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Author: sprath

How the Buddha’s Teachings Relate to Tai Chi

Buddhist references or quotes are thrown around loosely, and why not, the Buddhism and Buddha’s Teachings are attributed to millions of quotes that pertain to life and tai chi.


Is Tai Chi Intended to be Spiritual or Religious?

Tai chi can be as spiritual or non-spiritual as a practitioner makes it.  It has a heavy sense of good will and absolutely has a sacred feel.   Quotes and references abound about the similarities between tai chi and Buddhism/Daoism/Confucianism.   Some go as far as to say that Tai Chi is based on Daoism or that it runs parallel to the teachings of the I Ching (Book of Changes).

On the other hand, most of the tai chi masters and practitioners from China that I have met have not shared their religious beliefs feelings and tendencies.  They practice, meditate, talk about tai chi endlessly, but never enter into a conversation about God or religion.

I recently returned from China and this distinction was readily apparent.  You could spend a day visiting Buddhist temples and then next day hammering through exhaustive workouts with no apparent relationship between the two.  Yet, at the end of both days you felt the same groundedness and well-being.  I did some research to come to terms with this simultaneous difference/similarity.

Buddha’s Teachings

Buddha’s 18 Attendant Warriors (Pounds Mortar)


This essay is going to stray from the practical to hopefully offer insight for those with spiritual interest.  That being said, let’s not get too fluffy.   Buddhist references or quotes are thrown around loosely, and why not, the Buddha and Buddhism are attributed to millions of quotes that pertain to life and tai chi.  Buddhism offers us some concrete concepts to explain in certain terms how taichi and religion/spirituality have a relationship.

Buddha’s TeachingsThe Dharma Seals

There are three criteria to measure whether something is authentically a Buddhist teaching.  No wiggle room here.   Thich Nhat Hahn in his book you are here. Does a beautiful job explaining the relationship between Buddhism and life.  Let’s lean on his explanation and tie it back to tai chi.

  1. Impermanence

Buddha’s teachings

When you look at the nature of all things you discover that they are impermanent. Everything is constantly changing.  This is not a negative thing.  “If things were not impermanent, growth would not be possible, and manifestation would not be possible.  Impermanence is what puts an end to dictatorship.  It’s what puts an end to hatred and suffering.  We need impermanence to transform them…We must train ourselves to see things as they are.”

Tai Chi

We are made of elements called form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.  These things are very real but we cannot find any permanence in them.  As you progress in tai chi, it is all too easy to get down on yourself and feel as though you are progressing from a position of sucking to sucking less.  But this misses one of the most important points that tai chi teaches.

Each time you are practicing you are producing the very best form that you are capable of based on your current state and level of experience. 

If you can wrap your mind around this idea it becomes continual joy.  The implications for work and life are incredible.  This  doesn’t mean you don’t get frustrated or don’t want to do better.  But every work presentation or new recipe you try for your wife at the very least provides you with satisfaction.

  1. Non-Self

  “I am large, I contain multitudes.”   Walt Witman

Buddha’s teachings

Buddha’s TeachingsThick Nhat Hahn uses a beautiful flower metaphor to explain Non-Self.  “When we look deeply at a flower, we see all the non-flower elements there, such as earth, sun, minerals, the gardener, and so on…The flower does not need to become the sun, it is the sun.  When you achieve this insight, you stop suffering.  We suffer because we want to deny ourselves.   We want to become something else, and  so we never stop running.”

Tai Chi

By studying tai chi you are not becoming something else or gaining something new.  You are returning to something that is more natural by waking up to what is inherently yours.   This is the best part of the Dharma seals I feel.  Tai Chi can be performed knowing that you are receiving benefits from the set without having to specifically identify what is going on .  This means that newcomers and old-comers can simply do the form without having to concentrate on the specifics.

For teachers out there, sometimes tai chi is a hard sell because it doesn’t have the LOUD feedback that other activities do.  You run, you are tired.  You do Crossfit, you are sore.  Tai chi’s differences are more profound from a health standpoint but definitely more subtle.  I have taken to guiding my classes to note the changes.  At the beginning of an evening class I ask everyone to rate their perceived level of fatigue.  Most people have worked all day and it is now 7 PM.  At the end I have them do it again and they are usually more awake.  I ask them to question if their sleep is different on practice nights.  Before 3 minute standing (zhan zhuang – pole standing in a deep posture)  I ask them to rate their body temperature.  Without exception it skyrockets after 180 seconds and people are perspiring.  Pretty powerful stuff for the amount of perceived effort.

  1. Nirvana

Buddha’s teachings

The term Nirvana means extinction.  The extinction of all concepts and the pain that concepts cause.  Back to Thich Nhat Hahn’s flower metaphor:  “The flower is full of all of the elements.  It has everything in it and is devoid of only one thing: separate existence.”

Tai Chi

Everything that you want to learn from tai chi is already in you.  You do not need to gain it from a teacher or reading books.  They can guide you back but they are not giving you anything.  Tai chi directs you towards natural balance, posture, and health that already exists in you and your body craves.  Qi Gong and breathing exercises re-introduce you to autonomic processes and internal energy that moves through your body.  Tai chi builds this energy and increases your sensitivity to it but it is already there in everyone.

 The Dharma Seals – Taichi style

Buddha’s TeachingsIn one of my first encounters with a Chen Tai Chi master visiting the United States I was participating in a private lesson to have my form corrected.  As is typical, I was asked to perform a portion of the form.  It is nerve-racking but not meant as a challenge.  They just want to ascertain what level you are beginning at that day so they know how to best help you.  After completing my routine the interpreter shared my review.

“You are not doing tai chi. That is not tai chi,”  he said.  I was dumb founded.

About a year of practice and I wasn’t even doing  the art?  “What was it then?”  I asked.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “Dancing?  Choreography?”  Wow.  The Chinese don’t pull punches.  I was ready to quit.  Anecdotally, I have heard the same tai chi masters look at a picture or watch live music and say: “That is Tai Chi.”  There is some sort of criteria or coming together that they are bearing witness to.

