Underlying Foundations of Taiji Movements: Perspective from Martial Applications

In performing Taiji, the instructor usually requires fairly precise forms and movements. Although different instructors may teach the same form set slightly differently, the differences usually reflect only differences in emphasis, and not differences in the underlying foundations of Taiji. The precisions required in Taiji have their underlying foundations based on the martial arts applications of Taiji or the health benefits associated with the breathings and internal movements (movements within the body) of Taiji, also known as Taiji Qigong. (For a brief introduction to Taiji Qigong, see my archived article “The Essence of Taijiquan – Part 2: Perspective from Taiji Qigong“.)

In this article, we will explain the required precise movements of Taiji from the perspective of Taiji’s martial arts applications. In a future article, we will explain the required precise movements of Taiji from the perspective of health and Taiji Qigong.

This article discusses several precise movements that are usually required in executing many common Taiji forms in order to achieve the objective of their martial arts applications. The discussion is not meant to be comprehensive, i.e., only nine examples were picked out to illustrate the concept. The nine examples discussed are:

  • Why the upper body should be kept straight?
  • Why there should be lateral separation between the legs?
  • Why adopt “cat step” in the feet motion?
  • Why is it important to turn waist?
  • Why arm is not fully extended even during a strike?
  • Why is the “ward off” position frequently maintained?
  • Why circular movement is emphasized?
  • Why the body needs to be relaxed?
  • Why the mind should lead the form?

In our earlier Taiji articles, we have already touched upon a few of these examples. This article provides a more detailed and systematic discussion.

Why the upper body should be kept straight?

One fundamental concept of Taiji is to avoid confronting an attacking force head on. Instead, the Taiji practitioner should utilize the opponent’s force or momemtum (yang) to get him off balance with a deflecting and small supporting or complementing force (yin). The other fundamental concept of Taiji is constant change, i.e., the Taiji practitioner needs constantly to sense the opponent’s movement and intention, and changes his counter movement appropriately. These two fundamental concepts are vividly expressed in the traditional Taiji yin-yang symbol.

Taiji Symbol

Therefore the Taiji practitioner needs constantly to change his motion, including direction of motion, in response to the motion of his opponent. Keeping the upper body straight facilitates this constant change; otherwise one has to move the upper body from leaning in one direction to leaning to the other direction, resulting in a much slower and less effective response.

Why there should be lateral separation between the feet?

When a Taiji practitioner moves, his feet should not be along the same line, but there should be some lateral separation between the feet, of approximately one shoulder width separation. If the two feet are along the same line, then the Taiji practitioner would easily fall by a small push from an opponent along the direction perpendicular to this line. If his two feet are separated by a shoulder width, then unless his center of gravity is pushed beyond the two lines formed by his feet, he would remain upright, thus resulting in a much more stable stance.

Why adopt “cat step” in the feet motion?

When a Taiji practitioner walks, he usually uses the “cat step” movement, i.e., he would first step down on the heel of his front foot, and then he would step down on the front of that foot while the body is moving forward, and also while the arm is moving forward if the intention is to strike the opponent with his hand. When he does this, his feet and his body are also moving forward when his arm is moving forward. This means that the force of the hand strike is not coming from just the force of the arm, but from the momentum of all of his parts, including his arm, his body, and his feet.

Why is it important to turn waist?

Similar to the cat step motion, the Taiji practitioner wants to maximize the force of a strike. The rotation of the waist adds the rotating momentum of the body to the force of a strike from a hand or foot. This is extremely important, but also very difficult to do for a beginner. That is why in teaching beginners, the instructor should always emphasize (even to the extent of over-emphasizing) the importance of pivoting the feet (especially the front foot) so that the Taiji practitioner’s stand provides room for the body to turn in executing various forms, such as the second and third parts of the form “Wild Horse Shakes Its Mane” in the Simplified Yang Style 24 Forms.

Why arm is not fully extended even during a strike?

To maximize the force of a strike, the Taiji practitioner wants his hand (fist or palm) to penetrate the body of his opponent, i.e., the hand doesn’t stop upon contact with the body of the opponent. This means that the arm is not fully extended (or the elbow is still slightly bent) upon contact with the opponent. Otherwise, his hand would be slowing down when getting close to the opponent’s body, thus reducing the force of his strike. This is the same reason that in breaking boards, the martial artist aims his strike at a point that is below the board. (For an explanation of breaking boards, see my archived article “The Physics of Martial Arts: Breaking Boards“.)

Why is the “ward off” position frequently maintained?

The “ward off” motion is one of the basic Taiji movements, as in the form “Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail” in the Simplified Yang Style 24 Form, and it is also one of the basic forms in Taiji Push Hands. Its objective is to exert an outward and upward force, manifested in the motion of the hand, although the force comes not just from the hand, but from the whole body. The “ward off” motion can be used both for offense, as in moving the opponent backward and also uprooting his stand, and for defense, as in keeping an opponent from encroaching or collapsing on you. It is especially the latter that the “ward off” position is frequently maintained as part of the Taiji stand, in the sense that there is an outward and upward force emanating from the Taiji practitioner’s body.

Why circular movement is emphasized?

As discussed earlier, a Taiji practitioner does not counter a striking force with a directly opposite counter force. If that were the case, then the stronger person would win. Instead, the Taiji practitioner deflects the striking force with a small force at an angle (usually either perpendicular or along a diagonal direction between the perpendicular and the original direction) to the striking force. The perpendicular component of this counter force, no matter how small, can deflect the striking force, because the striking force has no force component along this perpendicular direction. This is the basis behind the popular Chinese saying “four ounces can deflect a thousand pounds.” Circular movement of the hands accomplishes this perpendicular deflection of the opponent’s hand or foot strike. Furthermore, accompanying the circular motion of the hands are the rotations of the waist and the knees, adding to the strength of the deflecting force.

Why the body needs to be relaxed?

Although strictly speaking this is not a movement, it is an integral part of every Taiji form and movement. As discussed earlier, the Taiji practitioner constantly needs to sense the opponent’s movement and changes his counter movement appropriately. To increase that sensitivity, the Taiji practitioner needs to relax his whole body (and also mind), so that any slight movement or change of movement by the opponent can be instantly recognized. Furthermore, such relaxation also makes it harder for the opponent to detect the Taiji practitioner’s movement and intentions.

Why the mind should lead the form?

Similar to the previous item, strictly speaking this is not a movement, but it is also an integral part of every Taiji form and movement. To increase the effectiveness of his moves, the Taiji practitioner needs to concentrate on the task at hand. This means that his mind must be alert and be involved in what he is trying to do. His mind is involved in sensing the opponent’s movement, in figuring out the opponent’s intentions, and in determining his own counter movement. All this is of course happening very rapidly, but with proper training and practice, the analysis in the mind becomes almost automatic and second nature, and the execution occurs almost instantaneously. That is why in practicing Taiji, the mind should be leading the form in the sense that the Taiji practitioner’s mind knows what he is trying to do, and why he is doing what he is trying to do. Furthermore, the mind can be used to visualize the forms, and thus helping to learn the forms and in correctly executing the forms. (For a more detailed discussion of visualization, see my archived article “Visualization as a Tool to Learning Taiji.”

Conclusion:

We have tried to explain why certain preciseness is required in performing the Taiji forms. In this article we provide the explanation from the perspective of martial arts application. In a future article, we will provide the explanation from the perspective of health benefits and Taiji Qigong.

Executing the Taiji forms with such precision is not easy. But it is important in order to get the most benefits out of the practice, whether it is for martial arts applications or for health benefits. One will not be able to learn and execute with such precision learning Taiji for the first time, the second time, or even the third time. That is why it is just as beneficial to take the same or similar Taiji course multiple times, whether it is from the same instructor or from different instructors. As a matter of fact, even after one has started to teach Taiji, it is still extremely beneficial to take the course again if one can find an instructor who has more expertise and is more knowledgeable. I can speak from personal experience of the benefits of doing this.

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