Review of Fundamental Principles of Taiji

As we have discussed in several earlier articles, Taiji is a good health exercise for people of all ages, and also a good martial art.  There are many fundamental principles of Taiji that contribute to its success as a good health exercise and a good martial art.  We have discussed all of these principles in our earlier articles.  Because the discussions have been scattered over several articles and they were discussed together with other topics, it is worthwhile to capture all these fundamental principles of Taiji in one article, which is the purpose of this essay.

We group the fundamental principles of Taiji into several categories:

  • Relaxation
  • Foundation of Balance and Support
  • Enhancing Power
  • Basic Martial Arts Strategy
  • Breathing Techniques
  • Involvement of the Mind

Relaxation:  The most important fundamental principle of Taiji is relaxation, of both the body and the mind.  From a health perspective, modern medical research has clearly told us that a lot of our medical ills are due to stress.  Therefore, when we perform our Taiji exercises, we relax all parts of our body, and do the exercises in a slow and soft way.  Although Taiji exercises are performed in a slow and soft way, Taiji is actually an aerobic exercise.  It consumes oxygen and generates perspiration.  It is a low-to-moderate intensity extended exercise that works the cardiovascular system.  Because the Taiji exercises are performed in a slow and soft way, people of all ages, including people who may not be in the best physical shape or have good health, can also practice it.

Why does relaxation also help Taiji as a martial art?  When you are in physical contact with your opponent, such as when your hands are touching, relaxing your body makes it more difficult for the opponent to feel and figure out what your intentions are and your next move.  At the same time, it allows you to have a better feel and can more easily figure out your opponent’s intentions and his next move.  As the popular saying states, “knowing your enemy is half the battle.”

Performing the forms in a slow and soft way does not mean that when you execute the form in a martial application, you still do it in a slow and soft way.  In a martial application, you will execute the form fast and with power.  But in practice, the forms should be performed in a slow and soft way.

An example of relaxation or tenseness of your body is how you position your arm and shoulder when your arms are holding a big beach ball in front of your body.  Compare how your body feels when your shoulder is sloping down versus sloping up.  In the former posture, you feel relaxed, but in the latter posture, you feel tensed.

Relaxing does not refer to only the physical body, but also the mind.  The mind should not be cluttered with other matters or concerns, but should be free.  However, this does not mean that the mind is empty, but the mind should also be involved, which will be discussed in a separate category.

Foundation of Balance and Support:  Whether it is for health exercise or for martial application, the foundation to support your body comes from your feet, and must be solid and stable.  The most important principle for this is that the two feet should not lie on the same line along the direction of motion.  Instead, the two feet should be separated in the transverse direction (direction perpendicular to the direction of motion) by approximately one shoulder width.  In the former position, when the center of gravity is outside of that line, you will fall.  But in the latter position, the center of gravity most likely would be between the two feet, with the feet providing a solid and stable foundation to support your body.

In a bow stance, the heel of the rear foot should not be raised.  It is your feet attaching to the ground that provide the stability and strength of your foundation.  The rear foot should also be straight, not bent at the knee, because a bent rear foot will not be able to withstand a strong force pressing downward from above.  However, the rear foot, although straight, should not be locked because it is not relaxed when it is locked.  Furthermore, the knee of the front foot should be directly over the toes.  When projecting downward, if the knee is in front of the toes, then the opponent can more easily pull you downward.  If the knee is behind the toes, then you are pulling yourself backward when you are trying to attack forward.

For similar reasons, always keep the upper part of your body upright.  To move your upper body forward or backward, you just shift your weight, respectively, to the front foot or the back foot.  Keeping your upper body upright reduces the chance that your opponent can pull you downward toward the front or push you down toward the back

Enhancing Power:  When moving forward toward your opponent, use the “cat step” technique.  That is, you step down first on the heel of your front foot, and then step down on your toes.  As you step down on your toes, notice that the front foot is moving forward and your body is also moving forward.  Therefore, if you are attacking your opponent, e.g., with a punch, while moving closer toward your opponent by taking a step, then at the time your punch is moving toward the opponent’s body, your front foot and your body are also moving toward your opponent, thus adding more power to your attack.

