Whole Body Power, or “threading into one” in Xing Yi

The Xing Yi classics don’t tend to get as much play as the Tai Chi Classics, perhaps because they’re not as easy to read and ramble a bit, but they’re older, and as every good Confucian scholar knows, older is better!

The origins of the writing known as the Xing Yi classics is uncertain, but they’re often attributed to the Song military hero Marshall Yue Fei who is also the apocryphal founder of Xing Yi. Many people dismiss him as the originator of Xing Yi, thinking of it as merely a folk tale, but as our History of Xing Yi podcast series is trying to show, while there is no literal teacher/student line that traces back from modern day Xing Yi practitioners to Marshall Yue Fei, there is a history of ideas that can be traced back.

Qing Dynasty portrait of Yue Fei.

But however the Xing Yi Classics came down to us, they have been hugely influential, so can’t be discounted. Pretty much all the manuals written about Xing Yi from the high point of the martial arts manuals creation period (the Republican era) quote from them extensively. So, if you want to find the source of the ideas that have seeped down into modern Xing Yi – things like elbows protecting the chest, all parts moving together, or all parts remaining still together, the six harmonies connecting and coordinating the different parts of the body together – they’re all here. And I think that the XingYi classics have been hugely influential on other internal martial arts, like Tai Chi. The Tai Chi Classics use similar phrases and ideas all the time. The Xing Yi classics are where we get our ideas of what makes internal martial arts different to external martial arts from because they contain the important idea of “Internal and external are combined, the front and the rear mutually required. ” And this was written long before people had heard of Tai Chi (Taijiquan).

I don’t read Chinese so I’ll point you to one English translation that’s available online. I don’t have any strong opinion on this being better than other translations, it’s just available. There’s one done by Yang Jwing Ming that’s also good.

Over and over the classic, which contains 10 ‘songs’, talks about how to coordinate the body so that a kind of whole body power is being delivered. Because of the amount of writing about it in the classics (including Tai Chi Classics), we have to assume that this ‘whole body power’ is not just a trivial, or easy to do. And if it was then I’d see a lot more people doing it, and I don’t. It’s hard to get a foot in the door of whole body power, and it’s even harder to do it very well. 

Being relaxed and not overly tense is important for whole body power, and I think Tai Chi is very good at teaching that, but the footwork tends to be lacking. Xing Yi is good for teaching you how to move with this whole body power. A lot of the Xing Yi classics are devote to talking about stepping.

But over and over, the overarching theme is of unifying the body, of “threading into one”. This is the whole body power that internal martial artists seek.

“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.” – Thesis of Integrity from Mike Patterson’s website.

If you’d rather have somebody demonstrate the concepts contained in the Xing Yi Classics than read through them, then I’d recommend this new video by Byron Jacobs – he talks and demonstrates the content very well here:

The Tai Chi Classic [Part 2] – a new interpretation

The Tai Chi Classic [Part 2]

Attributed to Chang Sanfeng (est. 1279 -1386),
interpretation and commentary by Graham Barlow.

girl thumbs through the old book

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com


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

[Yi is usually translated as “intent” and refers to the mind. It doesn’t mean ‘your intent to do something’ – a closer English translation of that would be “will”, and it definitely doesn’t mean what a lot of people end up thinking it means, which is your intent to be violent. People talk about having this kind of killer, or predator, mindset. Maybe that’s useful for self defence, but no, that’s not what Yi means.

What these lines are saying is that the guiding action for a movement comes from your mind leading the body. It’s your internal self leading your external self. In Taijiquan your dantien leads the physical movement, with your body kind of trailing behind, but here we are told that before that happens, the intuitive part of your mind starts the movement.

It’s important to note that we’re not talking about the thinking, intellectual, part of your mind here. I quite often liken Yi to thinking in directions. You want to raise your arm up, you think in that direction and let the body follow. What this does is dispense with the intellectual, thinking, part of the brain, and just gets you in touch with the physical body directly, with no barrier in between.]


“If there is up, there is down;
when advancing, have regard for withdrawing;
when striking left, pay attention to the right.

If the yi wants to move upward,
it must simultaneously have intent downward.”

