The slowness of Tai Chi Chuan gives me a clear, understandable signal and a better sense of the interior movements in my body‘s interior moves. There is a strong connection between fingers, big toes and inner thighs, all of which work together as a unit. I am blissful that I have been teaching and learning this sophisticated art of the slow movements on a daily basis for over 60 some years.
This article focuses on the role of the fingers in Tai Chi Chuan, and shows how these basic principles can be applied to sports and other daily activities. We say that which means that there neither a hand nor arm moves in Tai Chi Chuan. The fingers lead all movements. “The finger muscles have far more representation in the motor cortex than do the muscles of the upper arm.” (Basic Human Physiology by Arthur Guyton, M.D. 1977)
The above pictures show the sensory and motor cortex, known as “sensory homunculus” and “motor homunculus”, as studied by Dr. Penfield. They show that a large portion of the human brain is devoted to controlling the movements of the mouth, hands and fingers. (Courtesy of Canadian Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction.)
The mechanics of our fingers are a work of art. The fingers have remarkable representation in the cerebral cortex, which provides for better control over the isolated muscular movement. The fingers are the proper instruments for Tai Chi players; when the fingers are energized they form the palm as they move into a Tai Chi posture while the arms and the body stay relaxed.
The fingers are part of the mind. When we talk our fingers move. When we are angry our fingers clench and tighten. When we are relaxed or falling asleep the fingers are released and soft. Fingers are the will of life; when our life ends the fingers flatten and cease their movement.
We are blessed that our hand, with its five brilliant fingers, enables us to write, type, communicate, gesture, grab, build up civilization and much more. When practicing the hand form a Tai Chi player keeps the arms and body relaxed and uses the fingers to drive the palm or fist.
When the martial artist punches the fingers lead the knuckles. Athletes need fingers to swing golf clubs, tennis rackets and baseball bats. Basketball players use their fingers to throw the ball into the basket. Musicians require fingers to play their instrument. The swimmer, Michael Phelps, touched the finishing line with his finger to win and achieve his eight gold medal records at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The functions of the fingers are varied: open fingers to form a palm, closed fingers to make a fist. Extended the fingers move the palm out for receiving a gift or pushing something away; and we clench our fingers to grab. We raise our thumb when showing approval or when we feel something is good; and we turn our thumb down for rejection or bad. In China a person lifts the pinkie finger to indicate that someone is cowardly or stingy.
The five fingers are controlled by two different major nerve systems. The median nerve located at the base of spinal cord activates the index finger, the middle finger and the thumb. The pinkie finger and the ring finger are connected to the ulnar nerve, which comes from the neck and runs down the arm and through the elbow. These fingers, which are controlled by two separate nerve systems, represent two different functions.
The median nerve triggers the index finger; the middle finger and the thumb to boost the Chi flow for an action. The index finger is the most active finger of the three fingers, which I label the “the index fingers”. The ulnar nerve activates the pinkie finger and the ring finger to defuse the Chi and set up for action. The pinkie finger is more active than ring finger. I call the “the pinkie fingers” or “the pre-action fingers“. The transmission of these signals originates directly from and to the brain.
When we turn or rotate the pinkie finger and the ring finger, the body relaxes, the feet flatten, and the inner thigh muscles are released. This is a pre-action or the setting up of an action. When we spin or twist the index finger, the middle finger and the thumb, the feet fasten or press onto floor while the body becomes substantial and the inner thigh muscles are contracted. All this is the body in action.
The pinkie fingers ‘turn’ and the index fingers ‘spin‘. Turning sets up leverage for spinning. Turning is negative, Spinning is positive. Without the turning it is difficult to produce the effect of spinning. Spinning must be initiated by the ’pre-action’ of turning. These are natural phenomena. This unique pairing of negative and positive actions in the five fingers is based on the universal principles of “Yin” and “Yang“.
These mechanics of the fingers movements are used in our ordinary daily activities, although it seems that few people pay much attention to the significance of their movements. When we want to unlock the door and we insert the key in the lock there is an automatic reaction lifting the pinkie fingers as the big toe and the inner thigh muscles are released. The following actions of the big toe pressing down, the inner thigh muscles contracting, and index fingers ‘spinning’ the key to unlock the lock are barely noticed.
We can see the same dynamics in the kitchen, where the pinkie fingers help lift the knife and the index fingers do the cutting, with the same coordination at the toes and the inner thigh. The pinkie fingers release the big toe and de-contract the inner thigh muscles. The big toe pressing and contraction of the inner thigh follow the action of the index fingers. The action of the index fingers always follows the pre-action of the pinkie fingers.
In bowling, the three holes in a ball are usually for the middle finger, ring finger, and thumb. Keeping the index fingers on front of the ball allows them to lead during the action of bowling. Keeping the pinkie finger on the back of the ball helps in setting up the action for bowling (the ‘pre-action’). Before we bowl the ball, the pinkie finger turns and rolls back towards the hip, and then the index finger spins the ball forward to bowl.