Buddha’s TeachingsWhat I didn’t realize at the time is that I had my first encounter with what I think is Tai Chi’s version of the Dharma Seals.  Tai Chi has its own rules for what constitutes Tai Chi.  It is integrated, powered by the center; balanced.  I should not have been so offended.  I was being complimented for having taken the time to learn the sequence of movements but my movements were not integrated and I was not using the correct energy to power my movements.  Eventually as a practitioner one develops true precepts that inherently feel right and also allow you to help correct someone else that is just beginning.  It can be as simple as an incorrect weight shift or correction of poor poster.


Tai Chi is a playground, a practice, for getting this inherent spiritual or ethical sense right so that you can translate it to other parts of your life.

Here is the book I mentioned.

you are here



4 Easy Steps and 1 Great Reason to make Tai Chi Practice a part of your Life

I recently received this feedback below from a long time practitioner about the content of this website.

“…knowing everything about T’ai Chi is a lot different than making Tai Chi practice a part of our life… This is something I rarely see in any of the educational media.  It is just assumed that the student will develop a practice but the reality is most students do most of their T’ai Chi in class.

The most important thing is to do it, to make it your own.  An elementary practice will affect our lives profoundly.  Erudition will leave us looking for more.”

Well said.

No one would argue with the fact that adding physical activity or meditation would improve your life.  The problem comes with the execution.  Here are four easy steps taken from research and positive-change gurus.  Additionally, tai chi has one thing up on many of the positive changes that you would make to your life:  The improvements are cumulative, and you receive benefits back in a ratio that is greater than the efforts it takes to perform the form.

1. Don’t Add, Replace

tai chi practiceDo you have time to add something new to your schedule?  Who does?  But you have to be interested in change or improvement or you wouldn’t be reading this post.   Get twice the bang for your buck by reducing a less-than-positive activity with tai chi practice.

Darren Hardy says it best in his book: The Compound Effect.

“The sum total of all the actions that you take each day lead to greater success.”   Life  is a big calculator and at the end of the day your sum total of actions either moves you in the direction you want to go, you stay neutral, or you move backwards.

Hardy has a beautiful Habit Assessment  that helps us quantify how much time we are actually putting towards activities like accessing news, watching TV, or shooting the bull.  It is a good wake-up call and way to see where 15 minutes can be culled away from.

2.  Wake up 15 Minutes Earlier

tai chi practiceYou have heard this one before but I am going to put some eastern knowledge behind it.  The Daoists divide the day into tal. Each tal is 20 minutes so each hour has three tal.  They then assign an animal to each 2 hour segment and describe which activity is most suited for each segment.  The Rabbit time falls roughly between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. and is considered sacred due to your clarity of thought, acuteness, and relaxed state.  They talk in terms of “protecting” this time and not wasting it.

Too fluffy you say?  Let’s hit the science.  The brain produces 5 wave frequencies (Alpha, Beta, Theta, Delta, and Gamma) that are measured in cycles per seconds (Hz).  Alpha waves are present during deep relaxation and allows your mind to be successful at heightened concentration.  They are present during light sleep but can be accessed through meditation (see Silva Method).  Guess when it is easiest to access and experience an Alpha state?  You got it! When you wake and are transitioning between deep sleep (delta) and waking hours (beta).
tai chi practice

3.  Lean on the Power of Habit

Research suggests that if you can do something for 21 -40 days (higher number of days needed for motor tasks) then you are more likely to sustain it for a longer period.  I love this suggestion and you see it cropping up in all sorts of positive changes.   Why?  Three weeks seems do-able.

4.  Get a buddy

tai chi practiceWe have all started something new with a friend or spouse and found tremendous excitement or commitment at the onset.  Accountability is motivating.  If you are fortunate enough to know someone who is also interested in tai chi, practice with them and agree to meet regularly.  What if you are attending class alone?  Something else I have seen to be successful is to make a friend at class and commit to showing up 15 minutes early to review the tai chi form or material.  You want to show up with a clear conscious and not a clear mind.  And what if you didn’t practice?  Who cares?  That 15 minutes will make your absorption of that class’s material even easier.

It all adds up.

the ompound effect book

click to read more

Tai chi Practice is Cumulative

You just need a little structure in place to get you practicing so you can benefit from your efforts.  Then the novel, pleasant experiences begin.  No amount of words (or essays!) can explain the hair-raising sense that overcomes you when chi starts to independently move through your body.  No amount of surprise can describe the first time you don’t react with anger or irritation when a child or coworker frustrates you.  A reaction that would have been typical.   The word gratitude is too small of a word to describe the first time you are thankful for rush hour because otherwise you would have missed that song/news story / sunset.

 “Success is built by taking small consistent steps over time. While these steps in the moment don’t feel significant, the results over time are massive.”  Darren Hardy


How Tai Chi Influences our Life – Jumping Outside of the Form

Oh, you get so many hunches

That you don’t know ever quite

If the right hunch is a wrong hunch!

Then the wrong hunch might be right!

Dr. Seuss:  Hunches in Bunches

how tai chi influences our livesThere is this general idea that tai chi influences our lives positively after a while.  You practice the form diligently and somehow the tranquility and understanding that ensues flows like water out of your backyard and pervades all aspects of your life.  Aaaahhh.

Malarkey you scream!   Way too touchy feely.

Like every good tai chi concept, the answer is yes and no.  My non-tai chi life has benefited immensely from my practice.  Let’s use this essay to describe how the benefits of tai chi make the leap from practicing the form to improving your life.  We will do this by studying:  The Hunch.

The nuts and bolts of how tai chi influences our lives

The thing I love to hear from a student is: “something is not right here.”  What this tells me is that something feels awkward and they are becoming more highly perceptible to inconsistencies.  Basically, their body is sending an uncomfortable signal that they are paying attention to and trying to correct.  In normal life, this signal usually comes at the heightened experience of pain but in tai chi we are catching it at an early level and learning to tune into it.

How does tai chi teach heightened sensitivity?

