What makes Tai Chi, Tai Chi? One of the things you often hear said is that whole body movement, or whole-body coordination, is what makes Tai Chi different to other kung fu styles. How this is interpreted in Tai Chi Chuan, however, seems to vary slightly, moderately or even hugely depending on the style of Tai Chi you’re watching or doing.
I was scrolling through the excellent 1932 book by Chen Ziming (I’ve discussed this book before) on Chen style small frame called “The inherited Chen family boxing art”. I did a search of the text for “whole-body coordination” and it appeared 34 times! That gives a good sort of indication on how important he thought it was to his Tai Chi Chuan. In fact, the phrase “The entire movement must have whole-body coordination.”, appears in almost every single description of a move in his form.
Earlier in the book he lists the key points of Tai Chi boxing and says:
 WHOLE-BODY COORDINATION
Your four limbs and hundreds of bones are to be moving cooperatively. This is called “whole-body coordination”. Hence in Taiji Boxing: “When one part moves, every part moves, and when one part is still, every part is still.”
He’s quoting “When one part moves…” from the Tai Chi Classics there. But what does he mean?
In some styles of Tai Chi the footwork is lively and continually moving. Wu (Hou) style springs to mind as a good example. In others, there are moments where the practitioner seems to almost stop in a semi-static posture for a moment or two – Chen style springs to mind. It’s therefore no surprise then that people’s definition of what “whole body movement” actually is can vary considerable.
It clearly doesn’t mean that the feet have to be moving all the time. My belief is that it’s more to do with engaging the whole body in a movement – think of the difference of lifting a heavy weight with just your arms, or getting your whole posterior muscle chain involved with the movement, all the way down to the feet. A Judo hip throw is a good martial example. When picking up a heavy object (like a spear) it’s more obvious when you are engaging the whole body and when you’re not. With a solo bare-hand form it requires an extra level of awareness to discern if you are engaging your whole body, or not, in a movement. You can essentially cheat because with no weight to carry, there are no consequences to using local movement. This is one of the advantages of practicing archaic weapons forms, even in the modern age – they give you direct feedback on your whole-body coordination.
On a more subtle (esoteric?) level, whole-body movement can refer to dantien controlled movement, as often exhibited in silk reeling exercises. This is where you’re controlling the extremities (the limbs) by subtle movements from your dantien. This is a step beyond simply activating the posterior muscle chain in a movement, it’s a different way of moving altogether, and well worth investigating. Find out how to do it here.
Whether you subscribe to the belief that a dantien exists, and can be used to control the limbs, or not, you’ll notice that Chen Ziming only listed whole body coordination as one of the key points of Tai Chi boxing. There are others – 10 others in fact. All of which are worth noting too:
Key Points for Taiji Boxing
 The Nature of the Art
 Sequence of Training
 Whole-Body Coordination
 Switching Techniques & Transitional Movements
 The Body Performs & the Mind Ponders
 Do Not Be Greedy or Rash
One thought on “Whole body movement”
My teacher, Chen Zhonghua, is controversial for teaching “don’t move, only rotate ” when doing taijiquan. Part of this was his training with Hong Junsheng and Feng Zhiqiang, but his emphasis of this comes from trying to teach students exposed to the misinterpretation by the taiji community of “When one part moves, every part moves, and when one part is still, every part is still.” Most of the students that come to him have had exposure to taijiquan, so when they start learning the Chen form, they noodle all over the place, violating one of Chen Ziming’s principles in a previous list “Order, or True principles” (translated as “Organization”).
To counter this, CZH started telling students, “Only move this one thing. Don’t move anything else.” Then, as they start understanding rotation, he tells them, “Don’t move at all, only rotate.” In biomechanical terms, he is saying, don’t “translate” only rotate. Then, their challenge is to find a whole-body connection and coordination, but humans already have a natural familiarity with this, and it extends naturally from rotation. It is much easier to grasp than attempting to still the body while rotating.
A more literal translation would be “In taijiquan, the whole moves. There is nothing not moving. The whole is still. There is nothing not still.” But, this is taijiquan, it is supposed to move continuously with no starting or stopping, “flowing like the Yangtze River to its end. ” Furthermore, “In movement, there is stillness, and in stillness there is movement,” So interpreting the double negatives out, “In Taijiquan, the whole moves without stillness, the whole is still without movement” – these juxtaposed yin/yang states exist at the same time, taiji. This can only be done with rotation.
When we rotate, everything moves in that rotation, except the imaginary center(s) of rotation. This cannot move, or at least, it should not. If it does, it weakens the torque of the rotation. We see this correctly applied in the biomechanics of elite athletes. Approaching the point of energy or force transfer, they gather their energy often through a series of rotations into a final rotation, they freeze a center of rotation, maximize the energy and transfer it. Inferior players don’t quite get it, but in top players, it is always the same, throwing feet planted, throwing in the air, batting, playing tennis, golfing, etc. So, taijiquan is teaching the superior biomechanical method.
Teaching that taijiquan is only rotation is not unique to the branch I practice. Each teacher of Taijiquan has his or her own teaching methods, but in Chen Taijiquan, at least, all teachers, regardless of branch, eventually must teach the principle that in taijiquan, there is only rotation. As Chen Xin said, “Taijiquan is the art of reeling silk.” That is, rotation on rotation on rotation.
I expect most taiji practitioners when they read this will balk at the notion, as did I. Conceiving taijiquan as only rotation is very different from what most practitioners have been taught or have devised, but if one reads the Classics, and Chen Ziming’s book, with this concept in mind, they make a lot sense. Keeping the concept in the back one’s mind during practice, it is likely that you will eventually see it, and this will start the process to help you reach a threshold to make a quantum leap in your ability.
Finally, as Graham points out, this is an important key point, but not THE key point. It is only one of several.
Practice diligently, practice deliberately, and enjoy!
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