Rooting, the Secret of Getting Power from the Earth by Gaofei Yan and James Cravens
In studying the ideas which lie behind the “internal martial arts,” we recognize that internal means that there may be concepts and principles that are underneath the surface or not apparent as they would be in the external martial arts. While looking at these deep aspects, such as chi and internal power, one of the most intriguing principles is the study of rooting. Rooting may not sound like an exotic topic, but if one is to develop the energy skills that we hear the legendary masters attained, rooting must be understood, as well as practiced.
Everyone in the martial arts agrees that one needs good balance and many use the word rooting in speaking of this balance. Rooting is not just having good balance, it involves much more. Most beginners neglect this aspect because technique, counter technique, and the various ways to fight seem to be what initially captures their interest. After a period of time, the serious students, through much practice and thought, discover that they are losing power when they move and when they try to strike. They may have a strong shoulder or a big punch, but it is segmented and not part of a unitary body effort. This is because they have no root.
Chen Zhaopi, the 18th generation Chen family master and master of Chen Xiao Wang, Chen Zhenglei, Chen Shitong, and Wang Xian, said the following: “If one cannot come to recognize how the weight moves distinctly back and forth between the two legs, then the upper and lower body cannot work together and connect. If the upper and lower body cannot connect, then you cannot absorb the opponent’s force. If you cannot absorb the opponent’s force, you cannot use his force.”
After two years of dedicated practice, Mr. Yan’s teacher, Chen Quan Zhong, told Mr. Yan that he still had no Kung Fu, but had only begun to have a little root. Therefore, it would serve us well to look closely at how to attain this principle of rooting, because we can safely say that if there is no rooting, there will be nothing else. The study of the “internal” will give us the secret of true “rooting” and teach us how to get power from the ground.
The great internal arts have various ways to achieve the skill of rooting. In the art of Xing-yi (mind-will boxing) much time is devoted in particular to developing the San ti Shi or “Three Body Posture.” In the style of Bagua Zhang (eight diagram boxing), they use the idea of walking in a circle in order to build up the root. In Tai Ji Quan one develops the root by studying what the body must do in order to keep the weight’s center balanced while moving very slowly. Push hands practice, a two person touching exercise, then uses speed in order to develop this balance under more difficult circumstances.
Even though each art uses different methods in order to build and develop the root, other factors are important such as intensity and regular practice. Zhang Ju, who was a master in the art of Xin-Yi, practiced so hard that he would finally collapse and fall down asleep. Sun Lu Tang, one of the most famous internal boxers in Chinese history, practiced the “plowing step” wherever he went during the day. Even while standing around he would be practicing. Chen Xiao Wang practiced so hard he could barely bend his knees after practice.
Note: A variation of this article was published in Tai Chi magazine last year. Because of the importance of this topic, we have decided to use this article for the benefit of our readers.
Many people use the term rooting but have varied ideas about what constitutes its meaning. Let’s examine the details so we may understand its substance. First, let’s look at what it means to lose root or not to have it at all.
People lose root because they use the wrong part of the body to focus their strength. For example, when the shoulder moves first in an action to strike, it is incorrect. One should use the lower body to drive the force. No matter how hard one attempts to be soft, they will never truly relax and have power until the lower body drives the force.
Photo #1, #2 Photo #1 (correct), #2 (incorrect) When the hand in “Brush Knee” touches, the body should sink as in picture #1, not as in #2. In #2 the chi will rise, but in #1, the chi sinks and the power is balanced in the legs and opponents arm.
Even when one uses the lower body to drive the force, the root can be lost because the shoulder, as well as any other joint or part of the body may interrupt the transference of power. When there is tightness or loss of coordination between the various joints and parts of the body, root will be lost. The hip, leg, etc. must act as one! Many times things inside the body fight against each other. For example, if the inguinal crease (part where the legs connect to the torso) at the hips is tight, the flow of energy will be broken in the body, breaking the root. When one practices in this way, the tightness or lack of body unity can give one the tendency to get injured. Sometimes one locks a joint. The hips and shoulders are typical joints that students will lock which breaks the root.
Photo #3,#4, In #3 the right shoulder is locked and left shoulder is too loose or limp. The left hip is locked and the left knee is limp. #4 photo is correct.
Photo #8,#9 In #8 the chi stops in back because the back is bent and the chest is forward. #9 is the correct way.
At the other extreme, the body can be too loose or limp which will also cause the root to be broken.
Photo One Photo Two Photo Three
Other causes that disrupt a continuous root include psychological reasons. Being frightened suddenly is a common example of how one’s energy will rise, taking away the potential power from the ground through rooting. Other emotions, such as anger, happiness, sadness, and being excited, can all play a role in losing root since they distract the mind from its focus. Losing root while sparring is an example of how psychological pressure locks up the body causing the root to be lost.
Finally, the reason for a lost root is often a combination of several postural problems. When one loses root, his movement or force cannot change directions and his body is segmented and not unitary. Internal power should be round and unitary, not linear and segmented. Roundness has the quality of continuation and flow, while linear does not contain this quality and will cause the body to stop and start, producing a segmented non-unitary action.