The tai chi form is series of movement laws we can say.  If you move in one way, you are said to have good tai chi.  It is reintroducing us to movements and breathing that are innate to all animals.  I say re-introducing because all young toddlers walk and breathe correctly until life teachers them otherwise.

Here are some examples.

Body alignment – Walk across the room.  Chances are your right foot and left hand traveled forward together.   Now step right and push forward with your right hand (same side), and left with left.  This is tai chi.  You do this in the form and if you switch back to moving with an opposite gait (left hand/right foot moving forward at the same time) your brain fires a signal noting a difference.

Weight shifts – Grab a door knob. Chances are your weight fell on the front foot at the point that you grabbed the knob.  Now keep your weight back as you grab the knob.  Chances are that you were quieter, and that your hand sent back a tactile message from the knob –it’s cold, it’s hard.  Because your hand’s nerve endings weren’t employed to balance or hold your weight, it could undertake remedial processes.   Poor or opposing weight shifts can stop your body from sending back messages during the form.

The heightened sensitivity that tai chi develops is akin to what we call a “hunch.”

Tai Chi Influences our LifeDeveloping your hunch.

The tai chi form gives a you a small window of time where everything is perfect. Your body likes this experience and if you listen to it, you will increasingly sense when something is not to your liking.  To me it occurs in the gut.  It is the proverbial “hunch.”  As you acquaint yourself with this feeling, acknowledge that something is wrong and act on it, the gut feeling grows and becomes more pronounced.  Think back to the countless metaphors

An example of a hunch.

I often go to a great Greek restaurant and one day I was on the other side of town and stopped at a second location. When I opened the door I mildly smelled cleaning solution and my gut dropped and I felt anxious.  I blew it off thinking “I am already here, I am hungry, I only have 20 minutes to eat.”  I didn’t make it back to work and you can guess which small room of my house I spent the afternoon in.

Malarkey you scream again!   Happenstance!

I can’t out-rightly convince you through text that this is empirically true.  However, if you start listening to your hunch, bad things happen less and there always seem to be consequences for ignoring them. What you can measure is that practitioners who “listen” to their movements are the ones who make dramatic leaps forward in their practice.

The science behind the hunch.

tai chi Influences our Life90% of the human brain is said to be run by the subconscious mind while 10% is accredited to the knowing mind.  This makes complete sense and we wouldn’t want it any other way or we would be overrun but the processes that run the body and having to actually think about everything that our senses are taking in.

The hunch is actually listening to this 90%.  It is giving an audience to your library of experiences and all of your sensory activity.  Normally we only listen when the signal is ratcheted up (pain/danger) but we can access it more intimately.

The physiology of the hunch.

tai chi influences our livesWhat is it that we are tuning in to?  When there is a change in our environment that may require immediate action or body changes our 1) rate of blood flow, 2) breathing, and 3) or endocrine system re-employs chemicals away from autonomic processes (digestion) and into awaiting muscles (limbs).

The hunch is physical and we feel better for paying attention.

The hunch is physical.  Think about the millions of metaphors used to capture this sense (sense, get it?). “I had a gut feeling about that.”  “That breaks my heart.”  You sweat. You hold your breath.  And yet, we conceptualize the hunch as being mental.  It is not mental.  The mental process is the reaction to the physical change.  This is what tai chi is trying to attune us to and how tai chi influences our lives.  If you listen to it you “feel” better regardless of the outcome.

In Battle, Hunches Prove to Be Valuable

Tie-dyed Tai Chi – Why tai chi suffers under the weight of its own reputation

Chi is a real, scientifically measurable energy that can have quick, dramatic implications for your wellbeing. 

You have seen him.  The tie-dyed-shirt wearing gentleman with the fanny pouch at the last conference.  Or the woman ordained with endlessly flowing scarves on a 100 degree day.  At a conference I attended in Austin, Texas an attendee relaxed between sessions by playing a didgeridoo.   At a summer camp I participated in in Oregon, an attendee entertained Chen Zhenglei and his wife with juggling and hacky sacks.

These are our peeps.  As eccentric as they are, they make up a representational and interesting percentage of practitioners.  I wouldn’t dream of practicing an art that wasn’t as accepting as tai chi and find dullness a far more unacceptable sin.  However, this laissez-faire reputation of tai chi can slow down the progress of new students.

tie dye shirt2Here are the risks:

Chi is a real, scientifically measurable energy that can have quick, dramatic implications for your wellbeing.

If you stray too far down the metaphysical path you can begin to see chi as supernatural or theoretical and unobtainable by “mere mortals.”

Posture and a sense of fullness  are what gets the energy flowing through your body and ultimately gives you the sensation and control of moving chi.

Flowing muse-like dancing does not give you the proper structure and open blood flow.   Yes, tai chi is beautiful, but understand that there is real substance to the movements.  It is a fullness where your entire body is engaged.   By doing the form correctly you are giving your body a 1-8 minute window where you are aligned and your meridians are open.  Eventually an internal sensitivity arises that lets you “feel” chi.

Martial applications put your body in the proper position to ensure meridian alignment.

Tai chi is both martial and health.  When asked which was more important, Chen Youze replied by saying: “Go after health and get the health.  Go after martial and get the martial and the health.”  You do not need to fight.  However, the mechanics, posture, and intent of pushhands is how the proper alignment of taichi has been successfully passed down across millennia.

So where did the tie-dyed tai-chi stereotype come from?

Tai chi has equal parts martial, health, spirit, and history.  One could spend a lifetime studying different aspects of the art and not scratch the surface.  So how did the spiritual aspects of taichi get over emphasized?  Let’s take a quick historical look at the popularity of martial arts in America.

tai dye 3History

Most Americans who initially undertook martial arts practice largely fell into two camps.  They served in a war in Asia and were exposed to  the martial aspects of an art.  Or, they were introduced to tai chi through the hippie movement of the 1960s.

U.S. veterans were taught martial arts as part of their wartime training.  Pilots were taught Judo in Japan.  Marines were taught Karate in Okinawa and stick fighting in the Philippines. Solders continue to bring back Tai Kwon Do from Korea.  As you can imagine, while I am making an argument for exploring the practical and martial aspects of tai chi, practitioners of the external martial arts are revisiting the soft side of their disciplines.

