The basics of Tai Chi movement

How to move in the Tai Chi way

We’re in a strange situation where the vast majority of people who “do Tai Chi” are performing some kind of elegant, slow-motion movement ritual, but without the required ‘internal’ body movement. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this, as most of the benefits Tai Chi can give you – like relaxation, better breathing, suppleness, improved general health and flexibility – don’t really require ‘proper Tai Chi movement’. If you’re up and you’re moving then you’re doing your body more good than everybody left on the sofa. This is particularly important for the elderly.

But what do I mean by ‘required internal body movement’? Well, I’m talking about how your body forms the posture of Tai Chi – the movement you use to get into the various postures and flow between them. By default everybody uses a kind of normal human movement – the sort you use when you reach for something in the cupboard, or when you are tidying up a room. You don’t think about it, you just do it. And it’s the same with performing a Tai Chi form. If you’re going to do White Crane Spreads Wings then one hand has to circle up, ending above your head, and the other hand has to circle down, ending near your hip. Like this:


The question is, how did the hands get there?

With ‘normal movement’ we just do it – our brain tells the muscles what to do and they do their thing, in the order and manner they’ve been working in since we were babies.

In Tai Chi we need to repattern the way our body moves to adopt the ‘internal’ model of movement. This involves creating a sense of connection from the toes to the fingers (like you’re wearing a suit), along which you can feel a slight stretch, and then keeping this stretch as you move, while powering and controlling the movement from the dantien and legs, not from the shoulders. In fact, the shoulders shouldn’t be actively doing much at all – they should act as conduits for power, not generators. There are other additives that are used to generate movement, but those are the basics.

It’s a lot easier to practice this sort of movement in a simple controlled way than it is to jump in at the deep end with a Tai Chi form and all the variation it offers. To help you do this, people have created are what have become known as “Silk reeling exercises”.

There are a ton of these on the Internet to watch and follow along with, but like most things of that nature, it’s not the exercise that’s the important thing, it’s how you do the exercise. Luckily, Mike Sigman has recently produced a couple of new videos that not only show the exercise, but also show how you are supposed to do them.

Take a watch, try them out, then see if you can repattern the way you are moving in your Tai Chi form.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to talk about Silk Reeling without getting into some of the style wars within Tai Chi. Silk Reeling is often though of as the preserve of Chen style Tai Chi, and that in other styles of Tai Chi they do something else. You can do you own research on the matter, but the conclusion I’ve come to is that all the various ‘tricks’ that you learn in Tai Chi (like bows, or rotation or sinking and rooting) are all different facets of silk reeling, and you can therefore save yourself a lot of time by just adopting the model wholeheartedly.

Here’s a link to an article on the Yang Family website extolling the virtues of silk reeling and why it’s so useful. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about why it’s up there.

As it says in the article:

“We need to understand the requirement to ‘link everything together’. Not only does moving energy require going through all the joints, it also needs to be sent through the muscles and sinews above and below the joints. This is the function of spiralling silk reeling.”

So, to return to the aforementioned Crane Spreading its Wings – this is how you get your hands to circle up and circle down. Now you just need to go and practice it.

6 thoughts on “The basics of Tai Chi movement

  1. You can’t do Taijiquan without the whole body being connected together with the muscles, bones, tendons, etc., but also with the qi-tissues that respond to the subconscious. All of the “visualize this”, “visualize that”, “walk like moving in water”, etc., should have told any astute observer that the subconscious and involuntary-muscle systems were involved. Call that last bit “qi”.

    But the alignments of the qi are what give us the jin forces and every movement is a combination of qi and jin, although the Chinese will say “use qi and yi” to mean the same thing. You can’t move this system adequately without using the dantian pulling on the connections of the body. If someone can do this, they’re not going to get into semantics about “silkreeling”, “Six Harmonies”, and so on … it’s all the same thing and they’d know it.

    The broader point is that you cannot do Taijiquan without the movements and connections (and jin) and that fact is supported by writings in both the Chen-style AND in the early Yang-style writings. So if you really do Taijiquan, you move using the dantian. Right there I’d stop and ask some of these western “Tai Chi teachers” to show us a brief video of them doing their Taiji with slow, exaggerated dantian controls. 99% of them can’t do dantian control of their bodies, but they’ll tell you all day how much they know about theory.

