Notice: Tai Chi Glossary

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Just F.Y.I.: I have added a Tai Chi Glossary. You can find the most common terms and names. Some with links to posts and articles.

I am not completely done with it, I will still add stuff, so you can take a look at it now and you can come back later to have a look at it again.

If you have something to ask about, complain about or some tip on what you would like to read, or would add if it was your page, please let me know by writing a commentary below, in this post you are reading now.

Take a look at the Tai Chi glossary here

Practical Practice Comes First, Understanding Theory Is Secondary

I wrote a post a few years ago: “Learning by Doing“. I believe it’s one of the most important things I’ve written here about the art of Tai Chi, but so far it has received little attention. Anyway, I didn’t really address the problem enough of trying to understand before doing. People try to understand things intellectually, and they shape things into fancy language, before they really understand things practically. Or as teachers, they rather teach those fancy words before teaching how to understand the art practically.

This is a great problem inherited in our own brains, how they work, we want to understand things intellectually, and sometimes we believe that this is enough. But still, we don’t really understand things in Tai Chi before we have a practically understanding of something by doing and experience. We understand things in Tai Chi by turning words and theory into practice and make practical sense out if what we read.

I know, I am a theoretical guy, I write long, theoretical things in my posts. But I don’t write for my readers so they should have more things to think about. I always try to create bridges between theory and practical practice, so you will have a chance to implement practical things in your own training.

Just came of think of something as I am writing this: I used to teach film theory. As I have studied both film theory and practical filmmaking, I had the chance of teaching theory at a film school. You see, film theory is built on, and comes from, practical knowledge about filmmaking, mostly written by filmmakers. If you can reverse the theory into practice, and teach it to aspiring filmmakers, you will give them the practical knowledge of those filmmakers and others who wrote the theory. And, to brag a bit about myself, which is something I usually don’t do, my classes always got the highest score from the students, and some of them even told me that what I taught them, was the best and most useful they had learned, throughout the whole education.

Personally speaking, I use those memories to cheer me up a bit when I think about filmmaking and miss doing it. At least, I have done something right. Anyway, theory in Tai Chi should be used in the same way, as reverse-engineering. You need to understand it from a practical point of View. If it remains as theory, you are doing something wrong, you don’t understand it. So you need to use it in your actual practice, and understand it from the experience of your own practice. Otherwise, the knowledge of the theory remains as intellectual property only, and to be frank: it remains as useless junk.

So, my advice is: whenever you read something about Tai Chi, as theory, proverbs etc, try to turn those words into something practical. Try to understand how it impacts your practice and implement it practically in your training. There’s really no other way to understand theory in Tai Chi: Practice and understand what you practice by your own experience. The only value of theory comes from how well you can implement it practically in your own training. Practice always comes first. The intellectual understanding of theory comes later, when you have experienced the meaning of it, inside of your own body by your own practice.

On “Waist” in Tai Chi Chuan: The Waist is Not What You Think

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What does “waist” mean in Tai Chi Chuan? Isn’t the waist just the waist? Is it necessary to complicate it and analyse the meaning of this common word?  Well, first, Chinese is obviously another language than English. And we know that words don’t always have the exact same meaning in different languages.

Still, this post might seem provocative, as everyone translate the Chinese character “yao” into “waist”, including the most famous “Masters” today who travel around the World to personally sign their commercial books at two-day seminars for many hundreds of participants, eagerly waiting to learn about the deep secrets of Tai Chi that are reserved for only a chosen few. I guess that having a master, or even Grandmaster(!), signing their book make many students feel as they have achieved “more” through their training.

But as I myself am neither famous or travel around signing books, I couldn’t care less about the commercial aspects of being politically Tai Chi correct. So let’s start from the beginning by explaining the Chinese character for “waist“.

In the Tai Chi Classics, this character is “yao” or 腰. This character, that belongs to 3000 most common characters (Ranked no. 1228 to be precise), or Yao, is indeed a common Chinese word for what we mean by waist, or the area around the back and belly, between the ribs and the hips. This is that makes the upper body rotate horizontally while the lower part of the body remains mor or less stable. In Western tradition the waist is what separate the upper and lower body. And sure, we can use “yao” in this sense as well. Yao can be used for “waistline” and the word for belt in Chinese is yaodai, 腰带.

So where, and in what context, do we use the character yao in Tai Chi? Well, It’s right there in the Tai Chi Classics, in the probably most common and well known Tai Chi saying:

其根在脚,
发于腿,
主宰于腰,
形于手指

Rooted in the feet, ​
fa/issue through the legs,
controlled by the ​yao, 
expressed through the fingers.

What many masters on many books have explained, and what I would believe that most Tai Chi practitioners should agree on, is that everything must move together as a whole, as one single movement. Foot, legs, yao, arm and hand. Well, “shou” 手 or “hand” can be used for the whole arm as well. So you could interpret this character, here in this context, as the whole arm, right out to the fingers. When one part moves, the rest of the parts move at the same time. Everything should have a direct connection through movement.

Okay then, let’s go back to the yao. What you need to know is that Chinese people don’t necessarily associate character yao in the same way Western people do with waist. In Chinese, Yao can mean “waist”. But foremost, this character is associated with the lower back. One common translation you can see in dictionaries is in fact: the lower back.

In Chinese medicine, the Yao is directly connected with the kidneys. In fact, the kidney in Chinese is called yaozi, so by this you should understand, that the Chinese word for waist, is indeed connected directly to the lower back.

On a side-note, in traditional Chinese medicine, the kidneys are associated with “original essence” or jing (the same character for “sperm”) which is said to be the source for the Qi and all of the body’s energy. I won’t go into the details, you can read about these things in many different books and on many websites. But let me just add this: If you are a man, and you go to the doctor saying that you have problem with the yao, he might believe that what you are saying is that you cannot perform well in the bedroom.

