Knees hurt?

From time to time, we may hear people complain that practicing Tai Chi (Taiji) chuan makes their knees hurt. This is ironic since Tai Chi is supposed to help people with various health issues, including knee problems, to be better. Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei addressed this topic during a public speech in Toronto, Canada on June 18, 2017.

Correct Single Whip demonstrated by Grandmaster Chen.

Correct Single Whip demonstrated by Grandmaster Chen.

Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei is a 9th Duan 段 – or the highest level of the martial arts – Tai Chi master and one of the top ten martial art masters in China as well as a lineage holder of the Chen Style Tai Chi. He has hosted annual “Light of Tai Chi” 太極之光summer training camps in North America in recent years for his disciples, students, and Tai Chi enthusiasts in the West. This year’s event took place in Toronto. To further promote Tai Chi chuan, he gave a free speech to the public on the history of Tai Chi, the current state of Tai Chi chuan in China and around the world, and Tai Chi chuan and knee protection.

Like many sports, it is essential to learn the rules of Tai Chi chuan correctly to prevent any potential sport injury. Grandmaster Chen, a celebrated author of a complete Chen Style Tai Chi system including various barehanded routines as well as weapon forms, is best known for his profound knowledge on the Tai Chi fundamentals. The Tai Chi fundamentals or body requirements have been the core of his teaching. During the speech, Grandmaster Chen laid out three key knee requirements to prevent any risk of injury.

Correct Relaxed Kuas

Correct Relaxed Kuas

  • The first and foremost is sitting Kuas 坐胯. Kuas are the hip joints. The very first lesson that any practitioner needs to know is how to relax the Kuas. Kua sitting may sound foreign but it is actually something we do everyday. Grandmaster Chen said that sitting Kuas is the same as sitting on a (high) stool. Once the Kuas are relaxed or properly sat, the knees can be bent correctly.
    Incorrect Kua Sitting

    Incorrect Kua Sitting

    Without Kuas sat, the pelvis will tilt forward and the bent knees will be kneeling, which creates unnecessary pressure on the knees. As a Tai Chi instructor myself, I have observed many people including long-time practitioners turning their bodies without proper Kuas sitting. With that, the opposite knee was forced to crash in and hurt. Grandmaster reiterated the importance of the cliché of 屈膝 (bending the knees), 鬆胯 (relaxing the Kuas), and 鬆胯 (turning the waist).

Correct Left Knee Position

Correct Left Knee Position

  • The Bow Stance is a popular posture in all Tai Chi forms. Chen urged people to keep the knee aligned with the calf vertically or right above the heel. Oftentimes, a person’s knee will surpass the toes while doing a medium stance, which puts too much pressure on the knee. The knees should always go the same direction as the toes.
    Incorrect Left Knee Position

    Incorrect Left Knee Position

    The common mistakes are the right toes pointing to the right while the right knee is steered to the left to cause the right knee caving in or crashing in or vice versa. Master Jack Yan, a 12th generation of Chen Style Tai Chi Inheritor and in-chamber disciple of Grandmaster Chen, articulated to the participants of 2017 Light of Tai Chi during a warm-up session that if the front part of the knee hurts, it indicates the knee has gone too far forward. If the inside hurts, it shows the knee has crashed; if the outside hurts, it shows the knee has turn outward too much; if the back of the knee hurts, it shows the knee is over extended or the body lean backwards.

  • Corret Toe Turning: Weight on the right foot first and then turn the left toes in.

    Corret Toe Turning: Weight on the right foot first and then turn the left toes in.

    To make a transitioning during a form practice, sometimes we need to turn the toes outwards or inwards to either change the direction of progression or create a cohesive energy between two legs. The terminologies are 㚈擺 (Wai Bai or toes out) and 里合 (Li He) aka 內扣 (Nei Kou or toes in). Grandmaster Chen insisted that people need to shift the body weight to another foot first before doing so. In other words, we turn the toes in or out, but only when the foot is “empty.” Otherwise, the knee will endure far too much pressure.

There are always exceptions to the rules. But they are rare. If people can adhere to these three basic requirements and mind the knee positioning, the angles, and when to turn the toes, they can enjoy the art of Tai Chi for life and at the same time improve the health of their knees.

(Edited by Doc Luecke.)

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5 Replies to “Knees hurt?”

  1. Marilyn Cooper

    This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I disagree that knee problems are just from improper leg alignment in postures. The hard, cold fact is that the knees are simply overused from crouching in stances all the time and need to stretch into lifted positions, like releves in dance. In other words, the constant flex needs the reverse position – straightening the whole leg and even so far as lifting onto the ball of the foot to balance out the leg training. Here’s an example of a releve: https://youtu.be/dim7AaoQrC8

    Rather than the quads flexing constantly, they are alternately stretched in the opposite way. I recommend cross-training with movements like this, minus the toe shoes and turn-out, to avoid knee pain. It’s insane to think you will prevent knee pain from doing more of what gives you it in the first place!

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  2. Daniela

    A very interesting article. The thing is that when people talk about “knee problems” or “knee pain” they are making a generalization about a much complex issue. For people born with patellar malalignment it is usually painful to practise bending their knees all the time. Eventually, other type of problems may appear, such as tendonitis, because as you know, when a part of your body hurts, other parts try to compensate to keep you in the correct position or stance. Therefore, I wouldn’t say that tai chi can be practised by people with any kind of knee pain. Some people may benefit from the practice but some others not.

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