Finding the blind spots in your Tai Chi

high angle photo of mountain cover with clouds

Photo by Heorhii Heorhiichuk on

We all have blind spots. If you went outside and did your Tai Chi form right now I can guarantee you there’s a bit of it that you’ve never really paid attention to. I don’t mean something big, like a whole movement, but there will be lots of little spots which you’re glossing over your form without full awareness.

Try this as an exercise: Go through your Tai Chi form right now, but as you do each posture pay attention only to the way the joints of the body open and close. But here’s the thing – I’m not saying, make them open and close.

This is a crucial difference. If you try and make them open and close you just end up ruining your form, or being “too physical” as my teacher likes to say. Just use your awareness to be the silent observer of yourself as you do the form. And try and focus that awareness on the way your joints are opening and closing. Pick the easy ones to start with – the shoulder/hip, elbow/knee and ankle/wrist relationships. Try and see if you can maintain awareness of all 3 pairs and how they open and close as you move through the postures. The postures, done correctly, are designed to allow them to open and close – there’s nothing extra you need to add. If that’s too much too mentally juggle at once then just pick one pair to be aware of for the entire length of the form. Shoulders and hips is a good one. There are many more ‘joints’ to be aware of, of course, but that will do for now.

I don’t want to spoil the experience for you, so if you’d like to discover what this training method can do for yourself, then stop reading here and come back when you’ve done it.

view of elephant in water

Remember that joke – ‘Don’t think of an elephant’? This picture reminds me of that. 🙂               Photo by Pixabay on


Still with me? Ok, let’s go on…

What I find when I do this is that the simple act of being aware of something changes it, without me having to do anything. For me, this exercise highlights the areas of the form that I’ve been glossing over, and from that awareness, a new form begins, one that is more complete and better.

As the great Taoist sage Lao Tse wrote:


Can you coax your mind from its wandering

and keep to the original oneness?

Can you let your body become

supple as a newborn child’s?

Can you cleanse your inner vision

until you see nothing but the light?

Can you love people and lead them

without imposing your will?

Can you deal with the most vital matters

by letting events take their course?

Can you step back from you own mind

and thus understand all things? Giving birth and nourishing,

having without possessing,

acting with no expectations,

leading and not trying to control:

this is the supreme virtue.

In fact, that’s just one example, the whole Tao Te Ching is full of the benefits of this sort of  Wu-Wei “non-action”.

These blind spots in your Tai Chi are usually found in the transitions between what we think of as “postures”. The in-between bits. The space between the notes, as the great French composer Claude Debussy famously said, was where the music is found.

This discovery poses an interesting question not only for your Tai Chi, but for your life too. Where are your blind spots? What are you not really paying attention to? I think you know what to do now.

Let the Qi sink to the Dantien

split level photography of man underwater

That sinking feeling. Photo by Jeremy Bishop on

I’ve been doing some work with the Tai Chi Classics lately, which has thrown up an interesting point. There’s only one time the Tai Chi Classics mention the “dantien” by name, which is the admonition to  “Let the qi sink to the dantien”.

Instead, it uses the term “waist”, a lot.

I’ve been wondering why this is.

It’s not like the Tai Chi Classics don’t utilise archaic Chinese language – they do. They mention Chi, Jin, Xin, Shen and Yi all the time. But only that one line about the Dantien.

One of the most quotable lines in the classics is:

“The jin should be
rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
expressed through the fingers.”

Again, it says waist here, not dantien.

I wonder if it’s because “waist” gets across the idea that it’s the whole area of the abdomen that you need to utilise, including the front, sides and back.

The idea of sinking the qi to the dantien is another of those lines from the classics that is often stated and little understood. You’ll find a hundred different interpretations from a hundred different practitioners. So, I might as well add my own.

To me it’s not a particularly esoteric subject. It’s a practical consideration.

It simply means relaxing the upper body enough that your weight seems to settle in your lower body. Your breathing also lowers, as it relaxes, and becomes diaphragmatic breathing, so the abdomen expands and contracts as you breathe. There should be almost no expansion of the chest when you breathe like this.

With your breathing and weight settled around the dantien area you can sense a kind of fullness, or heaviness. Thus your “qi” is sunk to the your “dantien”. It should also help you feel calm. If you notice when you get stressed or anxious, your breathing quickens and raises up in the body. Sinking your qi to the dantien is the opposite of this.