So, in modern Chinese, the Yao can mean the waist, but it can also mean the lower back. Chinese is a contextual language, and characters are symbolic with different meanings. The meaning of character always depend on the context. And yes, here is the rub. Why does everyone translate “yao” into “waist” in a Tai Chi context? Is it really correct?

Now, let’s have a look at something from Yang Chengfu’s ghostwritten book. It’s the third point of the ten important points: “松腰” or “Relax the Yao.”:

腰为一身之主宰,
能松腰然后两足有力,
下盘稳固;
The ​yao acts as the ruler of the whole body.
With the skill of ​song yao, then both legs are powerful, and the lower base is stable.

虚实变化皆由腰转动,
故曰:‘命意源头在腰际,
’由不得力必于腰腿求之也。
The transformations of empty and full all result from the turning of the y​ ao. Hence, we have the sayings: “the source of meaning is located in the ​yao” And “unable to generate force, look to the ​yao and legs.”

The translation is Lee Fife’s. You can see that he doesn’t use “waist” but let the word alone, untranslated. And this is his comment:

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The ​yao is one of the critical parts of the body for taijiquan. Y​ao is commonly translated as “waist” which can be confusing since we tend to think of the waist as being located on the front and sides of the torso, near the hips or somewhat above them. Y​ao refers specifically to the lower back (e.g. kidney area) and the area where the spine meets the pelvis; it can generally reference the entire lower back, “waist” area of the torso, and pelvis; it sometimes includes the lower back and the hip joints ​(kua). 

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So, if we let go of the translation “waist”, and instead translate “yao” into “lower back”, the Yang Chengfu quote makes much more sense. It’s when you can relax those muscles in the lower back, you can have enough mobility in the pelvis so that it can relax and sink into the legs.

If you want to use “waist” or “lower back” in Tai Chi is up to you. But you should still be aware of the practical implications and understand correct movement. My conclusion is nevertheless that the translation of yao into “waist” is wrong and something maybe derived from lack of practical understanding.

…Intermission…

I am sorry that I have to let you wait for promised articles. This has to do with workload. I don’t know when I will have time to work on new posts, continue the series about punching and so on. The long type of articles (mostly +2000 words) that I have often posted on this blog, they often take about 2 to 3 hours of writing, and with lots of thinking before actually writing. Earlier, I have posted some types of shorter posts, but I have decided to not write the type of short posts you can find on other blogs.

However, I will make an exception here and now and offer you some entertainment instead. I am grateful that I have a few loyal followers and appreciate every time you chime in. Don’t expect another post in the upcoming two weeks. But I will try to make it happening soon.

Anyway, good luck with your training, those of you who practice Chinese martial arts and Tai Chi. I hope to see you again here soon. Here’s some videos to cheer you up with.

(What did you think about my selection? Feel free to tell me what you think in the comments section.)

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Understanding Balance and Gravity

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In Tai Chi Chuan, it is of utmost importance to maintain balance naturally and relaxed while working with the gravity and without fighting it.

“Sinking” has to do with this.
And Central Equilibrium has something to do with it as well.

You need to sink down your strength, all the way down the legs to the sole of your feet, while maintaining the integrity of the centreline. I like to describe this as letting the gravity stack your body from down and up.

You see, the common person will hold up the body by using tensions in the upper body. Tensions in places as in the chest and in the neck. To keep balance, he or she, will keep this tension in the upper body while shifting around the balance in small points underneath the feet. Thus their upper body has strength, their feet have weakness. Their balance is forced and unstable.

The strength of their upper body is made up by tensions. The balance in their feet is forced.
This is the “common” way people stand, walk and move around, in daily life, on a daily basis. Every day, all of the time.

In Tai Chi, however, you will gain another type of balance. You will do this by actively and consciously releasing the tension in the upper body and the legs, while letting your legs and feet take care of the weight of the whole body, and while letting your whole feet stay flat on the ground.

This is not the same as rooting. Letting the strength sink down while relaxing the legs and feet is only the beginning of understanding rooting, the basic prerequisite to develop real roots.

But to understand real balance, don’t forget to get a good sense of the vertical alignment, and learn how it feels to maintain the vertical centreline.

While keeping alignment, gravity is important. Don’t try to rise up, stretch or feel tall. The body will take care of this and let you stand erect by itself if you just allow it to. In the Tai Chi classics, it is said that you should feel like “the head is attached to a string above”. But this is also something, a feeling, you can achieve just by letting gravity work through you body without forcing the alignment.

So you really need to trust your body to take care of the gravity by itself. Again: This will result in the gravity stacking your body aligned by itself, from the feet and up.

Through your practice to relax and to drop down your strength down to the feet, you will gain a natural stability and gradually develop rooting. And later, when you have developed this, and if people try to push you, they will feel like they were pushing against a sturdy wall or against a mountain.

Unlike them, you won’t keep your balance by holding it up using tensions kept in the chest. Instead, even if they push against your chest, it’s your feet that they are trying to push. And your legs. Because your balance, and the strength of your balance, will be arranged from the sole of the foot, aligned and connected, up through the leg.

You won’t need to force any of this stability, the ability to become unmovable. The natural alignment through working with the gravity and not against it will be enough.

As a bonus, here is a New Years gift to you: A good illustration of how to work with alignment and gravity. Working with your own body through the stillness in standing, as well in movement while working through the postures of your form is not very different from the skill you see here. I hope you will be inspired.

Please find more inspiration for your Tai Chi through this blog by this video with another balancing act:

A Matter of Balance… (video)