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  3. Fair enough – I think I am trying to see the wider picture. I agree with much of what you say as you’re being far too reasonable for my taste. Because I have never properly done Chen style, I really focused on Chansi for a while, researched practical method got some from teachers too, you know.. I understand what you’re saying but I’m not sure why you think it’s the “right” name.
    You’ve been reading too much Sigman, a lot of his words and phrases come out. That’s all fine, but I don’t associate “six harmony movement” with anything other than what it means for example. Sure it’s all a part of the same thing in the end, but why confuse the issue by using one of them for the complete thing.. And I think that’s one of my issues with this discussion we’ve been having. On one hand all these terms do describe distinct things in of themselves. I don’t really agree with all this lumping together. It is semantics, but that stuff being separate and clear can be really important to clear understandings of things and learning them in what I think is a more ‘pure’ way; Building blocks that come together to form the house – maybe that’s a good analogy. How they are different and then how they can all come together. Maybe, it’s a preference thing and I’m happy to leave it at that. . I think there are more suitable monikers for the whole body movement method than silk reeling.. How about “tai chi” ha!
    No but really.
    If someone looked up silk reeling on you-tube and found the exercises they might think oh check it that’s the complete method of movement and force generation/ mechanics in TCC. That’s so far from it all really though.
    For a while I did entertain the same notion – especially when I have focused on it in form and exercises, so I can’t stress enough that I get it. But I do feel it’s important to have our semantics and descriptions correct mainly because these arts can get so confusing, More-so for people starting out, different styles doing different things. For example I have heard it that Peng is/comes from Chansi, comes from it’s training etc. this is what is stated in Hongs book on practical method more or less. I’m sorry but there is more to Peng training than that in my opinion, I have done that kind of training – and maybe they just hadn’t… yea I know how that sounds. But I think I have been exposed to enough varieties of it to say the preceding bit with confidence. And please none of that,”but you haven’t done the real chansi training!!”
    Obviously I’m going to say, it’s been more than adequate!
    These days I think it’s fair to accept each and all styles as valid, and to see that they have pushed some things to the forefront others haven’t. I’m not entirely sure why, but it could have been something of a conspiracy so the major styles all had their own USP. That’s a hard pill to swallow maybe, it’s just impossible to know. But it does strike me as being all a bit too neat and tidy and odd with it. I think my choice of trying to take a less partisan and more all inclusive approach is the better one. But damn if I wouldn’t say that. Jesus this post has gotten ridiculously long.
    thanks, bye mate.


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  5. Hi George,
    As we’ve said before, I think it’s largely an issue of semantics. I think if you get away from the politics of styles, of Silk Reeling being a Chen style thing, I think you can start to see that it’s the name for the whole thing we’re trying to do in Tai Chi. So, “6 harmonies movement”, “internal strength”, “neijia”, or “silk reeling” are all just words for the same thing. Sure, you can do parts of it – open and close, for example, on their own, but you’re “leaving money on the table” if you stop there. But people are attached to “styles”- if their style doesn’t do all of it, then they’re happy to stop with whatever piece of it their style specialises in. I think you need to step back and see the wider picture.


  6. Yea, because tai chi should be all about “saving time..”
    Truth is different styles have different ways of systemising, practicing etc.
    Some styles have made “open-close” the central theme
    or fundamental of movement. They all still contain silk reeling..
    A prime example of this is Sun style re. Open-close being more prominent.
    It’s even called Kai-he Taiji sometimes. The silk reeling is not as present or elaborate as Chen style.
    But then Open close is not as present or elaborate in Chen style in my opinion.
    In much of todays Chen style everything becomes a sub set of silk reeling so therefore can never be developed in it’s own right to it’s full potential as they are elsewhere.
    Take the Ba-men for example – there is a lot of rich and layered material out there that is not connected to silk reeling or chansi one bit. The ba-men and the 4 primary ‘energies’ are often at the forefront of Yang style teachings.
    None is right or wrong, they are simply doing “their style” of the same thing, their way.
    Using a systemisation they feel serves and describes their style of taiji best.
    Sun Style came from Wu Hao which came from small frame Chen.


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