A look at the Cloud Hands movement of Tai Chi, and what it’s really all about
Cloud hands, or ‘wave hands like clouds’ as it’s also known, is one of those classic Tai Chi movements that characterise the art. It’s done in slightly different ways in different Tai Chi styles. Take a look at the variations:
Master Yang Jun, (Yang Cheng Fu, Yang style):
Master Chen Zhen Lei, (Chen style):
Master Sun Ping, (Sun style):
I’m not comparing myself to the masters above, but here’s a GIF of me doing it, since I have that on video I might was well add it to this post:
Me: (Old yang, also called Gu style)
As you can see, the Yang style is more of a vertical arm block, the Chen style is more of a horizontal elbow strike while the Sun style has the palms facing outwards. It’s a case of different horses for different courses, but while there are subtle differences between them, they all involve the common theme of stepping to the side while rotating the arms in circular motions (presumably like clouds on a windy day).
Martially speaking, I think of this movement as intercepting an opponent’s strike and throwing the attacker out, or applying a lock to their arm through the action of turning your waist. To the attacker it should feel like they’re putting their hand into a blender – it gets caught up and crushed and it shouldn’t feel easy to retract your arm once it’s trapped.
It’s easy for beginners to make the arms ‘flat’ in this posture – instead they need to be continually projecting outwards. I think of them as being like the antlers of a stag, or the branches of a tree – they grow outwards, and are slightly curved. If you’re going to intercept your opponents strike with this technique, then it’s going to help ‘catch’ their attack if the intent in your arms (your antlers) is to project outwards.
The real lesson of Cloud hands though is to turn the waist. It’s a common mistake to not turn the waist enough in Tai Chi, and I find that, for the beginning student, a breakthrough in this area often only comes about through a study of Cloud Hands as an isolated technique, repeated over and over. Notice that if you removed the stepping from Cloud Hands then it wouldn’t be a million miles away from the stationary silk-reeling exercises that go along with Tai Chi, with one hand performing a clockwise circle and the other an anticlockwise circle. Indeed, performing Cloud Hands repeatedly can serve a similar function to basic Silk Reeling exercises.
As it says in the Tai Chi classics, the body should be directed by the waist at all times, so as you turn from side to side in Cloud Hands (let’s not worry about the stepping for now) your arms should only be moving because your waist is moving. If your waist stops, then your arms should stop too. This especially applies at the crossover points, when you’ve turned all the way to the side and the arms swap position, so that the lower one becomes the upper one, and vice versa. This is the point that beginners usually drop the principle and use some isolated arm movement, instead of keeping it all coming from the waist. It’s usually a revelation to the student here that you need to turn the waist a little more than you think you do to keep it as the commander of the movement – you should feel this using muscles in your lower back you normally don’t reach.
Remember, in Tai Chi you’re looking to continually maintain a connection (a slight pull) from the toes to the fingers, with movement directed by the dantien like the spider at the centre of a web. If you keep this connection (or slight tension) and the waist control at these crucial crossover points in Cloud Hands then you’ll be well on your way to keeping it throughout your whole form performance.