Written 20 Feb 2019

Yang 40 Stroking Bird's Tail

Way weider than 24

Stroking Bird’s Tail is always a lot of fun. I think it might be one of my favorite moves in Yang style, and it’s uniquely distinctive across styles. That being said, it’s a lot easier to learn the 24’s version of it that the 40’s.

It’s not that it’s harder, so much that it goes in so many different directions.

As a result, I think it’s imporant to understand something of the context surrounding this movement. We are, of course, beginning from the end of Commencement - facing north, and evenly spread across our hip-width stance. The move is going to be turning us East, stepping North in bow stance, and turning/stepping East once more before settling into a more familiar Bird’s Tail sort of rhythm.

As a result, the steps are a little unpredictable.

1: Ward-off to the East

The “opening” for this movement is a shift out of the comfortably balanced stance we start in. The weight shifts left, freeing up the right foot to turn Eastward at about a 45ish degree angle. It’s not so much a step outwards so much as a readjustment of the foot’s position.

  • As a side note, here - we’re going to be stepping into the rear of our bowstance that we’ll be headed North with. It strikes me as an unusual way to construct a bow stance, and I can’t recall similar constructions in either the 24 or 42.

At the same time that the right toe begins to turn out, we’ll begin moving our right hand. The position we’re aiming for here is a single ward-off to the East. It never quite feels like a straight line to get it there - with the turn of the torso involved, there’s something of a curve on the hand’s upwards trajectory. Don’t feel the need to overconstrain your movements.

The ward-off position is something we’ll be coming back to throughout this movement, so it’s good to get a handle on it straight off.

  • The hand should be about heart-height - take care not to bring it either too high or too low. The elbow should be heavy, as always, and the shoulder should not rise during this ward-off.
  • The hand should also be a comfortable distance from the body. Too close doesn’t provide adequate protection, and too far overextends the defense and straightens the joints. I usually settle into a ward-off position that’s about as far from my sternum as the length of my forearm.
  • Finally, the hand itself should be mostly vertical. We’re making a wall here, not serving a platter. The length of the hand, the axis running wrist-to-middle-fingertip, should be horizontal.

Once we have our right foot prepared, and our ward-off in flight, we’ll be turning the torso as we shift weight into the right foot. Our hand should find its new home slightly before we shift weight entirely into our right foot.

The coordination of the feet and hands is tricky, but important.

It’s tempting to break the move into a feet-than-hands view, or vice-versa. However, it’s key to remember the movement principles of Tai Chi. In this move, movement is initiated by the Dantian, before flowing outwards to its expression through the movement of the right hand upwards into wardoff and the turn of the right foot.

Ultimately, it’s the weightshift that’s moving the hands here. Play it a few times, and if your hands are getting ahead of you, dial it back.

2: Ward-off to the North

As we finish our ward-off to the east, we’re going to step north with our left foot and ward off with the left hand. To reiterate an earlier point, this step is going to form the front of a bow stance. The rear of it - the right foot - is already in place from our first step East.

Once again, the weight shift is important for this step in particular. We want to make sure we’ve entirely shifted weight to the right foot, which will work almost automatically in our favor. The left foot should come easily off the ground before we place it North of us. It’s not a particularly large step, so feel free to keep it small and comfortable. Bear in mind to keep a channel between the feet. Soon we’ll need that lateral freedom to move

The right hand, while we’re stepping, is simple. It’ll drop from its ward-off position down towards its home, at the right hip.

3: Double Ward-off to the East

This particular shift is a bit tricky. It’s not something I’m familiar with from either the 24 or 42, though it does resemble the 42 enough to trip me up.

Once we have our ward-off firmly in place to the North, we’re going to be turning the torso to face East once more. We’ll leave the hands more-or-less in place as we do this, though the gaze will turn Eastward during this shift. It’s a reasonably small turn, perhaps 20 degrees, and doesn’t have much of an accompanying weight shift. Take care not to exaggerate the move - overdoing it will feel quite unpleasant in the knees.

After re-orienting ourselves, we’ll be stepping Eastward with the right foot into what I tend to think of as “Stroking Bird’s Tail Proper” - a habit I carry with me from the 24 forms. Once again, this will be into a bow stance, or near enough, as we’ll readjust the rearward left foot to be in a more comfortable position once we’ve shifted our weight off of it.

The hands for this ward off are a bit more interesting. By the end of it, we’ll be stepping out into Stroking Birds Tail with a double ward-off. The left hand will be palm forward, with its fingers pointing upwards, and the right hand will have its palm facing the body with the fingers pointing off to the left. Both will be at about shoulder height.

As you recall, we’ll have the right beginning down near the hip, and the left will be about shoulder height. Stepping out with the right will trigger both hands to begin their movements. The left hand will have a reasonably restrained rotation - simply reorienting itself from horizontal to vertical. The right hand will have a bit of a trip to make, as it sweeps up to join its partner.

4: Stroking Bird’s Tail (Proper)

Yes, it’s a rather biased name. Don’t pretend it isn’t how you think of it, though.

From here, it’s all very similar to the Yang 24 style of Stroking Bird’s tail. We:

  • Shift our weight forward, and press forward with our double ward-off
  • Open the hands - right palm out/down, and left up/in - and shift weight backwards, drawing back into the rear foot
  • Turn our torso to the left, and allow the left hand to rise up the side of the body to (about) heart-height.
  • Turn back to the front, rejoining the hands in a double ward-off pressing forwards as we shift forwards
  • Part the hands, palms down, and let them ride back as we shift our weight backwards
  • Drop the hands down to the lower Dan Tian
  • Shift forwards, pressing the fingertips forwards and up

There are a few things of note here. First off, and most annoyingly, is that the Yang 40 does not lift the toe when clearing from Stroking Bird’s Tail. Compared to the rest of the movement, it’s an utterly insignificant stylistic choice, but also the most rankling to get wrong.

The rest of the notes would fall under the banner of “Good Tai Chi Principles”. You should mind your weight, and make sure not to overextend when pressing forward with ward-offs. Bear in mind the frame of your body, and don’t overextend your arms on ward-offs or when raising them up the side of the torso. And, again… keep the toe down.

The Yang 40 Series

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