Wushuer, I haven’t really had a chance to address you directly on the Board since the Louisville seminar and just wanted to say that I greatly enjoyed meeting you and hanging out a little. With luck, we will get another chance in the near future and can further explore some of the things we have discussed on the Board.
You have asked an interesting topic on this thread. I do not have an answer to your query, but maybe had one strong reaction that I can share. I also might be able to set forth I quick sketch of what I guess to be some of the ideas behind the Yangs’ form design.
First, I think that it will be frustrating to look for the perfect postures or the perfect stepping techniques. I think that even the Yangs’ forms has a great deal more variation than is apparent on the surface and that they really give only minimum attention to “strong” configurations and “weak” ones outside of specific circumstances. As I am sure you noticed in the seminars, they often give qualified answers to questions aiming at absolutes. Everything depends on something else, and everything is the result of a compromise.
If you ask: “Is it better to lift the toe when shifting the weight rearward or is it better to leave the toes on the ground?,” I think you are asking an unanswerable question. If you ask: “Why would I leave my toes on the ground, or why would I lift them, I think you are asking a valid question.” The answer to this latter question, however, will involve a particular compromise of principles. In my view, valid training methods can arrive at different compromises and that is why forms differ.
Before giving my opinion as to the answer to your question, let me sketch what appears to me to be the theory behind the Yangs’ forms. This is, of course, only my own uninformed and possibly wildly incorrect speculation.
Two legs are better than one; therefore when all things are equal, stand on two legs. When you have something to do with one of your legs, stand on the other. When standing on two legs is dangerous or impractical, stand on one. When you stand on a leg, stand on the whole foot with the sole flat to maintain maximum traction and rooting possibilities. When you have something to do with part of your foot or when standing on the whole sole is impractical, stand on the ball, the heel, or the side of your foot. Lastly, unless there is a strong reason to do otherwise, standardize and simplify practice and leave variation for push hands and application practice.
Two-legged stances imply that both feet will remain flat on the ground, except in transitions into and out of them. The weight can be forward or backward. One-legged stances vary according to whether the empty foot is in the air, contacting the ground with the heel, or contacting the ground with the ball of the foot. Single-leg stances are generally less stable and less powerful than two-legged stances and so are only used if one leg will be busy in the air, if greater distance or mobility is necessary, or if the opponent is so close that one needs to keep one’s body at a distance.
In Roll Back, Repulse Monkey, Squatting Single Whip, and similar postures, I think that the Yangs treat the movement to the rear as simply a variation of a two-legged posture, where the compromise between stability and power is weighted towards power and against the need for increased distance or mobility. As a result, one keeps both feet flat on the ground. In Lifting Hands, Play the Pipa, Fist Under Elbow, etc., the emphasis is on swallowing the opponent’s power or closing distance suddenly; as a result, one-legged postures are called for. In the case of these postures, the empty leg does not show an explicit use, or else the implicit use implies contact with the floor. As a result, the toe (or heel) is lifted off the ground.
I do not know why other forms teach raising the toes. I can only speculate that they prefer training the feel of greater mobility or greater distance. I should stress that in the Yangs’ forms at least, one usually does not raise the toes so much as pull them up by moving the body backward and perhaps rotating the torso. Examples of this practice occur in the transitions between the 1st and 2nd and between the 2nd and 3rd Repulse Monkey repetitions, in the transition between Brush Left Knee and Needle at Sea Bottom, in the transition between the 1st and 2nd Golden Rooster Stands on One Leg, and in the transition between Step up to Seven Stars and Step Back to Ride the Tiger. It also occurs in the Sword Form (e.g., Phoenix opens both wings). Interestingly, the phenomenon does not occur before Play the Pipa or during the Low Posture/Snake Creeps Down/Squatting Single Whip (“Xia Shi”).
As one can see from the postures I have cited, “raising” the toes, implies a change in the position of the entire body and a different disposition of a whole series of joints. Whether and why one would want this different disposition is a separate question. I think the compromise reached in the Yangs’ forms implies a preference for “flat feet” whenever power is expressed with basically front-to-back or back-to-front movement. When power is moved vertically (upwardly or downwardly), one-legged stances are preferred, since horizontal stability is less of an issue. If you consider this, I think you can distinguish between postures like Snake Creeps Down, Roll Back, and Repulse Monkey and postures like Play the Pipa, Fist Under Elbow, and Needle at Sea Bottom. An apparently anomaly like Lifting Hands may also make sense, if one considers issue such as distance to the opponent or uses for the lifted foot either in front of or behind the opponents leg.
I hope this helps.