has ever come up with anything other than two distinct methods, most movement being a combination of these. They are the linear use of the muscles, that is, pushing oneself off of the standing leg, and gravity, that is, letting the body more or less fall off of one leg snd onto the other. This linear pushing is well-known to students of Taijiquan as a mistake, and so if they care to define with any clarity exactly what method is to be used, they pick the gravitational one.
The student is, in this case, left in a similar dilemma to that which he encountered in dealing with the other use of the word root. He is given a problem which has a simple and instinctive solution (in the previous usage, the solution was double-weight), but told, in this case by me, that this solution is unacceptable. Just as the “dynamic rooting” solution to the double-weight problem is one that no one would discover by chance, and that, even once discovered, takes years to master, the solution to this other problem related to root is also something almost no one would ever stumble upon (except obviously somebody once did), and also takes years of practice to perfect.
As with the case of the “receptive” root, adequate instruction in this regard is a large undertaking to explain. Unfortunately, I have not written, as I have with the receptive root, an entire book on the subject, but I have given it considerable explanation in Taijiquan Meditations for the Solo Form. It is the method of moving and controlling the body using the “silk reeling” technique of chansijing. In this technique, the body is pushed, pulled, and turned by virtue of the use of a single foot as a fixed point, or “root” on the floor. In this technique, the foot never experiences any sort of unidirectional lateral force, but only the attempt to turn on the floor, which means that if the front part of one’s foot experiences lateral pressure on one side of the shoe, the back part of the foot experiences the same pressure on the opposite side. One important feature is that all force and pressure experienced when utilizing this method is completely horizontal. When utilizing this method, there is absolutely no tendency for the body to go either up or down, which is why the solo form is supposed to be performed on one continuous level. This maintenance of a constant level has as its only function its use as an indicator that the correct technique is being employed, and has no other meaning or purpose. This is why several moves in the traditional form do go down or up (also discussed in Meditations), something that is perfectly fine to do as long as these changes of level are deliberate and not a result of a lapse of chansijing technique.
Further explanation is beyond the scope of this short paper, but before ending, I wish to make a point of great importance. If you will remember, the great achievement of the Taijiquan “receptive root” is that, through a dynamic mechanism, one hundred percent redirection of incoming force is actually achieved, causing it to become entirely vertical. Note therefore that all incoming force from the opponent is experienced as vertical, while all self-generated force utilized for movement and maneuvering is completely horizontal. The result of this is that these two techniques operate without any mutual interference. No amount of incoming force will impair or infringe upon one’s ability to move, and, more importantly, no amount or elaboration of one’s own movement will interfere with one’s ability to receive and “interpret” an opponent’s incoming force. The combination of these two entirely different types of “root” produces a technique that, in terms of its ability to both inform and facilitate the most natural-looking and elegant footwork, is nothing short of profound.