Rooting is more than an important concept in Tai chi, it’s a stage in Tai Chi practice. Developing roots is one of the first basic stages in Tai Chi. Before understanding rooting you can’t really “sink” (or “sink the Qi, as some people would describe it.), you can’t really understand balance or posture which means that without this you can’t really bring strength from the ground or develop any type of the necessary “jins” in Tai Chi. Rooting is not about “structure” or alignment, though both are necessary to keep up and organize the body. You learn rooting by practicing posture and alignment, but in its essence rooting is not the same as these concepts. Instead it’s something most physical, something you learn to feel.
Some people believe that rooting is all about posture, stance work or understanding alignment, as working with the “liu he”, the six connections (or “six harmony”). But stance and alignment is not enough. You can learn a few “stupid jin tricks” without rooting, but all your efforts to show off skills will be shallow and without depth and no real jin will be present. The people who only speak about stance, alignment and “harmonies” don’t understand rooting as a stage of development. They have no personal experience of growing roots and don’t know what they are talking about. Your real Tai Chi strength, or Tai chi Jin, can not be understood without first, and in a most physical manner, developing your own roots.
So developing roots is about body development, a stage in developing the Tai chi body or “shenfa” (body method) required in Tai Chi. Rooting is actually about developing deeper core muscles, starting from the gua right down through the legs. This is why people need to “float” before they can develop stability. There’s a level of form practice many people go through. When they learn to “song” or relax through the whole body, they feel that they can not become steady, they feel unbalanced, wobbly. If they continue to try to relax, they will after a while begin to feel steady again. This is because they are starting to use deeper muscles that they have not used as actively as before.
There are a few stages that must be achieved before you can start to understand what rooting means and what it can do.
First, your lower back needs to have a certain strength and it needs to get rid of all unnecessary tension. So the first thing is to develop strength and softness in the lower back. As long as you still have tensions here you will have a hard time to discover your roots. A few people would need some most physical help from a therapist. Deep tissue tuina (chinese massage) might be helpful for some people with a lot of tension. Practicing with a “Tai Chi/Qigong belt” (or “breathing belt” as we call it), put on pretty tight is also to recommend. It helps your breathing and will put effort and strength in the abdomen instead of in the back. (No one seems to know about the real and original use of this belt. Some of my teachers and classmates from the past looks at this belt as a secret and want to keep it inside their schools.)
Second, you need to to understand basic sinking of breath, or lower abdomen breathing. This is in its most basic way achieved just by relaxing. A calm mind is needed to relax the body, so both the mind and breath need to sink together. Keep it always in movement and learn to feel comfortable and natural while breathing deep and low.
Third, you need to get pass the wobbling. You should get a sense of your leg strength and use it sparingly. I.e. learn how to relax your legs. This is hard. You need to sink the stance and practice low, but not too low. Don’t use strength. Relax as much as possible. Relaxing the legs in stance work and while practicing such hands will help. Just continue to relax, don’t care about feeling unstable. Strength will come natural after continuous practice.
It take a different amount of time for different players to develop roots. For some people it might take one year, for others two and still others five. It depend on your own body type, your prerequisites as well as on the amount of time and effort you spend on your practice.
Some traditional teachers in various Kung fu styles put down a whole lot of time on stance work and basic drills to teach body posture and balance. Some of them believe that without understanding a proper stance, every other effort will be a waste of time. In most of Chinese martial arts, strength is considered to be something that comes from the ground. Without proper stance and rooting there is no real “gongfu”, no skill. Still today, some Kung Fu teachers won’t teach anything else than stance and some jibengong (basic practice) for the first two years. It’s a bit funny that some Tai chi people believe that “just stand” or just taking a good aligned posture, is enough to claim that they show good rooting. They just don’t put in the work that is necessary.
Most standing post and stance practice is also good for Tai chi practitioners. Sadly, sometimes standing seems to be lost in Tai Chi. Form and mostly high and “natural” stances seem to be the modern way to practice Tai chi. Instead of relaxation being a taught skill, “song” becomes the natural thing everyone can do. For Tai Chi, the Wuji stance is almost necessary for deeper relaxation and good understanding about how the body can erect and keep up itself if you just allow it to do its natural job. Mabu or “horse stance” practice is not necessary but will help, and it can do a whole lot of good for lower back. One exercise is to practice the gua or specifically the inside of the hips and thighs while standing in different stances. Try to press up the legs from the gua, like spreading them out and down to the ground. No pressure on the knee area should be felt. There are also few different stance practices, like the Santishi, that could be used as a shortcut to develop rooting compared to other types of practice as deep form practice. This takes a shorter amount of time, but still demands daily practice. And it’s painful. When you stand in Santishi and your legs are in a lot of pain, but you still keep on standing there. As you learn how to relax through the pain, then you have reached that point where you start to activate and use deeper muscles. Regardless path or method, when you have understood rooting, your stance has become much more strong and steady. You will develop a new and deeper awareness in your legs, you will be hard to push over, your own pushes will become much more powerful, and if you know how to properly align your fist with your fot, you will have much better punching power.
BTW, I wrote about rooting a couple of years ago, but in a more general manner. Here I wanted to give a better description on how to really develop rooting.