We see from the discussion so far that when one loses root, several factors are involved: the amount of tension in the muscles, the way in which the body connects and works together, and the ability to produce a powerful product in terms of projection.
There are many misconceptions about what root actually is. Some believe that it means having strong legs or having a low stance. Some believe that it is developed only by practicing static postures. People who train only in this way usually cannot fight.
If root is so desirable, how then does one build the root? Many people may agree on a quality or principle being useful, but “how” is always more important than “what.” The method that will step by step get you to the point of rooting is often what is missing. As mentioned earlier, many people and styles have different ways to build the root. In the style of Xing-Yi the old way is to practice 60% in static postures and 40% in movement. In Tai Ji Quan the solo form is a major factor in training, while Wuji standing posture with no motion, Tai Chi stillness postures, and heavy weapons (Long staff (Dagan) and Guan Dao) exercises are also practiced. In the art of Bagua Zhang one walks a circle to build up the root. In spite of these different methods, the requirement is basically the same. Certain things must be true about the body, the movement, the Qi (energy), and the mind.
1. The body should be straight. The body sinks and the head hangs as if suspended or pulled upward lightly from a string. This opposite stretch creates a straighter spine which then allows muscles to relax, giving more flexibility and movement to the body.
2. The waist must sink; sometimes one side may sink. This sinking has always been recognized as necessary in rooting.
3. Muscles on both sides at the inguinal crease should relax. If one does not relax, chi will not go down into the legs. This also aids in the process of straightening the lumbar curve in the back.
4. Two Huantiao (the points just behind the side hip bones) must be rolled back and out; these are also acupuncture points.
5. The distance between the upper inner thighs (dang) is the same width at the front of the inner thighs as at the back of the inner thighs. For example, if one assumes a toe-in hour glass stance, the distance at the rear of the inner thigh is greater than at the front. If one tucks the hip forward, the distance at the front of the inner thighs is greater than at the rear of the inner thighs. In Yang style Tai Ji they say they put the whole body on two legs, and the Chen style of Tai Ji explains this by saying it is like taking a seat or a sitting position while standing. The upper inner thighs should have a shape like an upside down letter “U” and not like an upside down letter “V.”
6. The acupuncture point called the Huiyin or perineum, as well as the anus, is internally pulled upward. This keeps the small heavenly circulation or the chi unblocked.
7. The “Wei Lu” refers to keeping the lower back straight during the posture or movement.
8. The entire body through to the legs must screw inward which will open the inner thighs. The knee should not be inward, but should be lined up straight with the foot’s direction so that the power from the ground will not be broken. One will actually feel an outer pressure on the outside knee as the legs screw inward toward the ground.
9. The acupuncture point “Wei Zhong,” located on the leg behind the center of the knee should always be strong. The knee will have to be bent and not kinked inward in order for this to be right.
10. Toes should grip the ground and the yong quan points (located just below the ball of the foot but just on the toe half of the foot) in the bottom of the feet become empty, which contributes to all movement and stability. The yong quan points are also known as the “bubbling well.”
Photo #4,#6,#9 Refer to ten points
Photo Five Photo Six Photo Seven
Photo #10 - Chen style Da Lu
In order to have a proper root, movement should never go by arm alone but by the whole body. The weight is transferred by turning the body.
Each internal art develops the root in various ways. In Xing-Yi, the classics state that the power of the technique is 70% from the lower body and 30% from the arms. Many misunderstand this teaching to be kicking rather than the lower body. Without this lower body emphasis, there is no rooting.
In Tai Ji Quan one moves very slowly, balancing over the yong quan points in the bottom of both feet in order to find and control the center of the weight. This assures that the force can come from the ground and not be stopped inside the body.
Furthermore, on a punch, the front leg must also screw and not be “loose” so that the whole body can contribute to power going out of the hand. The sensation is that the ground below moves in opposite directions due to this inward screwing with both legs. During the punch, a loose front leg creates a large energy loss going out the front knee. In Tai ji we say that the front leg has no “Peng Jing.”
Photo #5 (wrong way) Photo#6 and Photo #6B - The knee must not go limp but allow power to back up and back the punch.
The Qi in the body will flow properly when the three acupuncture points are lined up properly. These points are:
1. Bai hui - located on the crown point.
2. Hui yin - located between the genitals and the anus; this point should close and lift.
3. The intersection between the two yong quan points The intersection is somewhere between the feet depending on the posture.
These three points should all be lined up vertically. One cannot overemphasize the need to relax. When the three points are lined up in a relaxed manner, the Zhong Qi (centered chi) gets larger. Chi is a difficult subject for those just beginning to study, and the concept of centered chi is difficult as well.
The mind and spirit must be strong in order to keep chi from rising, which will destroy the effort of rooting. The mind must be very centered and controlled. Many people practice Chan (Zen) exercises, or something similar, in order to accomplish this. This, of course, has a parallel in life since the mind must also be kept centered every day in order to handle all circumstances.
