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T’ai Chi Ch’uan is indeed a complex art. The learning process goes from separating and learning different types of body mechanics and then putting it all together. This text right here deals mostly with Tai Chi from a Yang and Wu perspective. But still, even if the learning steps might differ, the general ideas should remain the same in all traditional Tai Chi schools. Though I would like to point out that I can only speak about the traditional schools as much of the learning and theory has been very much simplified in modern times, especially concerning how Yang style and short, simplified Tai Chi versions are taught today.

If you look at the 10 steps further down below, you can see that even if I have summed up the progress in ten steps, it’s still quite a lot. In my structure below, I have only considered the mechanics of the physical body. But it’s still important to at least briefly approach the Mind, because the learning process with coordination of mind and how to deepen the practice is a much more complex matter. 

Mind over Matter (Body)

In daily life all people move from the limbs and with the hands especially. They are more aware about their heads and hands than anything else. They keep their balance point high and many people tense their breath. The progress in learning Tai Chi mechanics is very much linked to our own awareness, our body awareness and our awareness about ourself as mind and body in time and space. We strive to be aware about our bodies and ourselves by focusing on the parts of the body where we normally are at least aware. One would think that moving and using our bodies as a whole, from the bottom and from the center, to the top and out through the limbs could be a completely physical development. But actually, nothing could be further from the truth. The way of separating the mind and body here in the West does not work if you want to achieve what can be achieved. And there’s a completely scientific and logical reason behind this. It’s about our nervous system and our sensors in the body, where and how we actually are aware about our own bodies physiologically speaking. This  determines how we perceive ourselves and how we use our bodies. (See the Cortical Homonculus for explanation) That is why it’s necessary to understand that because the body mechanics in Tai Chi deals with whole body movement, understanding and using the body as a whole, the process of learning body mechanics, is paramount to how well you understand yourself and how you deal with your own body. The process in not only technical, it’s just as much a process of deepening your own body awareness, your knowledge about yourself.

The Body Mechanics learning process explained through ten steps

When you start learning Tai Chi, you start learning as a person who is used to mostly be aware about your head and hands. For some people, the process of starting to learn Tai Chi can be painful. You will become painfully aware about all of your mistakes and flaws, how bad your balance is, how bad your coordination is and how hard it is to coordinate the body with awareness in the most simple ways. Now you will start to use your nervous system in another way than you are used to in daily life’s movements. Through the time, you will deepen your knowledge about yourself. It will be a long journey with plenty of rewards ahead.

  1. Balance and the central axis.
  2. Understanding feet and legs
  3. Use of the kua 
  4. Understanding the lower Dantian
  5. Coordinating of kua, dantian and waist
  6. Opening and closing the lower ribs
  7. Opening and closing scapula 
  8. Coordinating lower ribs, spine and scapula 
  9. Coordinating lower and upper body and all of it together 
  10. Everything moves together spontaneously without focus on any part starting/initiating movement

So, let’s explain these steps further:


Stages 1 & 2 – Balance and centerline

  • Balance and the central axis.
  • Understanding feet and legs

First, you will need to learn how to separate full and empty by weight shifting and moving from posture to posture. You do this while keeping your body straight while getting acquainted to the use of turning around the central axis. You will learn how to use your center and balance.

Now, after learning the basics, you’ll need to learn to become more aware about your feet and legs, not only how to shift weight but to move your body with the feet and legs. You need to try to be as passive as possible with your arms, letting the body push the arms and pull them in. 

These first two steps, the very beginning of learning Tai Chi properly, occur mostly while learning a form. The process of learning a long form might take one or two years of study. If you study a long traditional form, you will probably need to learn it first before being able to deepening your body method further.

Stages 3 to 5 – Building the foundation

  • Use of the kua
  • Understanding the lower Dantian
  • Coordinating of kua, Dantian and waist

Above I said that you will “learn how to use your center and balance”. But you are probably not quite there yet to be able to move completely centered and balanced. Most people in the beginning year or so of their Tai Chi practice will sometimes feel uncomfortable and unstable, even shaking. This is because you have started to learn how to relax your legs, but you need to develop a certain leg strength before stabilizing. One of the keys of learning how to stabilize your posture while developing your “roots” is to make use of the kua. This concept is sometimes confused with the tips of the hips, but the kua is actually on the inside area. It’s the hip joint and surrounding muscles. Mostly when we control the opening and closing of the kua, we use the muscles on the inside of the thighs, the muscles close to the groin. While still keeping your feet firmly on the ground, you need to learn how to initiate movement from the kua. 

This understanding will also help your knee health. Many people, even those who have studied a long time, keeps awareness mostly in their feet and move from there. But if you want to stay out of knee trouble, you need to learn how to lift your legs and place them down with your thighs. The alignment of the knee and rest of the leg should follow the line of the upper leg naturally. 

When rotating, shifting, lifting and placing by opening and closing the kua of each side,  you need to control the line and and direction of your upper body with the dantian and the waist. When learning to control the whole area, the Dantian, waist and Kua will move and be used as a whole. Physiologically speaking, there are strong muscles in the kua that through fascia connects this area directly to the abdomen and solar plexus. Different layers of connective tissues connects the kua directly with the lower and middle dantian of Chinese theory. I just mention this as it might make the coordination of kua seem more logical and reasonable. This might also might it clearer that the coordination should not be about three different areas moving independently yet coordinated together, but instead really moving together as a whole, a dense type of coordinating the whole area together as there were no seams between them. Yet, the small point inside the belly, the inner or true dantian should still be regarded as the absolute center of this whole structure. Through relaxation of body, mind and breath, this small area can still be felt as an individual spot. 

