The upsidedown world of Tai Chi

man performing handstand

Photo by Yogendra Singh on

I’d like to give a quick shout out to Cook Ding’s Kitchen who reposted one of my blog posts “Don’t Try“, which gave me the chance to read it again. It was about using less effort and not forcing things. Difficult words to live up to.

This started me thinking about one of the things that can help in using less effort in Tai Chi. A good trick is to turn our normal perspective on the human body upside down. We normally think of doing things with our arms and hands and don’t think much about the legs at all. In Tai Chi we want to reverse that.

If we watch a boxing match, for example, we tend to look at what’s going on with the hands a lot, since that’s where all the action is, and generally miss the subtle changes of the legs.

low angle photo of two men fighting in boxing ring

Photo by Sides Imagery on

Tai Chi is boxing with the legs: You use your legs like arms, and your arms like legs. When you’re doing the Tai Chi form, stop using your arms to ‘do’ things and put all your focus into using your legs to do it. It’s a bit like walking on your hands: your arms and legs swap their normal functions over.

When doing the form or applications, your toes grip the ground, your weight moves fully forward or backward on the feet (no wishy-washy stances floating about in the middle ground, please), you are sunk and slightly low in your stance so you can get fully into your legs. In contrast, the upper body should be empty. Relax. Let the arms go where they need to go, but don’t move them there deliberately. Let your legs, directed by your middle, do the work. Think them into position with a directed focus (yi).

The Press posture is a good example of what I’m talking about:


Yang Cheng Fu – Press

You put your inside hand on the outside arm wrist and push towards the opponent in a linear direction. Because you’re forming a particular shape with your hands in Press, it’s tempting to do this move with your arms cut off from the body. Instead, the power needs to come from the ground via the legs. Drop down and release from the dantien area to the ground and let the power of the ground rise up to the hands. Done right, you’re hitting the opponent with the force of the planet (jin), not just the force of your body.

As it says in the classics:

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


“The whole body should be threaded together
through every joint
without the slightest break.”


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





Peng, Lu, Ji, An: Grasping the bird’s tail

Teaching using Trigrams

Yesterday I taught the ‘Grasp Bird’s Tail’ sequence in the form. I don’t know why, but I drifted into talking about trigrams as I was teaching it. Trigrams are the series of three broken or unbroken lines that make up the Bagua and are usually associated with the ancient book of Chinese wisdom, the I-Ching, or “classic of changes”, which contains 64 hexagrams (two trigrams on top of each other).

This diversion into ancient philosophy is somewhat unusual for me, but not unheard of, as I usually don’t like to get sidetracked into theoretical discussions too much when I teach. I think theory has its place, but I’ve seen too many Tai Chi teachers who seem to need a whiteboard and marker pen to teach you how to throw a punch. The thing is, the trigrams aren’t purely theoretical to me, and they do have relevance to teaching and practical application, as I will explain.

The four fundamental forces used in Tai Chi are Pung, Lu, Ji and An, (usually translated as Ward off, Rollback, Press and Push) and are most clearly expressed in Yang style-derived Tai Chi forms in the section known as Grasp Bird’s Tail. Each of the energies has a trigram related to it for a specific reason.

Peng is three unbroken, or yang, lines: “heaven”
Lu is three broken, or yin, lines: “earth”
Ji is one solid, yang, line surrounded by two yin lines: “water”
An is “fire”, a yin line surrounded by Yang lines.”fire”

Heaven, earth, water and fire – four fundamental elemental forces.

Because of their symbolic makeup, the trigrams can help you understand what’s ‘inside’ the postures, and what makes them different to each other – what makes a Peng a Peng, for instance, and not a Lu? And how is that different again to a Ji? And how is An different again?

It’s about the feel of each movement.

For example: Peng is represented by three yang lines – this is maximum yang at its fullness. In this posture you should feel internally inflated – a positive, outward expression of energy at its maximum. That doesn’t mean it is “hard” – it is actually more like a large rubber ball – a springy kind of energy on contact.

Lu is represented by three yin lines. This is the most empty a posture can be, but again, it’s not lacking or depleted, it’s just empty. There’s still a structure, like the way a vase is empty in the middle. You are guiding force past you, without adding in your own force, but also without losing your own stability.

Then you get Ji and An, which mix both yin and yang lines. Ji is a solid yang line between two broken yin lines – the needle in the cotton. This is how the energy should be expressed in Ji – soft, but with a hard centre. Push is the opposite – it appears to be hard, but is open and empty inside, giving the push a warmer fire-like feel.

Again, we are talking about how each posture feels here, so words will always be inadequate, which is why the trigrams can be a useful visual symbol to represent the feeling of each energy and help you distinguish them.

The use of trigrams is not limited to Grasp Bird’s Tail. (There are another four in use in Tai Chi, which are further mixtures of yin and yang balances, but I often feel like the theory is being shoehorned slightly into Tai Chi to accomodate them into a nice neat number 8, as there’s no real reason to go as far as 8, and you could also go further.).