[I think there are two, related, ideas going on here. The first is that (paradoxically) if you want to push somebody up and away, you first let your dantien area sink downwards and connect to the ground, then the power comes up from the feet.

Previously we talked about power coming up from the ground. Now we get into the nitty-gritty of how we make that actually work without just using brute strength from the legs. If you sink the dantien area – think “drop” – then there is an instant ground force reaction that comes back in the opposite direction. Provided the body is ‘threaded together’ and relaxed enough, where this force goes is guided by the part of your brain the Chinese called Yi. Here are two photos attempting to illustrate this, but remember, it’s all happening simultaneously, rather than in two separate steps.

drop 1

Sink down from the dantien.

drop 2

Issuing force with jin.

The other idea presented here is that of being aware of the left and right, and when advancing, being aware of withdrawing. On a simple level, it’s saying don’t over commit, but I connect this idea to a phrase in one of the other classics which says “if you empty the left, you must fill the right”. Just like the Taiji symbol, everything in Tai Chi is circular and in harmony. So, if you move something left, then another part of you must move to the right simultaneously, as you rotate around a central point, otherwise, you will be out of balance. You want to create the effect of a sphere, perfectly balanced on all sides.

The Taiji symbol is perfectly balanced, and you need to achieve the same state in your body.]



“Alternating the force of pulling and pushing
severs an opponent’s root
so that he can be defeated
quickly and certainly.

Full and empty
should be clearly differentiated.
At any place where there is emptiness,
there must be fullness;
Every place has both emptiness and fullness.”

[Here we are getting towards the fault of double-weighting, in Taijiquan. You need to have your weight more on one leg than the other at all times. If your weight settles in an equal position then your Taiji symbol has stopped ‘moving’ and is now inert – it has become two separate halves, not a spiraling mix of energy. There’s more to double-weighting than that, but see the link above for that.

As your weight shifts from one leg to the other in push hands, for example, you are ‘alternating the forces of pushing and pulling’. If you can do this while staying in balance then your opponent will become disrupted. But again, you must stay in balance. So, if you advance something – here represented by fullness – then you must withdraw something else – here represented by emptiness – at the same time.]


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

[This is a return to the theme at the start of the classic of threading the body together, making it connected and keeping everything balanced. After reading the words between the start and these lines you should have a better idea of what that means. The emphasis on keeping the joints open and relaxed in particular is that these are usually the problem points where we lose connection.]


“Long Boxing is like a great river
rolling on unceasingly.”

[It’s interesting that the classic calls the art “Long boxing”. These days there are different martial arts in China called Long Boxing (Chang Quan) that aren’t Taijiquan.  I think in older times any long form routine was called long boxing, and I think that’s what is being referred to here.]


“Peng, Lu, Ji, An,
Tsai, Lieh, Zhou, and Kao
are equated to the Eight Trigrams.
The first four are the cardinal directions;
Ch’ien [South; Heaven],
K’un [North; Earth],
K’an [West; Water], and
Li [East; Fire].
The second four are the four corners:
Sun [Southwest; Wind],
Chen [Northeast; Thunder],
Tui [Southeast; Lake], and
Ken [Northwest; Mountain].
Advance (Chin), Withdraw (T’ui),
Look Left (Tso Ku), Look Right (Yu Pan), and
Central Equilibrium (Chung Ting)
are equated to the five elements:
Fire, and
Taken together, these are termed the Thirteen Postures”

[This last section is almost a bit of admin. It lays out the fundamentals that define Taijiquan – the 8 energies and the 5 directions].

The Tai Chi Classic [Part 1] – a new interpretation

The Tai Chi Classic [Part 1]

Attributed to Chang Sanfeng (est. 1279 -1386),
 interpretation and commentary by Graham Barlow.

brown book page

Photo by Wendy van Zyl on Pexels.com

1. “In motion, the whole body should be light and agile,
with all parts linked as if threaded together.”

