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:
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.”:
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.
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:
“The yao is one of the critical parts of the body for taijiquan. Yao 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. Yao 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). “
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.