When practicing, one should use imagination so that one can image clouds or a river to create evenly flowing movement. One can go fast yet stay quiet. When traveling in an airplane, one feels very still even though the speed may be 500 m.p.h.. Enemies to the mind are anger, fear, and various other emotions and distractions. They raise the chi high in the body, making the body tight and again destroying the root.
All of these requirements to building root support each other and connect to each other in a complimentary fashion. After a long time you will understand the beautiful harmony of the requirements. The straight plumb line requirement causes the thigh to go in, but when one takes the two points in the hip out the knees move out opening the thighs up properly. Another example of harmony between the requirements is that when the legs are down and when one sinks, the practitioner can use the whole body as a unit.
What kind of feeling is obtained from rooting? Should we feel something when we root? The feeling that is derived from rooting is that the upper body is empty and the lower body is full. In push hands or in application when two people are linked together, if one person is rooting and the other is not, the lever principle comes into effect. One person has the power of his chest and arms versus the other person which is using the entire body as a unit. Everything else being equal, the unitary rooted person has three times the leverage. It is like someone who is standing on ice pushing hands with a person on dry ground.
Photo #14 - Lose right knee-chi stops in back-force only from elbow out-short leverage vs. long leverage-black one on ice - other on dry ground.
Another feeling derived from rooting is that of smooth movement. The body turns as a unit; it also gives turning a greater range of motion. The body can turn in any direction.
Photo #11, #12,#13 - Mr. Yan can change to #12 or #13 from #11 depending on which way the Opponent goes. This is changeability.
Whether in fighting application or when interacting with an partner in some sort of dueling, one must yield and follow the opponent or the root can be shattered.
Root also allows the body to calm down and feel centered. In Bagua Zhang one walks a circle to build the root. It is said that after a long time, the eyes will be able to see very clear. This speaks of awareness and sensitivity. For example, one can taste the sweetness of bread if his or her taste buds are sensitive. Rooting allows the eyes to become clearer. In contrast, when one is angry, he does not see clearly.
When one sinks properly and allows the chi to sink, it is very intense. One may not be able to hold the posture for very long when he truly learns to sink and root purely.
The intensity can be greater with a root. Li Wen Bin, a master of Xing-Yi, taught a member of the Chinese National Hockey team who was very strong and could lift a two hundred pound weight over his head over one hundred times or more very easily. When placed in the proper rooted position, he could not hold a Sun ti shi (Xin-yi posture) for very long when he let the chi sink purely.
Chen Tai Ji sets up the root initially by standing in the posture called Wu Ji. Wu Ji refers to absence of movement. From the Wu Ji comes the Tai Ji. In the Wu Ji one can feel the three points in one line in order to feel the centered chi. The weight should be centered over the yong quan points in the bottom of the foot.
Every posture is like Wu Ji. Some people practice for many years and never feel the centered chi or root. In September of 1992 a Spanish martial art team visited Chen village. A famous teacher in Spain asked Chen Shi Tong to correct his posture. The posture was called “Walk Obliquely.” He held the stance and Chen Shi tong corrected every part of his posture properly. While changing his posture, he began to have an unusual feeling in his body. His eyes showed a big surprise. He could not hold the posture very long. He grabbed Mr. Yan’s arm (who was the interpreter) and began to say the word “Big Tree” many times. He wanted Mr. Yan to tell Chen Shi Tong what he was feeling. If the instructor is good, he will put you in the posture and you will feel the “centered chi,” or the “Big Tree.” A good instructor is very important in the development of many steps in internal boxing. You may have the knowledge, but a good teacher can cause you to get the proper feeling.
In Chen Tai Ji there are many ways to make the opponent’s chi rise. One way is to use chin na (grabbing, grappling, etc.) to cause the chi to go up. When one touches the fighter or in push hands, you want to find out the person’s direction of force and center, so you listen to his energy.
Photo #15, - Mr. Dees in rollback and Mr. Yan in Press. Mr. Yan finds tightness in Mr. Dee’s shoulder.
Photo #16 - Mr. Yan follows the tightness in the shoulder.
We have discussed why root is important, why people lose their root, how to build the root, and the feelings derived from rooting. The principle of rooting is a product of the principle coming from the Tao Te Ching, the most famous book in China.
The Tao Teh Ching was written by Lao Tzu who described the way of the universe. This book told people how to control the world. Its conclusion was that you control the world by controlling yourself — that you have more control in this world if you simply learn to control your own self and balance.
As this idea was factored into the internal martial art, it was discovered that when one learns to root, he has much greater control of his own balance as well as greater potential of power coming from the ground.
In the book Xing-Yi Quan Xue, The Study of Form-Mind Boxing, written by the famous internal martial artist Sun Lu Tang, translated by Albert Liu, and compiled and edited by Dan Miller, an interview with Sun Lu Tang’s daughter, Sun Jian Yun states that “her father did not think there was any secret way to practice the martial arts. He emphasized that there were two words which described correct practice, Zhong He, which translates to mean ‘balanced’ or ‘neutral’.” It is always easier to reach a goal if the goal is very clear. Why be rooted in martial movement? It is because our goal is to be balanced.