Once you can understand the feeling of the four energies in Grasp Bird’s Tail you can see how it applies in other areas of the form. For example – what energy do you want to express at the very end of Brush Knee Twist Step? Is it a Ji or an An with the projecting hand?

Well, the interesting thing is, you could do it either way, so long as you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Addendum: One of the joys of symbols is that you can interpret them in different ways. If what I’ve written goes directly against what your teacher has told you, then that’s fine – you can interpret these things in different ways. This is just the way I do it.

Threading into one

Let’s look at the Tai Chi Classic, attributed to Chan Seng Feng. We could spend the whole post debating who Chan Seng Feng really was, and if he ever really existed, but I think its better to hand that whole subject over to a qualified academic, so here’s Henning’s take on the matter.

What I’d rather be concerned with is what he, she, or whoever, actually wrote. In actual fact, as has been observed by many, from Wile to Wells, the documents that come down to us as the Tai Chi Classics, can be seen more as a revision of popular martial arts sayings and phrases that have been passed down over the years, rather than the inspired creation of a single author.

Marnix Wells' book Douglas Wiles' book

We can look at this more specifically with an example. The Tai Chi Classic, for instance, seems to be mainly concerned with the importance of making the body a unified whole “the whole body should be light and agile, _with all parts of the body linked _as if threaded together”, how this affects the sprit of the practitioner; “The ch’i [vital life energy] should be excited, _The shen [spirit of vitality] should be internally gathered” and how this is contributes to delivering (internal) power using TCC’s particular method; “The chin [intrinsic strength] should be _rooted in the feet, _generated from the legs, _controlled by the waist, and _manifested through the fingers.

It’s interesting to compare this classic to another body of older writing, the Ten Thesis commonly attributed to General Yue Fei of the Sung Dynasty. In the first of the ten thesis he emphasises this same notion of unity through what he calls “threading into one” (notice a direct comparison here with the Tai Chi Classic’s “as if threaded together”, and again later on “The whole body should be threaded together _through every joint _without the slightest break.

From Yue Fei’s Thesis of Integrity:

Although the postures cannot be classified, the Chi, however is, one. About what one means; from top to the bottom of the feet, internally there are viscera, bowels, tendons, and bones. Externally, there are muscles, skin, the five sensing organs, and hundreds of bones of the skeleton, mutually combined and become one. When struck will not open, when hit will not decompose. The top wishes to move, the bottom automatically follows. The bottom wishes to move the top will automatically lead. The center section moves, the top and the bottom will coordinate. Internal and external are combined, the front and the rear mutually required. This is what is called threading into one.”

So, you can see where these ideas come from, and also that they are not unique to Tai Chi Chuan. But to return the practical considerations, how should we ‘thread ourselves together’ during the Tai Chi form? And what does that really mean? The answer is to do with timing and co-ordination. As the Tai Chi Classic goes on to say:

If correct timing and position are not achieved,
the body will become disordered
and will not move as an integrated whole;
the correction for this defect
must be sought in the legs and waist

If you go to strike in, say, any of the punching moves in the form, or do one of the ward-off movements, without co-ordinating the body correctly your motion will be ineffectual. There are plenty of martial arts that can use the arm in isolation to deliver effective strikes, however Tai Chi Chuan is not one of them. To do things properly in a Tai Chi way you need to move your body as a single unit into the strike – power comes from the ground up through the legs, not from just the arm, as it says earlier in the Classic:

The chin [intrinsic strength] should be _rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
manifested through the fingers

To do that you must co-ordinate the body correctly. If your body has become disordered – say, you move your weight forward in your stance to early, ahead of the punch, then you can’t do this. And as I said in my previous post, the source of the problem is usually found in the legs and waist.

Lee’s Modified lists 10 essential co-ordinations for Tai Chi Chuan. The basic external ones being:

Shoulders co-ordinate with the Kwa (inner thigh area)
Elbows co-ordinate with the Knees
Waist co-ordinates with the Neck (turn them together when turning the body)
Tailbone co-ordinates with the Head (keep them in alignment together)

He doesn’t add the popular ‘hand and foot co-ordinate’ saying, but you can add that one in as well if you like, so that his theory aligns with the popular ‘6 Harmonies’ theory using in Tai Chi Chuan, XingYi and Bagua.*

As you perform your form you need to check that you are co-ordinating the body in this manner correctly. It helps to have some feedback from your teacher at this point, but you can also observe yourself to some extent through your feelings. Does it feel like the power is coming up from the ground and into your hands on each of the moves? To get this sort of feedback you need to be very honest with yourself. If you delude yourself that you’re doing it perfectly then you may be in for a shock when you try to apply your power on somebody else, and it has little effect!

* It’s my personal belief that he left out ‘hand and foot co-ordinate’ deliberately, since Tai Chi Chuan’s way of moving doesn’t always land the hand and foot together in the same way you see in the 5 Elements of XingYi, for instance – quite often in Tai Chi Chuan you step out with an ’empty’ foot, then move your weight to it once it is in position. However, if you consider this transfer of weight as the co-ordination of the hand and foot, then the same theory could be said to apply.