Stages 6 to 8 – reviving and coordinating the upper body

  • Opening and closing the lower ribs
  • Opening and closing scapula
  • Coordinating lower ribs, spine and scapula

Before learning any of the upper body mechanics, you would probably already know one or two forms, a lot of other individual solo exercises and had practiced push hands for quite some times. You would probably have practiced already for about three or five years before going this far. Probably five years instead of three. And stage 5 is really where most people stop their learning progress. And understanding kua, waist and coordinating them directly with the limbs is what most people would define as “6 harmony movement”, or just as good Tai Chi movement. But there is still more. Many don’t stay a long time enough with the same teacher, tradition or lineage, and most teachers have not done so either. 

The lower ribs are important to practice separately and take special notice of as the base of this area connects directly to the lower dantian through the back. This area on the lower back resembles the spot in old Neidan tradition said to be the lower gate, meaning that you need special practice to open this gate to achieve grand circulation for the Qi to be able to flow out through the limbs. Many teachers have exercises to open the front and the back of the kua, this is one key. The other key is to learn how to coordinate movement through the lower ribs. You don’t need to believe in Qi, but this is an important stage if you want to understand full spinal movement and coordination, which is of course something that most Tai Chi schools does not teach. You learn to open and close each of the sides of the lower back with the lower ribs by coordinating them together with arm movement. When the arms goes up, they open, when the arms goes down, they close. For a posture as “brush knee”, when one side opens, the other side closes. 

The scapula is the most problematic area. Very few are taught this on a meaningful level. And most people who start to consciously practice this kind of movement becomes stiff and feels uncomfortable. It takes quite a while of practice to feel comfortable with this kind of coordination. First you need to understand how to not raise the shoulders to move the scapula, but instead how to activate the muscles between your shoulder blades close to the spine and move from there. This practice is directly connected to the third, upper gate in Neidan theory. Again, you don’t need to believe in qi to practice this. The type of movement and body use achieved from this practice has great practical advantages. Also for health in old age speaking keeping the smoothness of movement and flexibility of the upper back is extremely important.

After quite some time of specially designed exercises, and later implementing this type of action into your general Tai Chi, you should have learned it well enough to coordinate it with the lower ribs. When you over-emphasize this whole coordination of the back, you will first make gross movements with the whole of your spine. One example of this could be described as lifting the whole trunk from the lower ribs and then rounding the back with the scapula. When you can coordinate the movements from the lower dantian, through the lower ribs and moving the scapula together, you have accomplished a very complex way of moving and coordinating your body. But now you need to put everything together in a deeper sense. First when you have achieve stages 6 to 8, you will really understand the concept of “opening and closing.” Your whole body will work together as a pump. 

Stages 9 & 10 – Reaching natural, spontaneous movements

  • Coordinating lower and upper body and all of it together
  • Everything moves together spontaneously without focus on any particular body part

The first issue when it comes to whole body coordination with both lower and upper body together is about your base. Are you balanced enough? Most people who goes through the stages 6 through 8 can become top-heavy, unbalanced, feel uncomfortable. Sometimes learning the more advanced body methods might feel for the student like starting from scratch again and learn a whole new way of moving the body. So now you need to learn how to put everything together. When you have learned all parts individually and try to put them together, you will occasionally overdo movements, make them bigger to feel them and to better understand the coordination between different parts. But later when everything is on the right place, you need to make the coordination smaller, more compact. Everything, all body parts, should move and stop together. The foot will be directly coordinated with the hand in one single movement. Hand and foot will start and stop at the same time. As the coordination will be smaller you will need to learn how to hide the body mechanics. In the end, all of the body will move together, coordinated. You will learn how to keep your center spontaneously and keeping everything coordinated just by moving. You should not need to think about any kind of rule or need to use any certain body part to lead or initiate movement. Everything will move together, and the coordination is kept together spontaneously. Your whole body will move with the sensation of freedom, and not as bound by any kind of rule.

Differences of schools and disciplines 

There might be differences in schools concerning the order of learning. You might learn about coordinating ribs and scapula before you have deepened your root and understanding moving from the center. There might be differences about coordinating, what to move and how. Or what to not move, why and when. But the process above according to the ten stages above is still how your body must learn. Before being able to coordinate the top properly with the lower part of the body, a solid good foundation must have been develop first. Learning about a more advanced coordination of the upper body too early might will cause unbalanced movements, create stiffness and cause other mistakes. It’s not bad to understand the process and test things here and there. But remember that your foundation, your base, root and center, is paramount for everything else you learn. 

And last, the key is to stay inside the door

Most people really need a good teacher and to stay with the same teacher, or at least in the same lineage, for quite some time to get the guidance they need. The difference between so called in-door students and other ones is not about secrets. There are no real secrets. But there are methods that only makes sense to teach students with a good foundation. Otherwise teaching certain things will be nothing more than a waste of time, both of the teacher’s and yours. You need to be able to stay “inside the door” for a long time, be a student long time enough to first develop a good foundation. If you cannot first use your body in a certain ways, many kinds of techniques and methods just won’t be properly learned. Many students jump from teacher to teacher, from seminar to seminar. Teachers might look good to put in a lineage chart. But the question is: how much did you really learn from them? Tai Chi Chuan takes a long time to learn. Well, I know, it can be very, very hard to find a good teacher who knows it all, with the ability and who are willing to teach everything. But frankly said, it’s often much harder for great teachers to find good students.