The Mechanics of Three Nails 99
by William C. C. Chen
Rooting is everything. It is both a base and a foundation. It is one of the most
important things in life. A good building must have a strong and firm base. A
successful company needs a good foundation. A healthy plant requires a healthy
root. The excellent flow of Tai Chi Chuan movements must have a steady, firm
root. Without a strong root, the whole body will not be able to relax.
Relaxation is the ultimate goal for all Tai Chi Chuan players. Soft, slow,
gentle flowing movements require a strong and firm base in the foot. Once the
foot is firm, the other parts of the body can move freely and stay relaxed. The
foot's root itself should not be too relaxed or loose.
When the entire foot is rooted, the three points on the medial or inner aspect
of the sole are of particular importance. The first point is the big toe; the
other two points are on the inner part of the heel and the inner part of the
ball of the foot. These points are on opposite sides of the instep. I call these
points “the three active nails.” When the foot is rooted, these three points
grip like three nails penetrating the ground. In the movements of Tai Chi Chuan,
these three points are aligned with the weight-bearing centerline of the upper
body. They are very active and play a crucial role in our everyday movements. As
we walk, the root foot of the three nails propels the other foot
to make a step. They assist in serving a cup of coffee or tea, or even help our
fingers to turn a door key.
These three active nails appear to have the same consequential effect as the
three electron guns in a TV. Just like the electron guns that receive satellite
signals from a TV station and reflect the signals out to the TV monitor, these three
nails receive the signals from the series of memory shapes of Tai Chi Chuan in
the mind and transmit them through the thigh into the body.
If such that the slow movements of Tai Chi Chuan are the result of the three
nails transmitting signals from the mind to the body, then the three nails
should be in command of the body, not the waist. Although the waist is named in
the Tai Chi Classics as being in command of the body, it was only from an
external or the outer body’s viewpoint. It might have been overlooked or
not realized what was behind the movement of the waist. Especially since
activities in the three active nails are very little. It is hard to notice. Like
a little computer chip, the three nails have almost no movement. In the
movements of Tai Chi Chuan, one can see clearly that the waist turns, and body
follows; one might assume that the waist was in command.
My studies of body mechanics indicate that the three active nails actually
control the thigh, which controls the body. In the early 1960's, I sensed the
turning of the waist was controlled by the thigh muscles. At that time, I
thought the thigh was in command. As I practiced the slow movements, it appears
that the thigh muscles helped make possible the turns and moves. Not
until in middle 1980’s that I began to realize that the thigh itself has no
ability to make any moves or turns without the help of the foot which is rooted firmly
on the ground. Therefore, the rooted foot, and specifically the “three active
nails” are in control and energized; the fingers to move palms
and fists, and body follows.
The three active nails, or the points on the foot, form a plane that produces
stability under all conditions, and with all physical activities. Whether one is
walking, dancing, golfing, or playing tennis, the three active nails create the
necessary stability rooting required for the specific activity. Without the
ability to firmly root the three active nails, these physical activities could
not be performed.
The general opinion in Tai Chi Chuan is that one should root on the
“bubbling-well” point, which lies just lateral to the back of the ball of
the foot. The "bubbling-well" is a single point; the beginning of an important
meridian. It is good for the energy circulation, but not necessarily for
physical actions or movements. Based on Principles of mathematics and physics,
three points determine a plane, and three basic colors combine to make all
others. We need at least combinations of three elements, such as the three
active nails, to execute all different physical activities. The "bubbling-well"
alone is not capable of producing the movements of Tai Chi Chuan or other
Even though the root foot is firmly rooted on the ground, without the “Tan
Tien’s” support, the active nails will be inactive. The mind assigns the signal
to the nails, and the Tan Tien compresses the energy down to activate the nails. The
three active nails transmit the signals through the thigh to the fingers, palms,
fists or the other foot, wherever the actions are taking place.
A careful examination of the inner movements of my body, I have discovered the
hidden components, the “three active nails,” which can activate the thigh
muscles; the combination of muscles in the thigh can support joints in the leg,
and provide strength and stability for the body. They can bear the weight of the
body and provide power for such common sports as running, jumping, wrestling and
boxing. They are also able to help the knee and ankle to absorb the cumulative
impact of those activities as well as holding the Tai Chi Chuan posture and
producing the wonderful gentle movements. Among the muscles of the thigh, the
most important one is sartorius muscle, which is very powerful and the longest
muscle in the body. It begins from the pelvis, spirals down and across the front of
the thigh and along the inner side of the knee, and connects to the underneath of
In recent years, there are many Tai Chi Chuan players that have knee problems.
This may be the result of over-relaxation of the knee and collapsing and
sinking too much on the rooted leg. Without the countervailing support of a
firmly rooted foot, it places undue stress on the knee joint. Over time, such
over-relaxation or collapsing may lead to weakening of the sartorius muscle and
other related muscles which support the knee, causing them to strain to relieve
the pressure on the knees resulting from the weight of the upper body. Rooting
with the three active nails and allowing the signal to transmit adequate
muscle energy to protect the knee from the pressure caused by downward pulling
When the three active nails are strongly secured on the ground, the mind and body will be relaxed. In turn, a relaxed body with a peaceful mind will loosen the joints, softening the muscles, and will open all the vessels and meridians. That allows the inner energy to flow easily, and moves the upper body freely, without interrupting the root. The root will continue to stay firm and sturdy. It will achieve the soft, slow and beautiful fluid of the movements of Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan.
objective is to make Tai Chi Chuan easy, simple, natural, enjoyable and
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Last updated by FJP on: Tuesday May 5, 2009