In terms of martial technique, it helps you stay rooted. You’re using your mind to overcome a ‘fight or flight’ reaction. Of course, as soon as you engage with an opponent, the temptation is to react too physically with your arms and shoulders – this would be ‘letting the qi rise’ and the wrong thing to do from a Tai Chi perspective. Instead, you should maintain the sinking feeling in the lower body and try and stay calm and move from the dantien.

Sinking the qi to the dantien will always improve your technique, regardless of what it is, when dealing with an opponent.

two men practicing aikido

Sink your qi to enhance your technique. Photo by Anton Belitskiy on




Tai Chi: What moving from the dantien actually means

white ferris wheel under cloudy sky

“Stand like a perfectly balanced scale 
move like a turning wheel.” Photo by Paweu0142 L. on

Uber-malcontent Oliver Gerets, is back in my comments section, this time complaining that my statements are still oversimplified and misleading.” Which I think probably just means that he hasn’t bothered to read much of my blog before, as everything I said in the post he’s referring to on whole-body movement is pretty well explained in previous posts, if you want to look for it.

His issue is that I said the following were the 3 movement principles of Tai Chi, without further explanation:

1) moving from the dantien

2) power up from the ground (jin) – rooted in the feet, expressed by the fingers.

3) coiling and spiraling actions from the dantien out to the extremities and back.

He’s right – I did exactly that and moved on because I didn’t want to get sidetracked on them and get onto the main point I was discussing.  You see, I’ve gone over those points before, but we might as well use this as a springboard to discuss these ideas again and un-simplify everything. Just like Al Pacino in the Godfather – just when I thought I’d got out, but he pulled me right back in.

Let’s deal with Oliver’s first complaint.

1. There is no generally accepted definition what the dantien is amongst Taijiquan practitioners. Not even in Chen style. “Moving from the dantien” is a hollow phrase with very little practical meaning.”

I don’t know what he means with the “not even in Chen style” comment, so let’s ignore that.

I’d agree that there are no accepted definitions of anything amongst Taijiquan practitioners of what the dantien is, but there are no accepted definitions of anything amongst the practitioners. They’re a strange bunch of people ranging from weekend dabblers to full-on fanatics who have very differing views on everything under the sun, but the people at the top of the family trees tend to disagree much less. They all know what they mean.

I also think most Tai Chi people do know what the dantien is. For clarity, let me add my own definition:

The dantien I’m referring to is simply the lower abdomen area of the body. It encompasses the front, sides and back of the body. It’s a general area, rather than a specific point. When I’m talking about “moving from the dantien” I’m talking about movement originating in this area of the body. You could call this area the waist, if you like, so long as you understand that it’s not a line, like a waistline is. 

out of order text on persons belly

I’ve got no idea why she’s written “out of order”, but there’s a photo of the dantien area for you. Photo by Kat Jayne on

I’m not sure what more explanation I can give of that – it’s fairly simple.

The how of the matter is not so simple. Anybody can move that area of their body without any connection to the rest of their body – the limbs and head, for example. Dancers do it all the time. What’s hard is making it connect to everything else.

In Tai Chi you need a tangible connection between the dantien area and the extremities so that once you move the dantien area, the extremities are also moved as a consequence. This connection is formed by what the Chinese called the muscle/tendon channels in antiquity. These then formed the basis of the meridian system over time.

Mammals usually have muscle/tendon channels on the front and back of the body.  Yin channels on the front and yang channels on the back. They consist of muscle, tendon, ligaments, fascia and skin and can be affected by abdominal breathing (which is also centered on the dantien area).

If you can hold the body in a neutral position (the classic Zhan Zhuang posture “hold the ball” is good for this) then you can keep an equal tension on the front and back muscle-tendon channels. You can then use your breath to create a small pull on these channels when you breathe in and out. The connection starts off as very weak, but grows stronger over time.

So, Zhan Zhuang, Tao Yin and Qigong exercises strengthen this connection over time. Eventually, the connections get strong enough that you can affect the movement of the limbs with small changes in the dantien area, like rotating it left and right, or up and down, all in coordination with the breathing.

tiger stretching over brown trunk during daytime

A Tiger showing a stretch along the yin channels on the belly and a corresponding contraction on the yang channels along the back. Photo by Flickr on

In Taijiquan, (which deals with humans standing upright, not tigers), the dantien, legs and feet must form a connection and drive the power of the rest of the body:

From the Tai Chi classics:

“The feet, legs, and waist should act together
as an integrated whole,
so that while advancing or withdrawing
one can grasp the opportunity of favorable timing
and advantageous position.”

“The principle of adjusting the legs and waist
applies for moving in all directions;
upward or downward,
advancing or withdrawing,
left or right.”

Movement originating in the dantien, therefore, becomes a real, physical phenomina, rather than an abstract idea.

This is what I mean, Oliver.

The best exercise I’ve seen to help you develop this skill is a single-arm wave from Chen style silk reeling. In my original post I linked to a video showing the basic single arm wave. I’ll link to it again here.

In future posts I’ll address Oliver’s next 2 complaints.



How to get better at push hands

Today’s Tai Chi tip is all about how to get better at push hands simply by adjusting your posture.


Push hands should really be an exercise in which we get to test our ability to absorb Jin from an opponent and project it into an opponent as required, to uproot them.

It shouldn’t devolve into a pushing and shoving match to see who can ‘win’. Once it turns into that then I don’t think anybody is learning anything anymore. There are far superior methods of grappling and I think you’d be better off spending your time learning those if your goal is simply to win a grappling exchange.

But before we can focus on using Jin we have to get our body in a position where it conforms to the Tai Chi principles of posture, where we’re not fighting it all the time, and it’s working to our advantage instead.

It is said, “Jin does not flow through tense muscles

So, we need to get our body into a structural position where we can be as relaxed as possible, without collapsing, yet still maintain our connection to the ground. In Chinese terms you would call this a posture where your “qi is strong”, but you are not tensing muscles more than they need to be.

Of course, this optimum qi structure is one of the first things to go out of the window once we start push hands. In push hands we get to test our Tai Chi under a limited amount of pressure. Faults that lie dormant in the form rise to the surface like bubbles.

Here we’re going to go over a few.

1. Head position and leaning

Head position in the form goes hand in hand with the issue of leaning. Some styles of Tai Chi, like Wu style and Yang Cheng-Fu’s Yang style, opt for a slight angling forward of the torso in forward-weighted bow stances. Other styles like Sun style, Chen style and Cheng Man-Ching style all keep an upright posture as often as they can, even in front-weighted stances. (See pictures below)

But the thing is, all styles are upright in their back stances (or should be). And even styles that maintain an upright stance, have to lean forward to do throwing techniques that take the person to the ground like Needle at Sea Bottom or Punch to the ground, for example.

Here are some examples of different Tai Chi practitioners:


Chen Xiaowang, upright and stable.




Cheng Man-Ching, very upright.


Sun Lu Tang 2014-12-11 15-54-12

Sun Lu Tang, no leaning.


A variety of postures from Wu Jian Quan, showing sometimes leaning, sometimes not.

Yang Cheng-Fu showing sometimes a slight leaning, sometimes not.


I think it’s time to get to the point of all this:

It’s not the lean itself that matters.
It’s maintaining an unbroken spinal alignment that is the key issue!

All these practitioners have one thing in common, they are not letting their heads droop, and they are not looking at the floor when they don’t need to.

For example, when even a practitioner who is famous for his upright posture does Needle at Sea Bottom, he or she bends forward, she just doesn’t break the alignment of the spine.

Needle at Bottom of the Sea

Needle at Sea Bottom


The Tai Chi classics talk a lot of carrying the head as if “suspended from above”. If you let your head droop you break the spinal alignment. You are easy to off-balance in push hands because your posture is broken. But if you hinge properly from the hips then you can still keep this spinal alignment even when you bend forward.

Think of the spine as including the neck (which anatomically, it does of course). If the neck goes offline in relation to the spine then the weight of the head has to be compensated by muscles elsewhere in the body. And this extra tensing of muscles results in a less efficient transfer of Jin from (or too) the ground.

Because we are quite used to this happening while standing or sitting, we don’t really feel our head being off centre so much. Switch to working on the ground, in a yoga posture for example, and you can instantly feel the difference your head position makes.

On a technical level, if you are using Jin you should be able to let the solidity of the ground be apparent at the point of contact with the opponent. If you have to use too much muscle then your pure Jin starts to turn into “Muscle Jin”. Muscle jin, isn’t as adaptable to change as pure jin. You can’t easily change direction, for instance. It also just doesn’t feel as it should. It might help you win a push hands competition, but you’ll find it lacking when it comes to martial technique.

And when it comes to the thorny issue of leaning, I’d recommend trying to stay upright in push hands. As I said before, the leans you tend to see in Tai Chi forms are to do with the application of a technique. Sure, you can lean to apply power according to a technique (just make sure you keep your spine aligned) but for the usual back and forth of push hands I’d recommend trying to keep as upright as possible. You’ll find it gives you more freedom of movement in the horizontal axis.

If you watch this clip of Wang Hai Jun doing some push hands with applications in it, you’ll notice that he’s staying upright during the push hands, but he’ll lean to apply a technique:


2. Shoulder usage

I posted before about learning how to sink in Tai Chi Chuan. One of the benefits of sinking is that you can be powerful yet relaxed at the same time. Again, this is a body requirement for the use of Jin. I don’t really care about relaxing the legs so much (although see point 3 later on) they key thing is making sure that all the tension of the upper body is dissolved down into the lower body.

You want to feel like your upper body is empty, while your lower body is full. “Hands like clouds, legs like mountains”, is a phrase that springs to mind.

The big stumbling block here is always the shoulder. Either we use our shoulder too much, and the movement becomes local and isolated from the rest of the body, or we don’t relax it sufficiently, and it becomes a blockage to the smooth flow of power from the ground that you’re looking for.

One really effective way of bypassing the shoulder in push hands, and relying more on sinking and the power of the ground, is to imagine a tube that runs from your hand, all the way up your arm, and down your back to the foot and the ground. Imagine another tube for the other side of the body. Now, when you want to move your arm, you have to move the whole tube. Start your power at the foot.

Over time, once you get the hang of it, it will become intuitive to start to direct your ‘tube movement’ from the waist area, and ‘moving from the dantien’ starts to become your preferred method of movement.


3. Using the back leg as a brace

Another trap people fall into is using the back leg like a brace, held stiff against the ground. Again, this leads to muscle Jin, not the relaxed release of power we are looking for. If you engage in the push and shove type of push hands you typically see at push hands tournaments then this is a great way to win. Unfortunately, ‘winning’ makes no difference if your goal is to get better at Tai Chi Chuan.

Don’t get me wrong, a little physical scrap like this is good for you now and again, and it’s good fun to push yourself physically! But these days I tend to let BJJ rolling get that all out of my system, so I can focus more on developing push hands skill in the right way when I’m engaged in push hands practice. .

So that’s a bunch of stuff you shouldn’t be doing. But what should you be doing?

I’d put forward the following 3 suggestions. This is just my personal opinion, of course.

1. Posture, posture, posture.

As you push hands keep your focus on your posture. Mentally note when you lean forward, note when you feel unbalanced sideways. Stop looking at the floor. Look at the horizon, through your opponent. Note when your feet aren’t flat on the ground. Where is your breathing? Low down or up in the chest? I count breathing as a posture consideration since it will affect your posture.

2. Sink.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Sinking is the key to changing from using Li to learning to use Jin. Learn to relax the upper body completely and drop your weight into your lower body, then use that to power your movements.

3. Listen.

Once you are relaxed and able to sink your weight (Sung in Chinese) you should start to ‘listen’ – Ting Jin in Chinese. This enables you to detect where your partner is weak in their structure. How just a little push here or there will send them off balance. That’s where you need to start experimenting in your attacks.



Bad news people – Qi is not mystical


woman holding eye and concentrating

Magic? Or something else…

I read this in a blog post today:

“I remember one time when a student was showing a qigong posture she was taught from another teacher and spoke about how qi circulated through it. He adjusted her posture slightly and said “now you have qi circulation”. “

From here. 

When you read something like this I think it reinforces the incorrect idea that Qi is some type of etheric, mystical energy that rises in our bodies like steam and can be directed by the mind… (in fact, that’s what the article goes on to talk about)

Well, frankly, it isn’t. At least in the context of martial arts, it isn’t. Acupuncturists probably have a different opinion on that, but I’m not talking about acupuncture.

But at the same time, if you know what is meant by “Qi” (through your practical understanding) then that original sentence I quoted above does make sense. Let me explain.

You’ve got to remember that when a Chinese teacher talks about Qi in terms of martial arts, what they are talking about is related to your physical structure. The stuff that makes you up. Skin, bones, tissue, muscles, etc…

If you have “strong Qi” then it means you are physically strong. So, for example, a strong athletic young guy or gal would be described as somebody with “strong chi”. Usually, the posture is good, the eyes bright, the hair shiny, etc… These are all aspects of “strong Qi”.

A weak slumped, tired, or sick-looking person would be described as having “weak Qi”.

man old depressed headache

You, my friend, have “weak Qi”.

So, an old person could have either “strong chi” or “weak chi” depending on how they presented themselves. If you’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you’re doing well. Your Qi is strong.

close up photo of blue peacock

Strong Qi, or BDE as the Yooth say today…

In Tai Chi your Qi refers to your physical structure in a movement, as well as a special type of conditioning of the body’s structures that takes place through exercises like Standing Post and Silk Reeling. Through these exercises, you can strengthen the felt connection from your fingers to your toes – a kind of all-over body suit. It’s the strengthening of this ‘body suit’ that explains the circus-style feats of strength you see martial arts groups demonstrating. Things like throwing a needle through glass, bending a spear on your neck, being resistant to blades and breaking rocks with your hands.


I would not suggest trying these things at home! Sure, there are often ways to fake feats like the ones above, but there are also ways to do it correctly, utilising the conditioning of the body’s Qi.

Martial arts techniques in Tai Chi require two things – Qi and Jin. Here we’re only talking about Qi. I’ve talked about Jin before.

Qi (Chi) relates to structure. So, if you adopt a Tai Chi posture that’s relaxed, sunk, stable and strong (i.e. your structure is good), then you are “using your Qi well”. And it could be said the “Qi is circulating well”. (Actually, nothing is circulating in the sense of water in a pipe). If your structure is off in some way then it could be said that your “chi is not circulating well”.

So, if we read that quote again, with the new knowledge that it is to do with posture and structure:

“He adjusted her posture slightly and said, “now you have qi circulation”. 

Could equally be written:

“He adjusted her posture slightly and said, “now you have better structure”.

So, to me that means, he corrected some defect in her posture (say an overly tense lower back, or tense shoulders, for example), so that her “Qi” started to circulate – i.e. the posture regained its natural strength.

Sorry guys, but none of this has anything to do with steam or heat or a mystical energy in the body. But it’s so easy to assume that this is what is meant when you read quotes like the one above.

Especially once you add to that the fact that people can feel pretty much anything they can imagine. 


We all use Jin already, all the time


Chang Man-Ching using the power of the ground to uproot an opponent.

I’ve talked a lot about the idea of Jin on this blog, usually in reference to using the power of the ground in martial technique. However, talking about Jin only in this context starts to create the impression that it’s a special skill that you may, or may never acquire.  A hidden secret, almost. It might be more grounding (no pun intended) to consider that we all already use some aspects of Jin in every day life.

Take a look at the following photos of people carrying things/other people:

two boys walking beside the grass

Photo by Dazzle Jam on

man in black overcoat and blue denim jeans kissing while carrying a woman in pink overcoat and knit cap on shore at daytime

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on


two women wearing traditional dress carrying basins

Photo by Jose Aragones on


beach careless carry clouds

Photo by Artem Bali on


The photos of people carrying weights on top of their heads provide perhaps the clearest example of what I’m talking about, but I wanted to include the other photos too, because the same principles apply.

In all cases, the human body has the ability to manage the extra weight applied to it in a constantly shifting environment of movement, without you toppling over. The weight being carried is being sent to the ground in all cases. If you hold a heavy weight out in front of you it is much more difficult, because you have to use your arm muscles in isolation, but if you can simply add the weight to your own body and let the force pass through your body to the ground then it’s a lot easier to carry, especially over long distances. Your body/mind will automatically manage these forces as you move using your subconscious. If it wasn’t doing it then you’d simply fall over as you moved because you wouldn’t be adapting to the subtle shifts of weight.

The point about the subconscious doing it is important because it means your conscious mind is free to do other things. For example, you can carry out a conversation while carrying a weight on your head and walking, rather than having to concentrate on it with 100% of your mental effort.

