Stepping or controlled falling?

‘Tai Chi walking’ is a frequently used phrase, yet the actual mechanics of the movement are quite unlike normal walking, which the Chinese describe as ‘controlled falling’.

As soon as a Tai Chi student hears the word ‘walking’ he/she will instinctively move from one posture to the next the same way as normal walking….by ‘controlled falling’. So to disassociate ourselves from this method of movement, the term Tai Chi stepping will be used.

The bio-mechanics of normal walking involve extending the leg forwards with body moving at the same time and in the same direction, then body weight + gravity result in the heel striking the ground. The Chinese description is absolutely spot-on – normal walking really is controlled falling. However, this is not the way in Tai Chi – we should NEVER fall onto the heel.

Walking slowly up stairs is the only similarity between ‘normal walking’ and Tai Chi stepping – the foot is carefully placed before the body moves and weight is transferred to the front leg. However, when going down stairs, the mechanics are exactly the same as normal walking – controlled falling.

What we’re dealing with here is the concept of ‘dynamic posture’; stability and balance whilst moving. We tend to think of ‘good posture’ as something that is static, but it also relates to movement….. being balanced and stable whilst moving from one position to another….being in total control of our body.

So, if we ignore the notion of ‘walking’ and just focus on the principle of ‘stepping’ we’re all sorted aren’t we? Unfortunately not. There is still another action of ‘normal walking’ well programmed into our brains…. taking as big a stride as possible. The Tai Chi beginner will still try to do this even if concentrating on stepping carefully. The result is far to big a step and the only way to reach the floor is….. controlled falling. Thud.

So, if we attempt a smaller step and think about the mechanics of going up stairs, waiting until our foot is in place before moving forward and transferring weight into the forward leg we should be able to perform ‘Tai Chi stepping‘ with awesome smoothness and fluidity, shouldn’t we?


There is another habit that many students get into and a principle of Tai Chi stepping they forget. A step can only made correctly (i.e., the floor reached by the heel without falling) if the supporting leg is relaxed, and the student has ‘sunk’ down. What often happens is that the student rises up, straightening the leg before attempting to step. When the supporting leg is straight, it is impossible to reach the floor with the other heel without…..controlled falling. Thud.

Tai Chi stepping must always be ‘thud-free’. Total control of movement at all times, and constant smooth pace throughout. Certainly no momentary speeding up due to controlled falling.

Falling when walking is losing control for a moment. So perhaps when describing normal walking as ‘controlled falling’, it should be considered ‘falling-out-of-control-but-getting-it-back-when-landing-on-the-foot’.

What surprises almost all Tai Chi students when attempting ‘Repulse Monkey’ for the first time is how much easier it is to step backwards is a smooth controlled way. Moving forwards should be exactly the same. Unfortunately, these well-programmed embedded habits of normal walking keep rearing their little heads (or feet).

Next time you walk upstairs slowly, remind yourself that this is how Tai Chi stepping should be performed, and when you go downstairs, remind yourself that this is how Tai Chi stepping should not be performed….controlled falling.

It’s a matter of timing.

Up stairs = Foot placement first, body movement second.

Down stairs = Body movement first, foot placement second.

Tai Chi stepping is the former…Up stairs…Foot placement first, body movement second.

NEVER at the same time.

So with this new movement technique now firmly focused in our minds, Tai Chi stepping should now be an absolute doddle shouldn’t it?


There’s one more embedded habit that is highly effective in normal walking – putting our leg/foot forward in the direction we intend going, and facing the same way, tends to get us directly to our destination. Unfortunately, doing that when performing Tai Chi stepping can result in the essential width of the bow stance being lost (and sometimes, body turning ignored altogether). Tai Chi stepping is done to the side, not to the front, so maintaining width of the bow stance. (Read the article Active and passive movement’ for more details about other problem issues affecting this, and how to turn correctly:

The method of advancing in Tai Chi stepping is more like zig-zagging – similar to a sailing yacht tacking through a head-on wind to reach its’ destination.


  • Step as going up stairs slowly
  • All weight in supporting leg
  • Stay ‘sunk’ into legs
  • Don’t straighten supporting leg
  • Place heel carefully
  • Don’t fall onto foot
  • Smaller steps than walking
  • Step to side, not front
  • Don’t stay faced forwards
  • Constant smooth pace – total control

Watch this video clip of the first half of the Yang Beijing form to see these techniques more clearly:

2 thoughts on “Stepping or controlled falling?

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