– by Ian Sinclair
“Shoulders sink and the elbows drop outwards.”
If you don’t believe in levitation, just watch a person’s shoulders as they concentrate on a difficult task. I sometimes joke that beginners lift their shoulders so high that it affects their hearing.
Tense shoulders have a negative affect on many things, especially since shoulder tension is often a chronic problem which is exacerbated by stress and under-developed body awareness. As we become less aware of our bodies, and focus elsewhere (or “else-when”), our shoulders creep upwards in a turtling defensive posture to protect the brain which seems to be alienating itself from the body.
Another interesting thing that causes unnecessary shoulder tension is the seeming believe that people have that they need to lift their shoulder in order to lift their arm. Of course, this is not true, and cultivating the opposite attitude can be very instructive.
First, forget about lifting your arm at all. Instead, think of extending your arm downwards, as if reaching for the earth. Then let your arm reach farther away, but still downward, until the fingers are reaching toward the horizon. You can do this while deliberately sinking the shoulders downward. Now try the same thing, but now, before you even think of moving the arm, sink the shoulder down as far as it can go. Then think of extending the elbow towards the earth, then the wrist. As you complete these in sequence, you may notice that your fingers start to move. Allow them to float up like a boat rising on the tide, the tide in this case being the sinking of the shoulders. Do this a few times and you may discover a whole new attitude to lifting your arms.
Next, lets understand the proper tai chi alignment for your arm. When you raise your arm in tai chi you never raise it directly to your front or to your side. The elbows especially should find the most natural and relaxed position, not too much in front and not too much to the side. If the elbows are back too far, you will be tensing your upper back and creating various points of tension up and down the spine that will affect your hips, knees, feet, and neck. If you bring your elbow too far forward, you will tense your chest and affect your breathing, neck, and balance.
If you can find that perfect alignment where the shoulders are relaxed and the elbows are extended away from your body, then you will have found a powerful alignment that enables tai chi experts to transmit incredible power from the whole body and even from the earth itself. You will also have discovered a way to greatly improve motor function, strength, balance, breathing, and relaxation. The improved alignment, balance and awareness that comes with “sinking the shoulders and dropping the elbows” can also help you to reduce the risks of injury that come with inefficient use of the arms.