A little while ago I was following a group discussion on LinkedIn and a question about references to posture in Tai Chi classical literature arose. The question was something to the effect of: “In the Classics it says: the head should be stretched as if by a silken thread. But what use is that? What purpose does it serve?”
Several answers were advanced by people participating in the discussion which ranged from preventing a knock-out from an uppercut punch, increasing flow of chi/blood to the head to increase awareness in order to avoid a punch, and to improve physical stability.

I believe that all of these answers have merit but there seemed to be a lack of ‘big picture’ understanding amongst the discussion group as to why certain postures are adopted in classical traditional martial arts.

I have been very fortunate in my career to have trained under masters that have not only studied the classical literature and historical references to martial arts training, but have also understood them on a practical level. Martial artists like Master Chen Qing He and SiGung Marco Kavalieratos have made it their life’s work to understand how to apply the internal, hidden principles of martial arts training on a practical level in combat. It is because of the hard work and effort of these gifted people that I can answer the question that was posed in the discussion.

The other responses including being punched in the face are all correct. It is much harder to connect with someone’s head if the head is drawn in over the centreline instead of jutting out in the predominant Western aggressive stance. The reason is that this structural correction is part of the slightly hollowed, concave space which we create. This creates more space within our defensive and offensive structure that the enemy has to bypass before getting to one of the prime targets. This amounts to more chance of intercepting your opponent before they get to your head.

In addition, drawing the head back and extending up as if drawn up by a silken thread aligns the centre line structure which is the central axis about which attack and defence patterns orbit. This increases stability over jutting the head out and breaking the centreline structure. An opponent with the typical head-forward aggressive stance is structurally less sound because they are constantly compensating for the fact that they are over-balancing forward. They are also slower in changing attack angles and directions because they can’t efficiently change direction without drawing their centre of gravity back first and then changing direction and falling into another opponent.

A further advantage is that aligning the head and body structure helps to remove unnecessary tension from the body. Tension within your limbs and body interferes with the efficient transfer of force because your muscles are not all acting in concert towards a single goal. They are fighting against each other. Think of tension as bad connection in a telephone line. The more bad connections you have, the less likely your message is going to get through. In a typical head-forward aggressive stance, the muscles in the neck and back are generally constantly in tension to prevent the body from falling forward.

Proper alignment and control of the head is important in retaining overall stability. The head is a bit like the captain of a ship. If the captain has hit the grog and is wobbling all over the place while trying to man the tiller, the ship will be wobbling off course as well. The upper Dantian is located in the head roughly between the eyes. It has an important part to play in modulating and controlling power along with the action of the mid and lower Dantian.

There are other minor advantages but ultimately all of these are really positive side-effects of striving for a united response. This is only possible with proper alignment.

The overarching significance in stretching the head up as if drawn by a silken thread is in creating a fully-connected physical structure through which force can efficiently be transferred via the lower and mid Dantian and their interactions.

This kind of structural correction is one of the first steps towards developing a sensation of ‘Chi’ and how to manipulate it. The structure that we create is a little bit like cutting drainage ditches alongside a river or lake. Once the ditches are complete, the wall between them and the river or lake can be broken down and water floods into the ditches to irrigate a field. Without the ditches, the river can’t water the field.

Once your structure is starting to align properly, you will begin to feel how you can allow chi to flow into those established dynamic force pathways to create a much bigger effect than what is possible just using brawn. This is a long-term training investment as results do not occur overnight.

Written by Lester Walters, head of Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia