So what is a Tai chi Ruler? It is a Tai Chi practice tool and comes in slightly different executions. But in general looks like a short staff with rounded edges. The most common shape resembles two sword handles put together. The hand doesn’t grip the ruler, but instead it rests in the hands by the palms gently squeezing the ends.
As the Tai Chi ruler is a rather uncommon practicing tool, I thought I would first try to give brief introduction to what it is. But I will also try to give you an in-depth view into my own practice, so to give you a better understanding of different purposes with the practice.
Introduction to the Tai Chi Ruler
There are different executions to be found, but this is the most commonly seen ruler, with its standard size and proportions, usually 30 CM long as here:
There are different opinions about the origin of the Tai Chi ruler. Some people say that it stems from very old Daoist practice. Others say that it is a modern thing and comes from Chen Tai Chi, some of those people claim that it was invented by Chen Fake. I myself believe that it’s older than Chen style, and this for various reasons. In Chen style it’s most commonly seen today amongst large frame teachers. But I believe that it originally could have been connected to Small Frame practice, which would suggest that in Chen style it would at least be older than Chen Fake.
Why? One reason is that the ruler itself is a small frame tool, not something connected to large frame Tai Chi practice at all. The practice is not even remotely close to anything that could be considered as large frame practice. For instance, some Old Wu (Yuxiang) Tai Chi schools put quite a lot emphasis on the Tai Chi ruler practice. If you look at videos on the small frame form in Wu/Hao style, you can see a very strict sort of frame, the hands mostly kept at the same distance to each other, and one hand’s movements are always corresponding exactly with the other. A lot of the modern Hao form looks similar to someone keeping a Tai Chi ruler between the hands throughout the form practice. And if you don’t know it already, I can inform you that even if Wu Yuxiang was also Yang Luchan’s student, he created his Wu style and form directly from Chen Xin’s Small frame, or Chen Xiaojia.
But I suspect that the tool itself is quite older than Tai Chi Chuan, and that it has a connection to older Shaolin traditions from where we also can trace many of the traditional Tai Chi postures.
My own Tai Chi Ruler(s)
Well, let’s leave history and go to my own practice and experience with the Tai Chi ruler. I myself haven’t hardly touched a Tai Chi ruler or practiced with one for about 20 years. I had planned to order a Tai Chi ruler already for more than ten years. I was uncertain about from whom and about who could make something that matched a certain standard. But recently I ordered a couple of Tai Chi rulers from Charles Tauber in Canada, a wood carving expert and guitar builder. He is a long time Chen Tai Chi practitioner and has published some interesting videos about body mechanics well worth watching.
Probably anyone who can carve wood could make a Tai Chi ruler, so why order something from another continent when I can get something closer to me in Europe or probably easily find someone in my own country? When I made the order, I wanted someone who has a good understanding of the functions of the shape and appearance of the Tai Chi ruler. As I had some special requirements and wanted to do some changes to the commonly known design, I knew that I could communicate with Charles and that he would understand what I wanted.
So, these are the two rulers I ordered:
I wanted a rather heavy type of wood, and also a dark wood. I wanted a dark color because I thought that it would feel more relaxed, having a more calming effect for practice. The two rulers I bought are both longer than the commonly seen length. In my tradition, the length of the Tai Chi ruler in is individual and measured individually. The ruler is measured accordingly to certain angles where the “frame” of the practitioner is as strong as possible.Usually the length will be slightly longer than the length between the shoulder tips, which is most often considerably longer than the modern standard length of 30 cm.
So if there is one perfect individual length, why did I order two rulers of different lengths? Well, I think you need to know a bit more about the ruler before I can give you a good answer on that. As you can see, if you compare my rulers with the commonly shaped ruler, I added two parts next to the ball in the middle. In my tradition we focus on the precision of movement. The ball in the middle as the center of the staff is often the center of the movements. For many exercises you need to pay attention to the center and control the smoothness and exactness from the center. In some exercises there are movements you should keep the center still while moving the rest of the ruler around the center. The two extra parts give me even better control of the movements, as I can see the slightest movement more clearly.
The practice within my own tradition
More than 20 years ago, when I met the Tai Chi ruler for the first time, the teacher emphasised the importance of this type of practice. His teaching in general was very much focused on structure, alignment and the stability of the frame. The first time I used the rulers, as I practiced some very basic exercises, I remember that I felt the muscles between my shoulder blades very clearly. But it felt pretty tense.
The practice and exercises we do look quite different compared to the Chen style exercises you can find on YouTube. What we do is not for relaxation. Instead the practice is about to learn how to draw strength from the spine, how stabilise movement directly from the spine. It’s for the precision of movement, about learning to stabilize the frame or posture, directly from the spine. One of the key features is to relax the hands and push the ends of the ruler together by the use the muscles in the back, trying to use muscles as close to the spine as possible. If you practice with the Tai Chi ruler this way, you will activate these muscles and learn to feel them better, and to use them in a more active manner.
So back to the question about why did I order two different sizes when only one is the exact size I need. I ordered two different sizes because I can use them to practice different muscles in the back. The larger one will not be an exact match for my own “perfect” length, but I can use it to “get in touch with”, to better understand to move and use, different muscles than only those that will be activated by the other ruler, the ruler of my perfect length. You will find similar ideas in other Chinese practicing tools and methods, as in the common Chinese health balls, those clink sounding metal balls you move around in your hands. Actually one size is not enough, and instead you should have two or three different sizes that you play with regularly, small, medium and large sizes, because this way you will practice with and activate different muscles in your hands.
But it’s not really necessary to have rulers in different sizes. One regular size will be well more enough to use for a long time forward. But as I have studied different exercises for the back, scapula/shoulder blades for well more than two decades, I thought that I would need something extra to gain as much as possible from the ruler practice. I was more than satisfied with the work Charles did. Still I didn’t get that same effect as I experienced 20 years ago. I didn’t feel that pressure in the back, that tension that I experienced the last few times. There is nothing wrong with the rulers, but as I have practiced exercises for similar purpose as the rulers, I guess that my whole back is already soft and supple enough. Maybe I should have guessed this before I ordered them. This doesn’t mean that I have no use for the rulers, but maybe less than I thought. Or rather that the focus of the practice will be different than what I had expected.
Why is the Tai Chi ruler an uncommon tool?
Why the Tai Chi Ruler is not more commonly seen might have several answers. There are not many teachers who know about it. And many of the commonly seen exercises could be done with any kind of staff or with a ball. So why should you order one? The exercises I myself do cannot really be replaced by something else. There is a certain length required and the shape and different parts all has a purpose. But this type of practice is very rare. I would suspect that many exercises are kept by small frame teachers. For beginners, or people focusing solely on medium and large frame formats, there is really no need to study the ruler. And small frame practice itself is often regarded as something you study after years of large frame practice. Sometimes small frame practice is considered Inside the Door practice, something the most students of a well recognised teachers hardly know exists. I suspect there is often something similar with the Tai Chi ruler. At least som of what you see “out there” is something done for the masses, maybe slightly adjusted to not give away the full potential of the tool. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t recognise other types of practice with the ruler. It’s all good for its own reasons.
Anyway, I really do recommend Tai Chi Ruler practice wholeheartedly regardless what kind of Tai Chi school you belong to. The practice itself can be different to what I propose here or closer to it. The different practices all have their special benefits. It’s also an excellent tool to practice with for very old people who are not very movable, who cannot walk very much or not at all. Here the Tai Chi ruler will activate more of the body than just the arms.
If you want to get your own ruler, you can easily search up different homepages, stores that sell standard sized Tai Chi rulers. But of course there are also those individuals who can create what you want according to your own wishes and demands. And again, I recommend Charles Tauber who was kind enough to make mine.
Here is the webpage: http://charlestauber.com/links/links.html
Or directly to the rulers: http://charlestauber.com/sticksandrulers/index.html
You can also take a look at his YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/charles888