The entire spine to the top of the neck must be held straight but not stiff. However, a common internal arts misconception is to stiffly extend the spine in order to eliminate the curves that nature intended your spine to have. While the area of the ming-men must be relaxed, the admonition to straighten the spine does not mean to "iron it out." The S-shaped curves are meant to provide suspension so that your structure is flexible and does not jar the brain and the internal organs with every step.
One of the most important rules of practice is han-shou, where han means containing something fragile or "holding it carefully," and shou means chest. As han can also means "swallow" or "inward" in Chinese, some practitioners have interpreted han-shou as bending or hollowing the chest inwards. However, according to some experts with real skill in both the Chinese internal arts and the Chinese language (thanks to Tim Cartmell), a more accurate interpretation of han-shou is to empty the chest or to let it do its job of "being empty" in terms of heart/lung function. If those organs are tight or constricted, it is impossible for them to work efficiently.
It is a gross distortion of the intent of the early masters to tuck your butt in forcibly and round the shoulders all the time while doing qigong or the forms. When you see real masters of this art—and of any martial art that can claim sound physical body mechanics—there is always a beautiful straightness to their posture. Strong but not stiff.
The lower abdomen should be like the chest—relaxed and empty—so that movement in that part of the body can be led by the back and the waist. Traditionally, this will make it possible to lead the Qi down to the tan-tien. Students through different exercises, depending on the style they are learning and the strengths and weaknesses of each instructor, will gradually develop an awareness of the spine being the controlling component of vertical circling.
The waist is in charge of horizontal turning and twisting, so it must be very relaxed and flexible and must not tip to one side (i.e., one hip mustn't ever be significantly higher than the other). The waist should be thought of as the crucial link between the upper and lower halves of the body. The old masters offered a valuable piece of taiji advice that is certainly relevant in bagua as we do it: "If the movement is still not correct after the arms and legs have been corrected, then the deficiency is probably in the waist."
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