Tai chi arrived in America at a time when American’s were ready to think with a more open mind – i.e. the 1960s.  Most Chinese immigrants to America came from Beijing or Hong Kong which have a large concentration of Yang tai chi practitioners.  This was perfect timing as Yang Style has a greater focus on the health and metaphysical.


We have had standing relationships with Japan, Korea, and the Philippines  for the last half century.  These have been the countries that have provided us with what we traditionally consider the hard, external martial arts.  Basically, many Americans served in these countries learned martial arts there, and brought them back to the U.S.  Based on their own exposure and interest, the martial application of these arts became the focus and internal aspects took a back seat.

Conversely, China began opening its doors in the 80s.  While this was already 30 years ago, their marital arts were more closely linked to religion and China kept a tight leash on information sharing.  It was not until the last decade that we have seen more travel visas for teachers, more travel visas awarded to Americans, and the Chinese discovery of YouTube.

paisley t-shirtTie-dyed Tai Chi

Love tai chi for its global peaceful message.  However, understand that the spiritual aspects of tai chi are just a portion of the art.  If you crave the spiritual-metaphysical energy that chi promises, know that it is dependent on you being healthy, aligned, and balanced.  If you crave the power of internal strength easily demonstrated by dozens of Chinese teachers, know that they got their by pursuing relaxation and balance.  Don’t just be Yin or Yang.  (I think that would effectively make you paisley?).

Martial Progress in Tai Chi: Using Yin Yang Theory to Gauge our Development

Learning to “relax” can be charged with frustration and is a suggestion that is often seen as a criticism.  It is time to view it in its intended light:  your relaxation charts your progress.








When we’re starting out practicing tai chi we often think we are soft and relaxed when we’re actually pretty far from it.  This can be frustrating on a number of levels.  First of all, who am I (or your teacher) to tell you that you are not relaxed when your body is giving you every indication that you are?  Secondly, what is the value of a teacher pointing out this error continually which seems to undermine progress?

 Fact 1:   Your body and mind can tell you two different things.

The idea of being told to do something when you thought you already were, can be seen in many areas of taichi.  You are standing in a posture, in relaxed la-la land and your instructor tells you to relax.  What did he think you were doing!  You are performing a move slowly, i.e. Matrix style, and your instructor tells you to slow down.  You tell a student to hold a “deep” horse stance for 90 seconds and counsel them to stop rising up.  They look perturbed.  You place them back in a horse stance under a shelf and they bonk their head.  They are stupefied that they were moving.  How are these diametrically opposed situations possible?  Because emotions such as performance anxiety or the pain from the deep stance sends messages to the brain to improve the situation, while not letting you in on the process.  This is a good thing.  This function is inhibited in depressed people.

And now we start to see some of the efficient beauty of taichi.  Tai chi allows us to step outside of our body’s box and wake up to autonomic processes so that we can actively control them.  By waking up to this trickery we can make minute changes and begin to enjoy progress.

 Fact 2:  Progress has to be from hard to soft

We need to stop beating ourselves up for not being “relaxed.”  It is not a normal state for nearly everyone.   Even if you are that laidback person you dream you are, taichi is building a relaxation that is not achievable without training.  This is the magical relaxation that stumps doctors because it heals.  This is the relaxation that is normally only found on vacation.  However, in this case it is free and can happen in your backyard.

Yin Yang Theory and Monitoring Progress in Tai Chi

Here is an older article from Chen XiaowangYin Yang Theory that covers the progress made from continual practice.  But first, let me say that it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that the progression is going to be from hard to soft.  From “external” to “internal.”  Yin Yang Theory gives us a paradigm where we can gave our progress incrementally.  First 90/10, then 80/20 etc. until we become more balanced in power and form.  This is the classical way in taichi and it’s probably just a reality.

 Level 1

They may not have mastered the application but by knowing how to mislead his opponent the student may occasionally be able to throw off his opponent.  Even then, he may be unable to maintain his own balance. Such a situation is thus termed “the 10% yin and 90% yang; top heavy staff”.

Level 2

One may be able to move and ward off an attack but may easily commit errors like throwing-off or collapsing and over-exerting or confronting force. Because of these, during push-hands, one cannot move according to the sequence of warding-off, grabbing, pressing and pushing down. A person with this level of skill is described as ‘20% yin, 80% yang: an undisciplined new hand.’

Level 3

Even in leading-in and expelling-out the opponent, one [may] feel stiff and much effort is required. As such the skill at this stage is described as ‘30% yin, 70% yang, still on the hard side.’

Level 4

On contact with the opponent, one can immediately change one’s action and thus dissolve the on-coming force with ease, exhibiting the special characteristics of going along with the movements of the opponent but yet changing one’s own actions all the time to counteract the opponent’s action, exerting the right force, adjusting internally, predicting the opponent’s intention, subduing one’s own actions, expressing precise force and hitting the target accurately. Therefore, a person attaining this level of kung fu is described as ‘40% yin, 60% yang; akin to a good practitioner.’

Yin Yang TheoryLevel 5

As regarding the martial skill, at this level the gang (hard) should complement the rou (soft), it (the form) should be relaxed, dynamic, springy and lively. Every move and every motionless instant is in accordance with taichi principle, as are the movements of the whole body. This means that every part of the body should be very sensitive and quick to react when the need arises. So much so that every part of the body can act as a fist to attack whenever is in contact with the opponent’s body. There should also be constant interchange between expressing and conserving of force and the stance should be firm as though supported from all sides.

The description for this level of kung fu is that it is the ‘only one that plays with 50% yin and 50% yang, without any bias towards yin or yang, and the person who can do this is termed a good master. A good master makes every move according to the taichi principles which demands that every move be invisible.’

Here is the take-home message

At the uppermost level of development we land at and even 50/50 split between hard and soft.  On one hand this illustrates how hard (yang/unrelaxed) we all probably are at the beginning of training.  On the other hand, it defines what soft really means.  Softness is the ability to conceal and maintain the potential of a significant force.   It is not the weak, flabby softness out on the end of the soft-to-hard spectrum.

