By Joe Webster, GCFP CM
Many people are confused by the slow and tranquil practice of Taiji Quan (Tai Chi) thinking that just because the sequences are practised slowly that there is no way that could translate into an actual fighting situation, let alone be a useful and effective way of defending yourself.
But there is a secret to Taiji that will be remarkably familiar to anyone that has been to a Feldenkrais® class, and that is that slower movements can actually help improve the learning process making it easier for the student to make fine distinctions and develop their skills in a pleasant learning environment.
Taiji form practice can often feel like a meditation exercise, the organization of your mind and your attention with your body movements, much like the Feldenkrais Method, make it very popular as a health practice.
However the original purpose of Taiji was as a fighting art, rather than a health practice. The word Taiji Quan is translated to mean ‘Grand Ultimate Fist’, which sounds pretty impressive I think. Many of the postures and movements are based on old forms of wrestling and there are a number of quite dramatic throws and strikes that are designed to incapacitate your opponent. One particularly brutal move is called Wan Gong Shehu (Bend Bow, Shoot Tiger), which prepares you to wrap your arms around an opponent from behind, dig your fingers underneath their ribcage and pull violently in opposite directions! Ouch.
Thankfully, one of the other elements that Taiji Quan has in common with the Feldenkrais Method is that you can practice many of these applications in your imagination during the Taiji form sequence and therefore you don’t actually have to try that on your friends or sparring partners!
I have been studying Taijii Quan since around 2002 and I was lucky enough to study with a Taiji Quan Master called Shen Hongxun, who learned under a number of key figures in the Yang Style tradition. I am also a Feldenkrais Practitioner. I have come to the conclusion that there are a number of distinct similarities between the two ‘systems’ and I would like to share a few of them with you.
As previously mentioned, the slowness of Taiji form practice is designed to give maximum sensory feedback back to the practitioner, so they can learn the nuances of the postures and movements and hopefully within time turn their practice into an artform. This is very much in line with ideas of the Feldenkrais Method:in order to build skill you want to develop a high degree of self perception.
One prerequisite of that is that you have reduced the systematic noise enough in order to perceive differences.
This is summarized by a scientific principle called the Weber Fechner law.
The premise of this law is that there is a signal to noise ratio in our senses, and the greater the noise the harder it is to ‘hear’ the signal.
In other words, when we are working too hard or fast, when our muscles are overly engaged or when we are stressed, we actually become less sensitive, and we can no longer perceive fine details about how we are moving and consequently we are less able to make improvements in our performance.
So slow, attentive movement helps you feel subtle differences (and reduce unnecessary noise) in what you are doing in order for you to hone your skills.
This slowing down to aid the learning process is common to both systems and it is also a profound antidote to our busy modern lives that often feel like they are moving too fast.
Another similarity between Taiji Quan and the Feldenkrais Method is something that you will also find as a core principle across a number of eastern martial art traditions, and that is the importance of generating your movement and power from your center. Within these two traditions the center is believed to be the lower abdomen, which in Chinese culture is also known as the Dantian.
Moshe Feldkrais talked about this area in a number of his lessons, in interviews and in his books, The Potent Self and Higher Judo.
Moshe on the centralisation of the ‘ego’ in the lower abdomen:
“With the advancement towards fuller maturity of the spatial and gravitational functions, the subjective feeling is that the ego gradually descends to be finally located somewhat below the navel.. With fuller maturity, as achieved by Judo training, and by some people by their own means, subjects have no hesitation in finding the localization (of self) in the lower abdomen.” 1
Moshe on the importance of lower abdomen in easy powerful movement:
“In short, the power of the body is determined by the lower abdomen and more generally the pelvic region. In correct action the work done is distributed so that the big muscles do a bigger share of the work and the smaller ones do less in proportion to their size. All action that does not produce the sensation is so performed. All action that feels strenuous call on the smaller muscles of the periphery of the body, such as the hands, feet, arms, and legs to do a greater share of work than they should.” 2
In Taiji the concept of the Dantian or ‘Elixir Field’ is believed to be an area (in the lower abdomen) rather than a precise point much like the concept of Hara (whole abdomen) in Japanese culture.
The idea of the Dantian can be well represented by the Yin Yang symbol, which shows not just the folding of hard into soft, or other opposites working together, but it denotes a sense of movement and rotation.
At a high level of Taiji practice the Dantian area is said to rotate like a ball, allowing freedom of movement in any direction, an idea Moshe Feldenkrais called proper acture.
On a practical level you could think of the dantian representing a reciprocal relationship between the left and right lower abdominal muscles, if one were to elongate while the other contracted you would get a kind of rotation like the 2D image of the Yin Yang symbol.
With the freedom to turn your waist in any direction around the central column and the 2D rotation in the abdominal area this would create a 3D model of the Yin Yang that functioned like a rotating ball / gyroscope.
Within Taiji partner exercises (pushing hands) any contact on the arm from an opponent feeds into that rotating center through the trunk, allowing you to redirect or turn, or roll over/under the incoming force.
Moshe Feldenkrais talked about this idea in many of his lessons, discussing the movement of the pelvis and how it relates to the rest of the body. But he always preferred the use of a more practical / anatomical language rather than the more esoteric and poetic language found in the Chinese descriptions.
Another important similarity between the Feldenkrais Method and Taiji Quan is what in common culture is often called being grounded or ‘rooting’. However these terms are often pretty vague and don’t give you any specific guidance on what being grounded is and how one can become more grounded.
Feldenkrais practitioners could describe this as good force transmission through our skeleton from the ground up and you can often experience this yourself after a Feldenkrais lesson that includes movements of the feet and legs. The result is that your feet and legs provide a good base of support for your upper body and head and you feel more ‘grounded’.
In Taiji there is a concept of Fang Song (relax and sink) which I think is a useful addition when trying to define what being grounded actually is.
The idea of Fang Song is that your body is relaxed yet alert, allowing you to ‘listen’ to the ground with your feet, then the feeling of strength from the bones of the skeleton will become more apparent as you continue to relax your muscles within the movements.
Developing this type of connection with the ground can give you a good sense of the responsive strength of your body. Which can be good for a number of activities including walking, running, jumping and really any type of physical activity.
But more specifically in Taiji Quan this allows for a responsive re-delivery of incoming forces from your opponent, down to the ground and back up again into a martial application.
Feldenkrais and Taiji have an emphasis on developing your relationship with yourself through movement. The slow movements and guided attention can help you discover new healthier ways of moving and organizing yourself that will leave you feeling more grounded and they both offer a great way to relax and unwind our bodies and minds from the stresses and strains of modern life. Lastly they can both also help to connect you with the body’s power center so that you feel more centered in yourself and are a little less easy to push around!
In many ways I have found that they are the perfect complement to one another. My Taiji form has improved significantly through Feldenkrais practice, and my understanding of Feldenkrais has been deeply enriched through the practice and the philosophy of Taiji.
1 Higher Judo: Groundwork. Moshe Feldenkrais. 1952
2 The Potent Self: A Study of Spontaneity and Compulsion. Moshe Feldenkrais. 1985
Joe qualified as a Feldenkrais Practitioner from the London 3 training program in 2020. He has a background in Qi Gong and Tai chi which he has studied for over 20 years. He also studied Biological Anthropology at UCL which provided a good understanding of the role of evolution in our movement abilities. Joe also worked very closely with a stroke survivor, as well as taught mindful movement lessons at a homelessness health and wellbeing center which also provided a unique learning environment.