<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Instead ot tucking or drawing in the front hip, I then tried just sinking it - this appeared to gently allow the body to turn in the right direction naturally and felt much better.</font>
In my opinion, there is a split in the practice methods of the Yang Style community with respect to the issue of "sinking." I know people who disagree with this view and who seem to try to practice both ways simultaneously. I personally think people can get some profit from considering the approach of both, but will ultimately get better success focusing on one or the other.
One way, which I do not believe to be Yang Jun's way, is to maintain a strong "dance with gravity" and continuously cultivate a feeling of using only the minimal effort to hold up the limbs against gravity. You constantly try to cultivate a sense of gravity pulling you into the ground and sinking deeper into the joints. It is as if your body is hanging in the air from a coat rack from a few key points.
I think that what this method teaches is a keen sense of what your muscles actually need to do and what they do not need to do. I also think it can teach a fine discrimination of degrees of force and what it can do. Since I no longer practice this way, I will not comment on it further.
The other method, which I believe to be Yang Jun's method, largely ignores the feel of gravity as only a minor component of how the body needs to relate to itself. Basically, gravity is an important concern in maintaining overall stability and Central Equilibrium, but it is not a major regulator of tendon activity. For this purpose, your sense of opponent and knowledge of Jin points is much more important to determining what you need to do with your tendons and joints.
"Sinking the Qi to the Dantian" is, however, a very important concept and is where sinking come into prominent play in method two; however, this is largely accomplished by what is described in several of the Ten Essentials (e.g., hollowing the chest, sinking the elbows and shoulders) plus tucking in the tailbone in slightly.
The tailbone issue is where the hipsockets do become involved. Some people talk about sinking the tailbone, others about tucking it in. The issue is that you need a feeling of staightness in the spine that complements the feeling of pushing through the top of the head and emptying the neck. The two together allow the spine to assume a position where it can rotate more freely and permit your spirit to rise up.
By lengthening down the back from stem to stern, this allows the Qi to settle more easily down your front into your Dantian. From here, it can more easily be utitlized in all parts of the body than if it is stuck in your upper torso. If you allow yourself to have a feeling of a sway back, you tend to destroy these sensations.
"Sinking the Qi" in this sense is less a matter of "attititude" or general mental visualization than the product of maintaining a certain type of body structure and respecting it. It is not an advanced skill to be slowly developed over years, but rather something that should be engaged with during the first weeks of beginner practice.
Overall sinking has a role as a Push Hands tactic in certain situations; but in general, rooting is probably a more important concept than sinking in practicing the form, outside of the issue of sinking Qi to the Dantian.
If you follow method one, I think your tentative solution is probably the correct one. You may want to check on where you feel your knees are sinking to. Try letting go a little too much and see if you tend to become knock-kneed (which is bad) or if your knees tend to head toward your toes (which is good). You should also feel as if your torso tends physically to sink down stably between your feet through a fairly stable spinal and hip structure. If you are flexible enough, you would simply end up sitting straight-backed, but comfortable, on the floor with your legs around you like a spider.
If the method two floats your boat, I would advise not trying to "sink" your leg joints at all. Instead, cultivate dynamic tension between them so that both legs feel that they are swelling up with Jin and pushing against each other. Make sure your hip sockets are included in the feeling.
The level of dynamic tension and the extent of your muscular exertion, within reason, is ultimately irrelevant and not the point. It is not a direct expression of martial power, but rather a training method to cultivate internal connections and bodily unity. It is a way of feeling how the Qi and Jin can flow freely throughout your body and thread through all the joints.
The issue is to unify the legs so that the action of one is actively mediating the action of the other. Think of a wishbone. At the start of such practice, I recommend that people actually push quite hard, even to the level of developing some stiffness in the legs. Then, when the sensation becomes clear after awhile, the level of effort can be dialed back down to a more comfortable level. Taijiquan generally seeks a middle way, but it can be important to explore some of the territory near the ends of the Yin-Yang continuum from time to time.
It is also important to note that the level of the exertion in the legs should not be independent of the level of exertion in the arms. The swelling Jin should flow everywhere without comparmentalization, with a "pressure" that is reasonably even during barehand form practice. (The weapons forms and Push hands feel a little different for me, but should still respect the underlying principle.)
By doing the second method, you will feel your knees actively engaged all the time and can feel whether they really are orienting (Note that I do not say "oriented," which is a static concept.) toward your toes. In other words, you will know whether your mind is using the swelling Jin to expand them to help your lateral stability or weaken it. This is not a one-time thing, but something you should be during all your weight shifts and during the culmination of each posture.
You should develop a feeling of being wedged between the soles of your feet, as if your legs are poles being driven into the ground like stakes. Even though both legs "push," they push differently: the back one is "thrusting" and the front one is "propping up." Because of how your mind orchestrates the flow of your swelling Jin, your knees end up at different angles. It is not that you choose a particular angle for your front knee in advance and simply bend it to that point. You should also not just "lean" into your front leg and catch yourself at an angle that you prejudge to be appropriate. Because you are forming your shape with your swelling Jin, you can feel whether your front knee reaches an equilibrium of strength or weakness with respect to its position over its corresponding toes. You can, of course, look down and check with your eyes; but the real issue is an internal one of feel, not of copying and reproducing an external standard.
For both methods, you should do a check at the culmination of the posture to feel whether the positioning of your torso agrees with your understanding of the martial purpose of the posture. Make sure you know where the main Jin points of focus are and whether your torso is expected to be square to these points or open to the side. Your shoulders and hips may not have to be in perfect alignment with each other. You should feel comfortable, although method two will require you to maintain a sense of lengthening of all the tendons that requires some feeling of exertion.
Since I am sure that my frequent mention of exertion troubles some folks, let me again say that I think there are different practice methods and that mixing them is not a simple matter. Also, the level of exertion will vary throughout the Taiji curriculum, depending on purpose, experience, personal taste, etc., just as we vary speed in the curriculum. The main thing to remember is that large frame forms and practice methods are large for a reason and should not be compromised by continually looking for ways to minimalize them.
My personal observation is that beginners without martial experience hear too much about relaxation and under-exert themselves. This is like receiving a massage from a therapist whose hands are too light. You don't want to be stroked to sleep in the massage chair, but want to have your muscles unknotted through some reasonable pressure.
Some beginners who do have martial experience mistake the exertion as a direct calibration of martial effectiveness and misunderstand its internal purpose. This is like thinking the only good massage is where the therapist continually pummels you and you enjoy a feeling of relief when the beating stops.
Somtimes such people also get lost about wondering when to exert and when not to and whether cycling between exertion and muscular laxity has something to do with alternating between Yin and Yang, opening and closing, or empty and full. What I am trying to describe has nothing to do with these concepts at all.
I hope this helps.
Take care and good luck,
[This message has been edited by Audi (edited 05-25-2005).]