By continual work on softness and relaxation we are simultaneously achieving the health and mental benefits from “relaxation” and building up true internal power.   Any time that we find a singular focus that results in multiple benefits we know we are participating in a great and natural process.

The Five Levels of Development in Tai Chi

Anyone who has made tangible progress in the martial arts has learned a set of movements and then made discoveries by working independently. 








In a conversation with a friend who is a long time practitioner of Japanese martial arts I was envious at the structure that was imbued into the different levels of progress.  They have very defined levels which are defined by specific curriculum, vocabulary, knowledge, performance expectations, and even visible uniform upgrades.  What do the Chinese systems have? (crickets).  There are some schools that have tried to implement belt-systems or sashes or name walls but none of this has gotten any traction and often just looks gimmicky.

Development in Tai ChiI am not advocating that the Chinese systems codify their progress here.  The Chinese-stylist would defend their structure (or lack of) in the following way: By putting a structure in place or by identifying a single, all-talented teacher, you immediately put a ceiling on your progress.  Anyone who has achieved a level of development in tai chi has learned a set of movements and then made discoveries by working independently. This is not an indictment on the Japanese or Korean systems.  They have their own lineage of tinkering and making gains.  When I cross-train with individuals I find that many have dabbled in multiple martial arts and have landed in their art of choice largely due to availability and personality.

So yes I feel that there are distinct advantages to progressing by being in a non-codified system.  However, that doesn’t mean that a new or old person couldn’t benefit from seeing the long road so that they know which direction they are traveling.

In the Chinese systems, the path you are taking is largely due to what you defining.

The beauty of Tai Chi is that it is 1) attractive to people with different interests such as health, martial arts, or history and 2) on the same token allows you to study the same thing for multiple decades as your interests change.

Development in Tai ChiHere is an example:  B.K. Frantzis writes prolifically on the use of Tai Chi in martial development.  So when asked “What are the stages of learning tai chi?”  Here is his answer taken from this article.

Stage 1:  Form Work (Long or Short Form)

Stage 2: Taichi Pushhands or Tui Shou

Stage 3:  Transition Methods between Push Hands and Sparing

Stage 4:  Sparing and Actual Sparring

It is decidedly slanted toward martial attainment.  It is a very nice article if you are interested in a full explanation of each stage.

Five Levels of Development in Tai Chi

Learning taijiquan is in principle similar to educating oneself; progressing from primary to university level, where one gradually gathers more and more knowledge. Without the foundation from primary and secondary education, one will not be able to follow the courses at university level.  Chen Xiao Wang

There is a tangible sequence to understand and truly follow to make progress in Tai Chi.   5 levels have been laid out for us that can be applied to any finite or global pursuit.  This means that B.K. Frantzis’s explanation above incorporates these ideas and that we can take these ideas and apply them to our own interests.  I will use an article translated for Chen Xiao Wang (CXW) and boil the principles down.  Understand that micro-actions, even 2 minutes of practice or standing each day, bring profound understanding of progress.  Just thinking about this intellectually can only get you so far.

The First Level: Requirements on the different parts of the body

The purpose: allows one’s energy to sink to the dan tien
This level is super easy to understand to execute.  CXW estimates that these basics can be achieved in 6 months.  For the novice this is encouragement to work steadily and for the avid practitioner this is motivation to reinvest some time in some weak points and get on our way. Here is your job:

Development in Tai Chi

  • keeping a straight body
  • keeping the head and neck erect with mindfulness
  • relaxing the shoulders and sinking the elbows
  • relaxing the chest and waist letting them sink down
  • relaxing the crotch and bending the knees
  • breathe naturally

Here is a breath of fresh air:  CXW says that a beginner at this level can be: “…not well coordinated and systematic…postures may not be correct…the force or jin produced may be stiff, broken, lax or on the other hand too strong.”  Sounds great! Let’s get the form down, let’s allow ourselves to stink at what we think is important because it is not yet important.

What Level 1 taught me:  Real life terms.

I never want these essays to be solely theoretical so let me share how taichi has positively affected my life.  At work I was super behind.  I had 7 products partially started and none were complete.  Psychologically I was beating myself up for not being done, them being imperfect.  What did I do?  I hammered through all 7 in 10 days, during working hours.  How different do you think my completed version was from a perfect version?  My boss was ecstatic and I was able to pass them off to colleagues to inject new motivation and put on the final touches.  4 months of cowering put to rest in 10 days!

The Second Level: Feel the movement of internal energy

The purpose: to ensure that the internal energy/qi will move systematically in the body in accordance with the requirements of each movement.

Ok, deep breath.  You started this tai chi thing to feel this internal energy.  Oh but it is illusive.  Oh but I can’t feel it.  Bull.  Chances are you couldn’t sense it because you weren’t aligned or attune.  You just took care of that by learning the form.  You can only concentrate on specific movements because you are not overwhelmed by remembering the choreography.

At this level trust that things are flowing and that by making small improvements to the form you will increase the energy to the level that you can sense it.  Here is your job:

  • external closing/union of movement: closing of hands with legs, elbows with knees, shoulders with hips
  • relaxing shoulders and elbows, chest and waist as well as crotch and knees
  • use the waist as a pivot to move every part of the body
  • breathe naturally

What Level 2 taught me:  Real life terms.

I had been studying guitar for a while and could “play” a couple songs.  It is merely for fun and am not about to quit my day job so I hadn’t thought about refining a song past just learning the notes.  Then my teacher asked if I wanted to play at a Student Showcase Performance.  I agreed, the fear kicked in, and holy cow was I focused on improving the song I already knew.  I had a blast bringing the song up to performance level, played in front of a completely sympathetic crowd, and for the first time had someone say “Oh you play the guitar?” And for the first time I answered “yes.”  When I was fear-stricken on stage my body was acting before my mind (which was frozen) could.  “Oh you study tai chi?”  Focus on improvements and answer them “yes.”

