Yang Cheng Fu’s Ten Essentials as recorded in a ghost written book is something most serious Tai chi practitioner have heard about and try to follow, and the book itself is regarded as a classic. Number five is about the shoulders. Here exemplary translated by Lee Fife so I don’t need to do much job:
5: Sink Shoulder, Drop Elbow
Sink (chen) the shoulder means
the shoulder loosens, opens, and hangs down
Without the skill of song and hanging, both shoulders will rise
and subsequently the qi will also go up.
(when this happens) the whole body cannot achieve power.
Drop (zhui) the elbow means
the elbow goes down with the yi of song and hanging (c hui).
If the elbow is suspended and rising,
then the shoulder is not able to sink
and your discharge (fang) will not send someone far.
(Your discharge) is then almost the same as the broken jin of the external arts.”
Another translation from “The Tai Chi Life” reads:
“Sinking the shoulders is to let the shoulders be song and drop downwards. If not, both shoulders will rise causing qi to rise in them. No strength can be exerted from the body if this happens. Weighting down the elbow is to direct the elbows downward and be song. If the elbows rise up, the shoulders will have great difficulty in sinking, thus affecting the strength of your internal power, and you will not be able to throw your opponent away. This is similar to what is known as ‘stifling the power’ in external martial arts.”
Usually this “commandment” is understood as “sink the shoulders” and keep them sunk. This is what Tai Chi teachers usually say: “Keep the shoulders and elbows down“. But in fact, this a bit problematic, though most people don’t understand why.
The Character for sink is “沉 “, Chén, one of the 1000 most common characters in the Chinese language. It’s the same character as in “Qi chen” or “the Qi sinks,” and in modern Chinese you can find it in words as 冥想, chénsī, meaning meditation and 沉重, chénzhòng meaning heavy. The character consists of two parts, the character for cow, “niu,” which originally is a picture of a cows head, together with the character for a flowing river. The character Chen comes from ancient times when people sacrificed animals by drowning them in rivers. These rituals are mentioned in books as the Zhou Li, a classic about old customs and etiquette.
From these descriptions, you should understand that “chen” here in this context of sinking the shoulders is not about actively sinking something, but about letting the shoulders sink down by themselves. To let the shoulders sink, you use “song” – release, loosen up or to relax. Chen the shoulders, or letting the shoulders sink, is not about pressing the shoulders down or keep them down by force.
Just as you shouldn’t keep your shoulders unnecessarily high or stiff, it is just as important to not press the shoulders down, or force them to maintain a “sunk” position. Instead they should hang down naturally, be loose and have mobility. Otherwise, you will have problem.
I got inspiration to write more about shoulders from my last post about the scapula in Tai Chi Chuan. Shoulder and scapula is not the same. The arms can be moved from the scapula, but not from the shoulders.
The thing is that many Tai Chi practitioners have very loose and soft backs, from the lower back to the upper back. But the neck and jaws can still have tension. And this is a common thing. What exactly inspired me to write more about shoulders was a passage in the quote from Mr He Jinghan:
“In fact the shoulders have two locations. Close up to the neck there is the area which takes the load when we are carrying something heavy – or stretch to take out our wallet.”
Now, many Tai Chi practitioners are afraid to move the shoulders or to lift them, so they constantly force them down, in a more or less locked position. If you do like this, forcing the shoulders down, or keeping them in a stiff position, you will have a constant load on that area, the area between the shoulder joint, up to the neck where the jaws are attached, just as you were lifting or holding a heavy object. So if you press the shoulders down or lock them in a downward position, you might think that you relax the shoulders, but instead you will create another tension in your body, tension that can give you problems with stiff muscles, jaws and give you a headache.
So when you move through your form, don’t be afraid to have a natural mobility in the shoulders. In daily life, try to relax you body, but don’t be afraid to lift your shoulders. Your neck posture, jaw position, shoulders, chest – all of these parts constantly shift their positions in daily life, as you move, look around, shift posture. They need to be able to adjust to each other naturally without you trying to force your body into this or that position. If you force your body, you will end up tensing your breath, tensing your jaws, feel uncomfortable in your body. Instead, let it all be and learn to let your shoulders and all of the rest of the body to relax in the way it wants to relax.