This ability of the subconscious mind to manage these forces is what we call Jin in Chinese Martial Arts. So, when somebody pushes on me, say in Taijiquan Push Hands, and I send that push to the ground I am using some sort of conscious control over a normally subconscious-mind ability.

That’s the skill you need to train. These Jin skills can range from the simple to the complex, but it’s all based on using an ability we already possess and use naturally, without even thinking about it.

Jin, by definition, requires intent

Screen Shot 2018-08-26 at 7.18.57 AM

My post called Don’t put power into the form, let it naturally arise from the form got a few nice reactions, so I wanted to write a follow up because as always in Tai Chi, today’s epiphany is tomorrow’s half truth.

In the last post I was talking about how, if you let the power of the movements naturally arise, it just works, as opposed to trying too hard to put power in them, which always leads to you screwing it up. But that doesn’t mean that if you just sink your weight and relax that your Tai Chi will become naturally powerful all on it’s own. If you want to send force outwards using Jin you need to be consciously aware you’re doing it.

I was reminded of this recently by a post by Robert Van Valkenburgh:

Jin, by definition, requires intent. If you don’t know you’re doing it, how can you be doing it?

As I explained in the last post, using Jin (ground-based force) as opposed to Li (muscle-based force) requires a relaxed body with the ability to sink the weight down to the ground, so it can rebound into the hands.

What I neglected to mention was that if you just sink the weight downwards, then that’s the direction it will go. It’s not going to magically just appear in the hands. So how do you get it there? The answer is, using the Yi.

The Yi is one of those hard-to-define Chinese terms we so often come across in Tai Chi. The most general ‘catch all’ translation you find is “intent”. But you can also think of it as “the mind directed to do something” or “the mind directed in a direction”.

So how do you get the force of the ground into the hands? By using the mind to direct it there. In fact, you want to direct it outwards and past your hands and into your opponent. I like to think of directing it from my foot (the part of me that is nearest to the ground) all the way to the horizon, through my hands, when I do an outward expressive movement, and down and in towards my foot when I do an inwards movement.

Don’t think of the path of power ( a Jin path) as going up the leg, through the torso and then down the arm and out – trapping the mind inside your body like that will not help the energy go outside it, which is what you want.

So, don’t worry about the path it takes, just ‘think’ in a straight line from your foot to your hand and out. The Jin path you create with your mind usually goes from your foot, through the air (at some point) and to your hands and in a straight line, since that’s the quickest route.

In the picture of Yang Cheng Fu below you can imagine that the Jin path goes from his back foot to this hand like this:

Screen Shot 2018-08-26 at 7.18.57 AM

Jin path

So when you run through the form, your mind needs to be creating these jin paths as you practice. As well as you doing everything I said in the last post – relaxing, sinking the chi and coordinating the body so all the separate parts arrive together. That’s the Tai Chi form in action.

Of course, that’s a tall order, and I’d suggest that beginners who are interested in this type of training pick a favourite move (a simple Push movement is a good one) and just practice it over and over, paying particular attention to mentally directing the path of forces in the body.

Without a teacher who can show you what it feels like it will be a bit like fumbling for something in the dark when you don’t know what it is or looks like. So get out there, try and get ‘hands on’ with a good teacher and you’ll get a better idea of what it feels like. If you find somebody who can do this then you can recognise it. It doesn’t feel like normal strength.

Ken Gullette, whose book I recently reviewed, has a good video that I hadn’t seen before which I think can give you a sense of what you’re looking for – the feeling of the ball under the water. That’s the main thing to focus on in this video.

Once you understand this concept then some of the lines in the Tai Chi classics will start to make more sense. Like, for example:

“The jin should be 
rooted in the feet, 
generated from the legs, 
controlled by the waist, and 
manifested through the fingers.”

“All movements are motivated by Yi, 
not external form.”

“6.) Use the mind instead of force. The T’ai Chi Ch’uan Classics say, “all of this means use yi and not li.” In practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan the whole body relaxes. Don’t let one ounce of force remain in the blood vessels, bones, and ligaments to tie yourself up. Then you can be agile and able to change. You will be able to turn freely and easily. Doubting this, how can you increase your power?”

“The yi and ch’i must interchange agilely, 
then there is an excellence of roundness and smoothness.
This is called “the interplay of insubstantial and substantial.”