The Third Level: Mastering the internal and external requirements

Purpose: improve the strength of internal qi and begin the coordination between muscle movements and the functioning of the internal organs

Here is your job:

  • synchronize actions with breathing quite precisely
  • be able to command the actions with more ease, not muscle
  • practice push-hands and weapons as an out-of-the-box experiment to practice your balance, posture, and force
  • check on the quality and quantity of the internal force.  Is their visible blood flow to your hands? Can you break into a sweat from standing meditation?  Can you feel heat in your palms?  If not, seek specific corrections on standing and qi gong.

What Level 3 taught me:  Real life terms.

Much of the focus of the third level has to do with dissolving conflict.  There is a third way that tai chi has taught me and it is simply to not respond.  So many times at work or with the kids, someone is in a bad mood or is acting clearly out of their own motivations.  I always contemplated my response as being for or against them or a choice between appeasing them or aggravating them further.   But what about doing nothing?  By putting some time between me and worker who “needed to talk” or a child that “needed” something, by the time I approached them on the subject they were completely confused because they had forgotten all about it, had moved on, or were embarrassed.

The Fourth Level: Expressing force

Purpose: exerting the right force, adjusting internally, predicting the opponent’s intention, subduing one’s own actions, and expressing precise force and hitting the target accurately.

Here is your job:

  • practice each movement as though you were confronting the opponent
  • each part of the body must move in a linked and continuous manner so that the whole body moves in unison.
  • Movements of the upper and lower body are related
  • there should be a continuous flow between movements

What Level 4 taught me:  Real life terms.

Force does not come from the buildup of strength or clout.  Each year my profession attends a conference and has a booth with varying degrees of success.  This last year was the most successful.  It was not because of the products we were selling or because of who was attending.  We worked hard to strip away everything that was non-essential and therefore had extremely positive engaging employees attend who focused on three applicable products.  It was a success because we aligned our force to have the greatest impact and left the conference feeling elated rather than exhausted.

The Fifth level:  Coordination and special relationships

Purpose: work hard day by day until the body is very flexible and adaptable to multi-faceted changes

The beauty of the fifth level is that it is very real to life.  We can never be sure of what will be thrown at us.  To conclude with the Japanese-Chinese metaphor that began this essay:  Tai chi is more about focusing on abilities that would hold up against the majority of attacks (internal strength, groundedness, awareness, posture) rather than practicing against precise attacks (punch with your right hand).  Here is your job:

  • the form should be relaxed, dynamic, springy and lively.
  • every move and every motionless instant is in accordance with taiji principle
  • every part of the body should be very sensitive and quick to react
  • there should also be constant interchange between expressing and conserving of force
  • the stance should be firm as though supported from all sides


As you can see, development is a natural progress from external to internal or from hard to soft.  That being said, we need to know that we cannot beat ourselves up along the way for being too external or hard.  That is the point.  We are too external and realizing this is probably what led us to study tai chi.


Why People Practice Tai Chi

Understanding why people practice tai chi is extremely important to our own development and to the development of classmates and students.

We posted a survey here for two months and collected information about why people practice tai chi.  There were many responses that were expected but there were tons more that were not.  The combined results create a unique picture of the many reasons why people practice tai chi.  For instructors, it is valuable information in what to include in curriculum to keep interest high.

What interests you most about studying Tai Chi?

As opposite as it would seem, learning martial applications and learning about meditative aspects were cited as being the most interesting to people studying tai chi.  Learning the tai chi form came in second which is good to highlight as an obtainable goal for new students.

Why People Practice Tai Chi

I am studying taichi or would like to because of which benefits?

Hands-down people are coming to tai chi because of its reputed health benefits.  Tai chi definitely can improve on most health issues especially those that are self-induced such as work related stressors and injuries.

Why People Practice Tai Chi

I found out about taichi because…

The internet and through friends are the chief way that people are finding tai chi classes.  We certainly see it on this website as people search for “ta chi + CITY.”     A lot of people come to tai chi with a friend but they almost always stop coming as pairs too.  This data is making us question how to alleviate people of their initial nervousness but identify their individual interests to keep them studying long enough to gain the benefits of tai chi. That inevitably is what keeps most people around.

Why People Practice Tai Chi

I practice/would like to practice taichi to…

This last graph in some ways is the most interesting as people were allowed to choose from a list or add their own ideas.  Here we see the wide variety of reasons why people practice tai chi.  Work/life improvements and healing of old injuries appear to be the top reasons cited.

Why People Practice Tai Chi

Want more information on why people practice tai chi?

Check out these links:

Basics – Tai Chi for Health

Tai chi: A gentle way to fight stress – Mayo Clinic

The health benefits of tai chi – Harvard Health

Ming-Men: An acupressure point with power-full implications

Increase energy and reduce stress by learning about this one acupuncture point.







The Ming-men refers to an energy center located in the lower torso that is so power-full that it is associated with three acupuncture points Governing Vessel 4 (Gv4), Conception Vessel 4 (Cv4) and Conception Vessel 5 (Cv5).  The Chinese admiration for the Ming-men is captured in the disagreement on how to describe it.  It has been called the Gate of Power, Proclamation Gate, Gate of Destiny, and Gate of Life. No matter how you define it, the healing ability and energy properties of the Mingmen abound.

Why is it important and why should I know about the Ming Men?

Do you have trouble sleeping?  Read on.  Want more energy?  Keep reading.  Are you interested in the explosive chi energy of the internal martial arts?  This article is for you.  The idea of a “gate” occurs in all translations and is probably the most suitable.  Whatever your health or martial goals are, accessing the Ming-men point is the place to start.

Many of us are familiar with the idea that martial and healing energy originate in the center of the body.  We may also have heard the words Dan Tien or Hara to describe this region. This central area, the Sea of Chi, is often referred to as the Dan Tien when actually it describes the Dan Tien and Ming Men collectively. As mentioned in the post on the three dan-tiens, there is more than one energy center and when referred to in general terms, the word “dantien” is used to describe the whole central region.