[Here the Classic is connecting together the ideas of being ‘light and agile’ with ‘threading the body together’. It is referring to being relaxed and without stiffness or excess local muscle tension in your movement. If you can be relaxed then your movement can flow and be connected together via the muscle-tendon channels. Any stiffness you possess will prevent you from moving in this unique way, which is key to Taijiquan. Particular problem areas to look out for that can prevent your body being ‘threaded together’ are the shoulders and lower back where we tend to store tension. If we are tense in our shoulders then the movements of the body cannot reach the hands, and if we are tense in our lower back then we cannot connect the upper and lower parts of the body. Everything in Taijiquan needs to be driven by the legs, waist and dantien area.]

2. “The chi should be activated,
The mind should be internally gathered.”

[In the first line I’ve chosen the word ‘activated’ when referring to the chi, rather than the usual ‘aroused’ or ‘excited’. This is to give more of a sense that you are switching to dantien-driven movement, using the muscle-tendon channels, rather than using normal movement, which is unconnected to the waist.

The second line originally says Shen, which refers to the spirit, rather than mind, but I think that this line is really referring to ‘paying attention to what you’re doing’ in a calm yet focused way, rather than letting the mind wander or become distracted.

Taken together these two lines are a way of saying, ‘in Taijiquan we move the body in an internal way, and to do that we need to use the mind and keep it on what we are doing, rather than letting it wander’.]

3. “The postures should be rounded and without defect,
without deviations from the proper alignment;
in motion, your form should be continuous, without stops and starts.”

[These lines start by addressing the physical posture considerations of Taijiquan. I’ve added ‘rounded’ here, because you need to physically round your posture to make it properly relaxed. That means no awkwardness or straight lines in the physical posture, just nice smooth curves.

The second part talks about the movement itself. Developing the skill of being able to move without ‘stops and starts’ takes a while and is one of the fundamental reasons for practicing the Tai Chi form every day. Of course, we are talking about moving from the dantien without stops and starts here, not just normal movement.

The phrase ‘drawing silk’ is often used to describe this quality of continuous movement you find in Taijiquan. If you were drawing silk from a cocoon then you need to do it at a constant rate – if you speed up and you risk the thread breaking. If you slow down you risk it collapsing. Just keep it at a constant rate and it should go well.

By linking these two ideas in the same section the author is drawing a parallel here between having no breaks in the physical posture (keeping it rounded) and having no breaks in the actual movement either (keeping it continuous).]

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

[These are the lines most often used to describe how power should be expressed in Taijiquan. So, when issuing a punch, or a push, you should be going through this sequence, which starts at the ground and goes up to the fingertips. Taijiquan uses the ground force (jin), so the first part of the body mentioned is that which is closest to the ground – the feet. Next it links together the legs and waist as the parts of the body most associated with delivering that force to the hands – or fingers as it says here.

Obviously, this part is not talking about kicking. Notice that the palms are not mentioned, either. In Tai Chi your hand technique is usually a punch or a push. Occasionally a back fist or hammer fist is used, but it’s mainly pushing or punching to the torso or head, both of which use the fingers to make contact with the opponent.

When you push (to the chest) in Tai Chi you shouldn’t use your palm. Instead, you push with your fingertips. If you try pushing hard on a heavy bag with your palm you’ll soon discover why – pushing hard with your palm risks serious injury to your wrist. Of course, pushing on an arm, as we do in push hands is different, and you can use your palm without risk.

Taijiquan goes beyond simply using the raw power of your legs to augment the power of punches and kicks – it’s not talking about just doing this physically and externally. Instead, it’s talking about making use of the power of the ground through a relaxed body that is used as a coordinated whole. This passage also makes it clear that the ground force and the force of the legs are the only power inputs required to create jin, so, don’t try and punch or push from the shoulder.]

5. “The feet, legs, and waist should act together
as an integrated whole,
so that while advancing or withdrawing
one can take the opportunity for favorable timing
and good position.

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.

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

[I’ve grouped these lines together as I think they are all talking about the same subject. Following on from the previous point about the role of the feet, legs and waist in producing power from the ground, the Classic now makes it explicitly clear that these three need to act together even when moving. This emphasises the supreme importance of the trinity of the feet, legs and waist (dantien area) in powering movement. If you can power your movement like this then you can produce Jin (power from the ground). Once you break this trinity, say by using local muscle in your shoulder, then your power has become disordered, and lacks the connection to the ground which is required by Taijiquan.]

Part 2 is now available.