Suspending the Headtop

For those of us who are in Mr. Lo’s lineage, we know his five basic principles. One of those principles is “Keeping the body upright”, which summarizes several important principles in Tai Chi. Of the ideas it encompasses, perhaps the most important is “suspending the headtop”. This is called out in The Classics in the ‘Song of the Thirteen Postures’1: “To make the whole body light and agile suspend the headtop.” Also in The Classics, it’s the first of ’Yang’s Ten Important Points’2: “The head should be upright so the shen (spirit) can reach the headtop. Don’t use li (strength) or the neck will be stiff and the ch’i (breath) and blood cannot flow through. It is necessary to have a natural and lively feeling.”

So, what does it mean to have “suspended headtop”? The idea is about much more than just the top of the head. It involves organizing from the crown of the head through the neck and the entire torso. With “ears over shoulders” to ensure we don’t have our head jutting forward, we relax nearly all the muscles of the neck, shoulders, and torso. Simultaneously, we engage two groups of core muscles, the erector spinae3 and multifidus4 that run along the spine. Doing so allows us to ‘lift’ the head, gently straightening the neck and spine while opening the joints between the vertebrae and allowing our shoulders to drop and come a bit forward. This helps open up the area between the shoulder blades, called the chia chi (jiā jǐ). It also helps relax the low back and abdomen, allowing the pelvis to rotate without using force and leaving the top of the sacrum pointing straight up with the coccyx pointing forward.

Cheng Man-ch’ing wrote5: “The head should be upright. The eyes look forward and the attention should be directed inward. […] Sink the shoulders, drop the elbows, and depress the chest. […] From the sacrum to the top of the head the i (mind) and ch’i (energy) should be connected. This is the ‘suspended top of the head’.” He also emphasized just how important this is6: ”[The] most important process in T’ai Chi Ch’uan besides the tan t’ien is that ‘when the sacrum is straight, the shen (spirit) goes through the top of the head’ and then you ‘suspend the strength to the top of the head’.”

And lest we ignore this, Wolfe Lowenthal wrote7: ”[Cheng Man-ch’ing] once said you could practice for 30 years but if you did not pay attention to the top of the head suspended from heaven, your practice would be wasted.”

1 The Essence of T'ai Chi Ch'uan - The Literary Tradition; Annotated Edition; page 74
2 The Essence of T'ai Chi Ch'uan - The Literary Tradition; Annotated Edition; page 103
5 Cheng Tzu's Thirteen Treatises on T'ai Chi Ch'uan; page 114
6 Cheng Tzu's Thirteen Treatises on T'ai Chi Ch'uan; page 96
7 There are No Secrets; page 54
† If you have questions about Chinese terms used, you may find About Chinese Terms helpful.

This is part of Thoughts on Tai Chi, a collection of writings exploring various aspects of Tai Chi. If you know someone who would enjoy reading it, please forward it to them.

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