Waist rotation is another technique that adds power to your attack.  When attacking, e.g., with a punch or kick, if you also simultaneously rotate your waist, then you are adding the momentum from your waist rotation to your attacking arm or foot.  Therefore, in performing the taiji forms, pay attention to the orientation of your body so that in your next move you can add waist rotation when you are attacking your opponent.  For example, in executing the second or third part of the form “Wild Horse Shakes Its Mane,” a form of the Simplified Yang Style 24 Form, you must first shift your weight and pivot your feet and body so that you can include waist rotation in your next move of striking your opponent with your hand.

Your front foot should be pointing directly, and not at an angle, toward your opponent, because then 100% of your attacking force is toward the opponent.  If your front foot is at an angle, then only part of your force is toward your opponent, and the part that is perpendicular to the direction toward your opponent is wasted.

Depending on the position of your rear foot at the completion of the previous form/technique, while executing the next technique, you may need to pivot your rear foot.  For example, if your right foot is pointing forward, and in your next technique you are moving toward your left to attack an opponent who is on your left, then you need to pivot your rear foot, the right foot, approximately 30 degrees to the left.  Otherwise, you are trying to attack your opponent who is on your left, but your right foot is pulling you forward (or even worse, backward if your right foot was pointing slightly to the right).

Qigong can also increase your striking power and also increase your ability to absorb attacks.  But that is more difficult to learn and cultivate, and will not be discussed further in this essay.

Basic Martial Arts Strategy:  A simple but important strategy is that your opponent should always be within your view.  For example, at the beginning when you are bowing to each other, don’t bend your head completely downward so you are looking at the floor.  You should bow your head partially downward but at the same time your eyes can still see forward where your opponent is.  You never know whether you have an honest opponent who will not attack you while you are bowing to each other.

A strategy that is common among most martial arts, but especially emphasized in Taiji, is that you do not oppose an attacking force head on, because then whoever is stronger will win.  Instead, you apply a force that has a component in a direction that is perpendicular to the original attacking direction.  Since the attacking force has no component in the perpendicular direction, a small force can deflect the attacking force.  This is the meaning of the classic Chinese saying “four ounces can deflect a thousand pounds.” [1]  Besides having a component perpendicular to the original attacking direction, your responsive force should also have a component along the original attacking direction.  [2]  This force supplements the attacker’s original force and helps the attacker to move even more in his original direction, i.e., to try to get him lose his balance.  When the attacker senses that he is losing his balance, he will change direction and retrieve, then you also change direction and change from being the defender to become the attacker.  This is reflected in the Taiji symbol:

Taiji Symbol

Taiji Symbol

When the Taiji symbol is rotated, the black part (attacking motion) becomes the white part (defending motion), and vice versa.  Furthermore, within every defending motion, there is a seed for an attacking motion, and vice versa.  This is why there is a white dot within the black part of the Taiji symbol and a black dot within the while part of the Taiji symbol.

Proper placements of different parts of your body relative to those of your opponent can allow you to get more leverage so that a smaller and weaker person can compete successfully against a bigger and stronger person.  For example, by putting your front leg behind your opponent’s front leg while you are attacking him can prevent him from moving backward to escape your attack.  Suppose your opponent tries to punch you with his left hand, by blocking his left hand with your left hand at close to his left wrist and then twisting his left hand counterclockwise and at the same time apply your right hand on the back of his left shoulder or upper left arm, you can easily press him downward, even to the ground.

When you attack, especially against a bigger and stronger opponent, attack those parts of his body that are not protected, such as his eyes, throat, temple, ribs, groin, knees, shins, ankles.

Breathing Techniques:  Proper breathing is very important in Taiji.  In general, you take slow, deep breaths, because slow, deep breaths bring in more oxygen and are better for your health.

Breathing techniques in the sense of when to breathe in and when to breathe out are not always taught in a beginning Taiji course, because there are already too many things for a new student to learn.  For example, in my introductory course on the Simplified Yang Style 24 Form, I do not teach the breathe in/breathe out techniques until half way through the course.  As a general rule, when you are attacking, e.g., with a punch, you breathe out.  When you are setting up the attack, you breathe in.  Each form usually involves one cycle of breathing, i.e., breathe in once and breathe out once.  But some of the longer forms could involve two cycles of breathing.  As a matter of fact, for some forms, you have the option of using two cycles, or just one cycle with a short pause between the breathing in and breathing out.

When you are in more advanced Taiji courses, more sophisticated breathing techniques utilizing Lower Abdominal Breathing should be taught.  Normally we use Natural Breathing by expanding and contracting the upper chest.  With Lower Abdominal Breathing, you expand and contract the lower abdomen by lowering and raising the diaphragm, which can increase the expansion of the upper chest, and therefore bring in more oxygen.  Another advantage is when the lower abdominal and diaphragm muscles constantly move back and forth, you are exercising the internal organs inside the lower abdomen.  When you exercise your muscles, you strengthen your muscles.  Similarly, when you exercise your internal organs, you strengthen your internal organs.

It is interesting to note that young babies use Lower Abdominal Breathing.  As we get older, our breathing gradually moves up from the lower abdomen to the stomach, and then to the chest.  Perhaps that may be one of the reasons why as we get older, we don’t learn as fast and our memory fades.  When we change from Natural Breathing technique to Lower Abdominal Breathing technique, we call it “Fan Tong” in Chinese, which means “returning to small child.”

There are also two different methods of Lower Abdominal Breathing.  One is called Normal Abdominal Breathing, in which the lower abdomen expands on inhaling and contracts on exhaling.  This is the method that is taught in most yoga classes.  The other is called Reverse Abdominal Breathing, in which the lower abdomen contracts on inhaling and expands on exhaling, i.e., just the opposite of Normal Abdominal Breathing.  In Chinese qigong and martial arts beyond the beginning level, very often it is the Reverse Abdominal Breathing technique that is stressed.  One reason for this is that in martial arts when you strike someone (with any part of your body), you usually exhale and in order to maximize the force of your strike, you want your whole body to be moving in the direction of your strike which is usually outward.  That is why when you strike and exhale, you also want your abdomen to be expanding out.  The following illustration may help to explain the above.  When you blow up a balloon (analogous to striking someone), if you put your hand on your abdomen, you will find when you blow out (i.e., exhale), your abdomen expands, rather than contracts.

Involvement of the Mind:  As we discussed on the category of relaxation, both the physical body and the mind are also relaxed.  This means that the mind should not be concerned with things such as the amount of homework or chores that you still need to do.  However, it does not mean that the mind is empty.  As a matter of fact, the mind should focus on the matter at hand, which is the performance of the forms during an exercise or the execution of the techniques during a martial application.  When you are doing the forms, visualize the forms and think about their martial applications.  For example, when doing the form “Brush Knee and Step Forward,” the 4th form of the Simplified Yang Style 24 Form, visualize that the term “Brush Knee” refers to a block that should be low and not close to the body, i.e., brushing the knee.  The block should be low because it is supposed to block a low kick, and the block should not be close to the body, because it needs time to push the kick from the middle of the body to outside of the body to avoid the kick hitting you.

At the same time, the mind should sense the slow and deep breathing.  Feel the lower abdominal breathing.  Keep track of when to breathe in or breathe outl  Of course a lot of this may become automatic as you gain more experience practicing.  For example, an experienced practitioner when executing the techniques during a martial competition, the techniques will be executed almost automatically without much thoughts and analysis in the mind.

Although the mind is relaxed, the fact that the mind is still very much involved in doing Taiji leads to one of the potential health benefits of Taiji, i.e., it also could help with delaying or stopping the onslaught of Alzheimer Disease.

Summary:  There are many fundamental principles of Taiji which we have grouped into six categories:  Relaxation, Foundation of Balance and Support, Enhancing Power, Basic Martial Arts Strategy, Breathing Techniques, and Involvement of the Mind.  All these principles contribute to Taiji being a good health exercise and a good martial art.  Each one is important, but perhaps the most important is Relaxation.



[1] Of course, if the deflecting force is very small, then it will take a long time to deflect the attacking motion, and therefore may not be effective in a martial application.  This just means that the classic saying is exaggerated to illustrate a point.

[2] A responding force that is at an angle to the original attacking direction will have two components:  One component along the direction of the original attacking direction and another component perpendicular to the original attacking direction.

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