I am going to take a different tack here, one that is only different to westerners but not to the East.  Yes the Dan Tien and Ming Men can be talked about together.  If a student is just beginning to wrap her mind around the idea that energy/power come from the center then this is a later discussion.  However, independently the dantien and mingmen have different purposes and therefore different powers.  Simply put, knowing about both regions allows us to benefit from and increase the power of both.  I am confident in the intelligence of most practitioners and it is time for us to advance collectively.

Let’s start by finding it.  Then we will describe why it is so important.   We will end with simple practical ways to access the Ming Men and begin to reap its rewards.

 Where is the Ming-Men?Ming-Men

For locating Gv4 you need to feel your lower back right in the center or most shallow point of the curve.  It is located in the lower abdomen approximately two inches below the navel, and between the skin and the ventral surface of the spine.

That sounds like the DanTien!


Both the Ming Men and the Dan Tien come into existence at birth.  They are both near the navel.  The region can be accessed collectively to build energy or collect energy from other areas of the body.


Dan Tien

Ming Men

Located two inches below the navel in the center of the body. Located two inches below the navel along the inside of the spine.
Represents post-natal energy Represents pre-natal energy
Yin Yang
Can act as a storage container to build up energy and send on to other meridian points Can act as a gate to allow energy in or out, and to blend opposing energies that are being produced by the kidneys

Why is the Ming Men Point Important?

I am going to dive into three rabbit holes here so bear with me. It will all be clear in a second.

Rabbit Hole #1:  Physiology

The Ming Men is found (read- accessed, remember the gate thing?) at acupuncture point B23 smack dab between both kidneys.  The kidneys are designed to filter and reprocess the blood.  Blood is the transit system for toxins and minerals so anything good or bad that you do affects the blood.  The kidneys effectively cleanse and rebalance the blood by staging toxins for waste elimination and sending the good stuff back into the veins.

Rabbit Hole #2:  Chinese Medical Theory

In Chinese medical theory balance equals health.  Each kidney is said to develop an opposing energy and it is between the two kidneys that these energies are blended.  Not just any energy but the essence of energy.  Think of it in terms of clay.  The kidneys develop a pure, recently cleansed, pure source of energy that can be molded into any form of energy.  The type of chi/energy that it becomes depends on your intention.

Rabbit Hole #3:  Metaphysics

Every good rabbit hole/metaphysics reference necessitates an Alice In Wonderland pun but I am going to completely let you down here.  When we get far out on the metaphysical ledge it is too easy to give up, think that we are not _______ (fill in the blank spiritual/connected/adept) enough to make tangible progress and just quit.  However, you can reap tangible benefits from knowing about the ming-men and here is how.  When we begin meditating or trying to concentrate we are plagued by a restless mind (Is it trash night?, my shoes are tight, I want coffee…).  Placing one’s attention on the lower back stops extraneous thoughts – false yang.  Metaphysically, the ming-men is the gate by which we enter no-thought and heighten our concentration.

 How do I develop energy in the Ming Men?

The first steps in developing this energy consist of focusing ones intention.  Mantak Chia in his book on the Microcosmic Orbit suggests taping something uncomfortable on acupuncture spots in the beginning to bring your mind to it.  Eventually you can bring your mind to the ming-men without the tape and acorn.  An additional way is to inhale into the belly while holding your abdominal muscles tight.  Force the air into the small of the back and imagine it emitting from a small opening in the spine.  I like this approach because this practice will eventually serve you when building the explosive power in fa-jin.

What are some practical uses of the Ming Men?

Work-life balance

Who hasn’t heard of or craved work-life balance?   This dichotomy is often misinterpreted as we are directed to take even more action to juggle our many obligations.  I do believe that this illusive work-life balance is attainable but by doing less.  Focusing on the center increases our enthusiasm for activities we enjoy, calms us in situations that are necessary but not necessarily enjoyable, and gives us a perspective to choose tasks that are actually important.  The result is a net gain in energy.   Try this:  the next time you are commuting or caught in traffic think about pushing each breath down to your lower back.  You will be refreshed, less stressed, and surprised when your exit comes so soon if you didn’t miss it entirely.


Creative individuals are balanced.  Any experience that you have had where you are highly creative it is probable that you are outside of your own thoughts and drawing/writing/strumming without relationship to time or place.  The ming-men drains the brain and stops it from running interference.


The ming men point is the one-two punch for sleeplessness.  When my daughter was little and unable to sleep I would splay my palm on the small of her back and sit and think about my own lower spine.  It was minutes before she would spasm and I knew she was diving off into fairy land.  It works on adults and yourself too.  Lay on your back with both palms resting on your navel.  Think about your ming-men.  If a work or stressful thought pops up, drag it down your spine and out the ming men.  Wake up!  I’m almost done.

What are some practice applications for Tai Chi?

Developing Power

The primary use of the ming-men in Ch’i-kung and Martial Arts is to develop power and energy.  Power originates in the kidneys and is transmitted throughout the body.  This is true if you are building up energy to heal or storing energy in your lower back to strike (fa-jin).


Mobility of the lower back connects the upper body with your root or legs.  One needs to be grounded so that a true assessment of the situation is possible.

Adapting to New Situations

This is both a theoretical and a physical idea.  If you lower back is “soft” and responsive you can both transmit and receive blows by accessing the power of the legs.  The next time you are pushed back and locked in your stance, ask yourself if you lower back is soft or locked up.


Knowledge of the ming-men quickens our progress in mental, physical, and internal development.

Seeing the central “Sea of Chi” as its two integral parts, the dan-tien and ming-men,  allows us to more accurately focus on each area independently if we want to intentionally act (dan-tien) or build energy to heal, balance, ground ourselves, or develop chi (min-men).

A Solid Look at the Stances of Tai Chi

A lower tai chi stance is developed by perfecting your posture and then allowing your body to sink.







I decided to write this article as a point of differentiation between the stances of many external arts and the internal art of tai chi chu’an.  A student recently asked for corrections on a stance and I gave them.  He came back the following week hella deep in the stance ready to show me his progress.  I took the wind out of his sails by making more corrections and realized that he studied under Master YouTube for the weekend and came back with some very different ideas.  Most martial arts have bow, cat, and front stances that serve different purposes.