As competitive swimmers prepare to dive into the pool, they move their hands back by their hips as the pinkie fingers turn out. Their inner thigh muscles and their big toes are loosened. At the moment they dive into the pool, the big toes spin off the starting block, as the inner thigh is contracted, as the index fingers spin and lead into the pool. This understanding of the two finger workgroups applies not only to the movements of Tai Chi Chuan – it can be applied to golf, tennis, baseball and all other sports.
As golf players swing the club to strike the ball, they apply the pinkie fingers to roll the club around to the back of the neck, and they release the breath outward to relax muscles and decompress the Chi in the body. This loosens the inner thigh muscles, allowing the body to twist and wind up as the leading foot flattens fully and softly to the ground. When the big toe presses the ground, the intention of the mind pressurizes internally and energizes the Chi as the index fingers swing the club to strike the ball.
The same mechanics are used to swing a golf club, a baseball bat, or when slamming a tennis racket to serve the tennis ball. The swift action of the tennis server makes it difficult to distinguish the mechanical actions. The player leaps into the air as the pinkie fingers roll the racket back. This is followed by the index fingers spinning the racket to serve the ball at speeds exceeding 120 miles an hour. The impact force is triggered by and comes from the index fingers, not from the arm. The index fingers are the “Will“ of the power.
Delivering the first two knuckles of the index finger and middle finger for a punch makes the perfect alignment with the large radius bone of the forearm, while closing the gap on the pinkie finger side of the wrist joint. This alignment firmly connects the wrist to the arm to meet the target resistance. Since the punching surface of the four knuckles is curved, it is difficult to use all the knuckles at same time. These first two knuckles are the right choice for punches avoiding injury to the wrist or fingers.
There are three segments in the index finger and in the middle finger, only two segments in the thumb. In anatomy the first segment of the fingers closest to the knuckles is called the “proximal phalanx”. It is the “brain” of the hand that is the control and command for action. This first segment of the index fingers directs the knuckles for a punch, which is faster than a clenching fist and then punch.
The significance of the fingers can be seen in the delivery of a punch. When the pinkie fingers turn, the mind and body relaxes, the Chi flow decreases, the inner thigh releases, the feet flatten, and the big toes and the index fingers are supple. The big toe then presses, triggering the inner thigh, boosting the Chi into the index fingers as the fingers drive the knuckles to deliver a punch. Throughout this process the arm muscles are not activated. If we clenched the fingertips, we would activate muscle tension in the arm and the motion would be rigid and slow.
The world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao’s outstanding swift punches were credited to his body reflexes and loose arms. His soft and frictionless arms result in quick punches like a machine gun resembling a silk flag slapping back and forth on the top of a building on a windy day. It is difficult for his opponent not to be defeated. I sense that he applies the index fingers to deliver the knuckles for his punch, keeping arm muscles loose, and creating super-fast punches.
It appears that the gold-medalist swimmer Michael Phelps activated his index finger to touch the finish line and win. It’s possible that his opponent raised his hand and extended his fingers to touch the finish line, causing a split second delay and the loss of the medal, even though he was ahead of Phelps. This is the same as directly delivering the knuckles for a punch, which is faster than making a fist and punching.
I am happy that at the age of 78, I am still able to maintain fast punches. I can deliver the two knuckle punches without clenching my fist and retain my body and arm muscles loose with no friction. Then I activate the first segment of the index fingers flick my knuckles out into the action. I never clench fingertips’ to make a fist for the punch.
A few years ago, a mugger attacked my daughter Tiffany Chen, on her way home from the grocery store. It was around midnight on Bleecker Street in New York City. In one hand she had a grocery bag as she was talking on her cell-phone with the other hand. She slammed her knuckles into the mugger’s head with the cell-phone in her hand and knocked him two feet away onto a parked car, which dazed him for couple of seconds, and then he fled. After reporting it to the 6th Precinct, she described to me how her knuckles punched with the cell-phone in her hand and that she remembered a demonstration I did in which I broke two boards with my knuckles while I had a raw egg in my hand, and the egg remained undamaged.
Professional fighters in the ring have difficulty clenching the fingertips because their hands are wrapped with hand wraps. In addition, new gloves make it difficult to clench the fingertips; they drive the knuckles out for the punch, which is the normal way. The first segment of the fingers flips the knuckles directly into the action and the frictionless loose arms enhances the speed of their punches.
Speed is power. Doubling the speed is four times the power. Speed is created from pressure changes of energy. Pressurizing energy is preparation for an explosive motion. The velocity of a bullet depends on the explosive force in the shell. The exploding gas pressure occurs within a split second of firing the bullet, resulting in the more explosive power and the greater speed.