Book review: Internal Body Mechanics for Tai Chi, Bagua and Xingyi, by Ken Gullette

Screen Shot 2018-08-08 at 12.02.27 PM

Anybody who has attempted to learn Tai Chi in any depth instantly realises that the choreography of a form is just that – choreography – and that the devil is in the details. Internal Body Mechanics is all about the details: How you move, what you move and where you move it to.

It’s author, Ken Gullette is a veteran of the Internal arts, having started with Yang style Tai Chi way before China opened up to the West and before the Internet appeared. Over the years he’s trained with some of the best, especially in Chen style. He’s interested in the practical use of the internal arts as actual martial arts, rather than a method of communing with the universe, feeling your Qi or healing your body. While he’s been presenting this information in DVD and video format for years via his website, this book is his first attempt to capture the “body mechanics” of the internal arts in print.

Like most Western Tai Chi enthusiasts who started when Tai Chi was just breaking into the West, Ken inevitably ended up going down many dead ends before he could find good quality instruction, which is why he’s written this book. Ken’s ambition is to write a Tai Chi book that is all killer, no filler, which immediately sets him apart from 99% of Tai Chi teachers out there, whose books usually give you a lot of boring history and then try to teach you a form, which is impossible to learn from a book in the first place.

Instead, Ken is going straight to the meat of the matter, for which he deserves recognition and praise. Internal Body Mechanics covers 6 core principles of the internal arts:

  1. Centred stance and Ground path
  2. Maintaining Peng Jin
  3. Use whole body movement
  4. Use spiraling movement of silk reeling energy
  5. Internal movement and the Kua
  6. Dantien rotation

The book is structured so that one chapter leads naturally into the next, so once you’ve grasped one principle you are ready for the next one. The chapter on the Kua, how to open and close the kua, and what it is, is especially good. This is a tricky subject to convey in text and Ken does it through telling stories of training with Chen Xiaowang and quoting what he said to him during form corrections. I felt like I “got it” immediately. So much so, in fact, that when Ken used the posture “Sweep the rider from the horse” to demonstrate how Chen Xiaowang was saying people close the Kua “too much”, I immediately put the book down, tried out the posture and realised I was making the same mistake. There you go Ken – you got me! It’s not often you can instantly improve your Tai Chi and correct your form from reading a book, but Internal Body Mechanics proves it is possible.

The book also comes with a website containing videos of all the techniques and demonstrations that are pictured. Obviously a video is superior, but I found the pictures sufficient to get the points being made… except for the large silk reeling chapter of the book – that is where you’d really need to access the videos to ‘get it’ – especially if you’ve never done silk reeling exercise before. But the videos are not free – you have to pay an additional one-off fee to access them.

Qi and Jin

When you get down to the heart of the matter with Internal arts, I find that you are dealing mainly with two things: Qi and Jin. Because these are initially obscure Chinese terms, that don’t translate easily into English and require thought, experimentation and good teaching to master, they become the initial stumbling blocks for all Tai Chi practitioners. Ken spends a lot of the book dealing with the subject of Jin – with chapters on the ground path and Peng Jin specifically. He covers it really well. There are lots of partner exercises to try out that are illustrated with photos from his DVDs. Jin often accounts for the overly-theatrical demonstrations that Tai Chi ‘masters’ like to do on their overly compliant students at seminars, where they send them bouncing away at the slightest touch. Once you understand how Jin works you can see what is really going on, and it stops being so mysterious. Ken’s book will give you that kind of understanding.

It’s on the subject of chi/qi that I find I depart a little from Ken’s thinking. Ken has little time for mystical thinking on qi. By the time Ken gets to his Dantien rotation chapter he is slaying sacred Tai Chi cows like he works in an abattoir and the concept of qi takes a bolt through the head early on.

“As a 21st-century college educated American who applies critical thinking skills and expects evidence before I cling to a belief, there is no evidence whatsoever that our bodies contain Chi or a Dantien…”  – Ken Gullette

I’d agree with him on the critical thinking, but there’s always the danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater when this staunchly non-mystical approach is adopted. Especially when it comes to qi.

Is qi a mystic substance in our bodies, as some would like us to believe, or is it just a term that the ancient Chinese used to describe parts of the body that is still functionally useful when learning how to move in non-standard ways?