High-speed punches require stronger arm muscles, tendons and ligaments to withstand the impact. Arm muscles can be compared to tires for a car. There are many size of manufactured tire. Thinner and smaller tires are suitable for small lighter cars. A thicker, bigger tire is designed to protect fully loaded large cars or trucks against the strong impact of a rough road with potholes or bumps.
Even though a human arm is not the shape of a car tire, it can be thought of as a rubber tube. A larger arm ‘tube’, which has bigger muscles, is able to withstand higher impacts. A thicker walled hose can withstand a higher water pressure than a thin walled hose. Analogously a martial artist should develop strong-arm muscles, tendons and ligaments to counter the strong powerful impact. This requires lifting weights, doing pushups or punching a heavy bag,
A Tai Chi martial artist should be able to control the Chi pressure level as well as dealing the arm muscles to make them very soft to very hard and back to very soft. One moment the arm is soft like cotton and the next moment as hard as steel. One minute it is smiling, and the next minute it is furious. The classics say that one second there is still like a mountain and the next second there is in motion like a waterfall.
“Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river.” Lao Tse. The changes of coming and going are triggered by the electrical impulses that come from the nerves.
As the first segment of the index fingers flips the knuckles out for the punch, the arm muscles remain soft and flexible, enhancing the speed of the punch. It is the powerful impact at the target that triggers the instantaneous reflexes of the arm muscle to become hard enough to meet the resistance. After the punch the quick release of the compression causes the arm muscle to change back to being as soft as cotton. These changes, from soft to hard and back to soft are manifestations of the Tai Chi principle of Yin and Yang.
The rate the Chi compression changes in the easygoing Tai Chi movements is very modest. The pinkie fingers relieve the Chi compression to dissolve the posture and then the index fingers amplify the Chi compression to form a posture. From the beginning to the end of the posture, the small increase in Chi compression is barely noticeable. Therefore, people may not recognize the changes of Chi compression.
The degree of the Chi compression changes in the index fingers depends on the pace of the motion. Quicker motions require additional compression. The same degree of changes in the arm muscles is required for impact resistance. The more impact force on the knuckles, the more resistance the arm muscles provide. The application of compression and relaxation in the leg muscles is similar to the arm muscles.
Think of fast track runners. They propel the loose leg forward, without any anticipation of the leg muscle tension needed for the impact. The leg muscle automatically flexes to provide a proper tension at impact, while it propels the other running leg. The same is true for the natural way of running down stairs. The leg muscle reflexes adjust to provide the muscular force needed to absorb the impact. This is the same as a knuckle punch. The moment of impact triggers the arm muscle reflexes to meet the resistance.
The mechanism that triggers the arm muscles to meet the resistance is like the force of the explosive release of an air bag in an automobile. A collision instantly triggers the air bag, which pops up to protect the driver’s head from colliding with the windshield. The pressure of the air bag is not adjustable. If it is too hard, it may injure the driver, sometimes even killing a young child. The human muscles tension reflex is more controllable than an air bag. The arm muscle tension adjusts to what is needed.
In my observation of routine weight lifting, the Chi compression presses into both index fingers to lift the weight upward, as the arm muscles hold the resistance against the weight. The Chi compression and arm muscles are working as a team. Chi is for action and arm muscles are for supporting the action. It is the same as the air pressure in the tire that lifts the wheel up from ground: the tire is holding the air pressure between the wheel and the ground.
Chi compression and the arm muscle tension complement each other. If we have Chi without muscle tension, it is difficult to stand up or to keep balance. This is like a ball without enough air pressure. It can be easily flattened. Too much muscle tension of the arm will make the whole arm rigid and clumsy, which slows down the speed of the punch. Too little chi compression will decrease mobility in the body and our movements will be lifeless and lacking in spirit.
Practicing the slow motions of Tai Chi Chuan is an unhurried and non-impact action, the slow motion releases energy from the pinkie fingers and gradually escalates the Chi compression with minimum effort. The graceful and effortless flow of the soft palms and relaxed fists weaving throughout the entire movement is like a flowing cloud in a calm sky.
There are two complementary actions of the fingers. The index fingers conduct the energy for an action while the pinkie fingers releases the energy, and sets up a pre-action. A pre-action is set up in order to accommodate the upcoming action. The pre-action is a reaction to an action, without the pre-action it is difficult to have next action. The spinning of the action fingers requires the pre-action as a wind up: this is a perfect example of the activity of “Yin and Yang“.
This article may raise many questions. The functioning body is extremely complex and Chi compression is still a mysterious process. Revealing the abilities of the fingers to deal with martial art sports as well as physical fitness is a positive fact. These ideas will trigger the public attention or awareness of the existence of the intelligent five fingers. Since it’s important that “we see something, say something”, I feel that “I feel something, write something”. It’s good to arouse these thoughts and generate further investigations.
I would like to thank Michael Heinz, Tina Leung and many other members of my school for their help in reviewing and editing this article. Drawings for the illustrations are credited to Jack Chu.