Ken sees the use of Qi and Dantien as merely useful mental visualization tools, so that’s the approach adopted in the book. He also dismisses the idea that you must control your fascia to control your dantien as “poppycock”. This pleases me, and I raised a wry smile as I’ve got into similar arguments with fascia fanatics on the Internet, who attribute almost magical powers to it. He’s right, of course – you cannot consciously control the movement of your fascia or skin, only muscles (let’s not get into the sticky issue of consciously making the hair on your arms stand on end or subconscious control of body functions). However, you can use your muscles to stretch both skin and fascia (and tendons and everything else)  to create a feeling of connection, and that feeling of connection can be slowly built up into something tangible that you can use to manipulate the body from the dantien area. To me, this is the real meaning of Qi, and means it still deserves its place in the creation of whole body movement.

So, while Ken’s Dantien rotation chapter is purely about manipulating the musculature in the area of the lower abdomen, which of course, it is, I’d also add in that you can also use it to connect to the arms and legs via this “qi” connection, which you can build up over time. I went over this idea in my video series, but anyway, I digress.


Ken’s approach is not that of an almighty Tai Chi teacher who is imparting precious wisdom to you, his lowly disciple, from on high, but rather, a healthy attitude of “we can all learn together” flows through the pages. You never feel like you are being preached at. Instead, you encounter a fellow traveler on the path who is as curious as you are to see what lies ahead. Most importantly, he wants you to avoid the dead ends he’s ended up in.

So, while I find myself at odds slightly with Ken on the issue of how Qi relates to internal body mechanics, I don’t find that stops me enjoying the book and learning from it. In terms of practicing Tai Chi as a martial art, grasping the idea of Jin and how to use the power of the ground in your techniques, not local muscle, is the most important thing, and Ken’s book excels in this respect.

It should also be noted that if you’re a fan of “martial” Tai Chi (like me) then you’ll love this book. It doesn’t teach you any martial techniques (that’s Ken’s next book, apparently) but everything is looked at through a lens of why this body method is useful for combat. I actually find that more valuable.

There’s not much Xingyi and Bagua presented in this book really, so while I appreciate the catch-all requirement of the title will widen the book’s appeal, it’s really focussed on Tai Chi, and Chen style in particular. Sure, the body mechanics of Tai Chi cross over into XingYi and Bagua, but the sayings of Chen Xiaowang to the author are repeated frequently through the book and this is really a detailed explanation of his Tai Chi teachings so I would have been happier if that had been reflected in the title.

Don’t let my minor points of contention put you off. This is one of the most practical books on Tai Chi on the market right now and you need to get it. It annoys me that there aren’t more Tai Chi books like Ken’s around that actually deal with the mechanics of movement that you need to develop for Tai Chi, and I hope that Internal Body Mechanics is the first of a turning tide, because the world needs more Tai Chi books like this one.

Ken’s blog:

Get this book on Amazon.

VIDEO: Yi Jin Jing – The Muscle Tendon change classic (Exercises 1-12 with full explanations)


Below is a nice explanation video of the Yi Jin Jing by Shi Heng Yi of the Shaolin Temple Europe,  recorded during a Qi Gong Retreat in July 2018 at the Shaolin Temple Europe located in Otterberg / Kaiserslautern in Germany.

I don’t practice this set myself, but I tend to think of it as a kind of expanded version of the Ba Duan Jin, a set I do practice. As with the Ba Duan Jin, you need to keep in mind the ideas of muscle-tendon channels, and the suit idea, when you practice all qi gongs. In fact, that’s exactly what the monk is explaining in the video – “when you do this exercise you must feel which part of the body it affects, which muscles and tendons it is stretching”.

Without the understanding of muscle-tendon channels and the suit, these are just repetitious exercises, but the understanding of what you’re looking for can transform them.

Here’s the explanation video:

And here’s the complete routine performed by Shi Heng Yi.

The 12 Exercise / Posture Names are:

1) Wei Tuo Presenting The Pestle (Frontways)
2) Wei Tuo Presenting The Pestle (Sideways)
3) Wei Tuo Presenting The Pestle (Upwards)

4) Plucking Stars On Each Side
5) Pulling 9 Cows By Their Tails
6) Displaying Claws and Spreading Wings

7) 9 Ghosts Drawing Swords
8) Placing 3 Plates On The Floor
9) Black Dragon Shows It’s Claws

10) Tiger Jumping On It’s Prey
11) Bowing Down In Salutation
12) Swinging The Tail