Tai chi stances are designed for 1) health 2) power and 3) agility.

  1. Health:  Tai chi stances maintain open “gates” so that blood can continually flow.  This means that no joint is less than 90 degrees.  This includes the elbows, knees, and the thigh to stomach (Kua) angle.  The armpit is not collapsed.  Imagery of holding a soft ball in your armpit helps envision the posture.
  2. Power:  Good posture is key to developing the strength that comes from the tai chi stance.  By keeping the head and tailbone aligned, the joints open, and blood flow to the muscle, you can take advantage of all of the mechanical forces to create speed and power.
  3. Agility:  Tai chi believes that you would never commit to closing down an arm or leg for some perceived advantage in strength or power.  Here is an example.  Many karate stances bow the lower back and close down the rear inguinal crease (knee pointed down) in the pursuit of stability and power.

tai chi stancestai chi stance

Whereas in this frequent example of Chen masters, the soft lower back, open rear inguinal crease (knee pointed out), and flexed knees provide stability and agility.

Ta Dang (Tah Dong – Collapsed Shelf)

Do you want rapid progress in your tai chi stances?  Do you want to rapidly size-up an opponent or teacher’s abilities?  An understanding of Ta Dang is essential.  Ta Dang refers to a braking of the arch that runs from the inside of one leg to the other.  If you pretended to sit on a stool with good posture you would not have a collapsed shelf (Ta Dang).   This arch is responsible for all of your power and agility.  Trust in your alignment and strength also leads to the depth of your tai chi postures.  Perfect alignment can always be maintained if:  the angle of the stomach to thigh is never smaller than 90 degrees and if the inguinal creases (kuas) are open.  Back to the pictures above. Notice how in the common karate posture  the rear thigh and knee are pointing to the ground and Chen Xiaowang’s rear thigh and knee are pointed out and the crotch is open on both sides.  Hao Dang  – Good Dang

tai chi stancesThis is where the argument begins: “well maybe the styles are different” or “maybe their purposes are different.”   Nine times out of ten I think it is poor transmission of ideas.  For example, Aikido practitioners are notorious for an inverted lower back and rear posted leg.  However, can you find a picture or video of Ueshiba locked or extended?  He would take a knee before breaking this posture.


And what about Karate?  Pictures of Itosu, Kyan, Motobu, Nagamine, Kanai Uechi, you name it, all have open kuas (inguinal creases) where the gi or pants don’t obscure the posture.

tai chi stancetai chi stancestai chi stance

Common tai chi stances

Bow Stance:  The bow stance is an obvious 30/70 stance is a combination of a front and horse stance.  The forward knee cannot 1) cross the toe, 2) pitch inward, or 3) pitch outward.

Empty Stance:  A 90/10 distribution designed for connecting two different movements.

Horse Stance:  A 50/50 stance with the lower back not curved in, both kuas open, and the tailbone slightly tucked in.

So how do we practice our tai chi stances to make them great? 

A tai chi stance, like the form, can be performed at three heights.   Height depends on flexibility or how warmed up you are.   You do not get a lower stance in tai chi from going lower.  A lower stance is developed by perfecting your posture and then allowing your body to sink.  You gain depth not by leaning over or closing your hip but by sliding your feet our further with the spine aligned.

More images of tai chi stances

What is Tai Chi Push Hands (Tui Shou)?

To know yourself, practice the form.  To know others, practice push hands.





Push hands is one of the most misunderstood concepts of tai chi.  Some think of it as slightly controlled sparring and some think it is very dance like.  For that reason, it scares off practitioners who may not see the relationship between push hands and their goals.  So before tuning out, if you are not martially focused, please read on.  And if you are martially focused please read on.  Push hands is hugely important for the development of internal skills, e.g. health or martial application.

Why do tai chi push hands?

tai chi push handsLet’s start with 6 huge advantages you receive basically from standing in front of someone and rocking back and forth.  You gain an understanding of the body mechanics of the art.

  1. It explains why a posture from the form is a certain way. You may not be exactly sure where a hand goes in a posture but when you learn the application it is cemented in your brain.
  2. It teachers the four main energies (Please see our article on Jing for a full explanation.):
    1. Listening (Ting)
    2. Understanding (Dong)
    3. Neutralizing (Hua)
    4. Issuing (Fa)
  3. It teaches the four main skills in making contact:
    1. Connect (Lian) continually connecting physically and paying attention to intention.
    2. Follow (Sui) obeying your opponent’s intention by letting him think he can apply an application which leads him to use force.
    3. Stick (Nian) making light contact with an opponent without breaking.
    4. Adhere (Zhan) getting an opponent to follow you under your control.
  4. It teachers the four primary principles of movement:
    1. Ward Off (Peng)
    2. Roll Back (Lu)
    3. Press Forward (Gi)
    4. Press Downward (An)
  5. It teaches the four secondary principles in the Da Lu Push hands form:
    1. Pluck (Cai)
    2. Split (Lieh)
    3. Elbow (Jo)
    4. Shoulder (Kow)
  6. It teaches how to move in the five main directions:
        1. Forward
        2. Backward
        3. Left
        4. Right
        5. Central Equilibrium

    tai chi push handsSo I get all of this from standing in front of someone and pushing on them?  Yes, in effect.  Think of the amount of academic work that it would take to understand the above concepts.  You can get their much faster just by beginning push hands.

    The above list may appear daunting but you can gain these skills from proper pushing hands without even knowing the concepts above exist.  The martial implications are more obvious but the movements also provide the energy that fuel your health.  Now, let’s dive into the variety of push hands and help you identify how to let push hands address your goals.

    What does push hands look like?

    Tai chi push hands is a two person activity made up of set patterns.  Typically, two people face each other, connect at the forearm and move in circular patterns while transferring weight back and forth.

    How is tai chi push hands practiced?

    tai chi push handsImagine a long spectrum.  On one end people are smiling and pushing hands, practically dancing and getting the benefits listed above.  On the other end, a stadium in China is filled as two push hands opponents compete by issuing blows and attempting to throw each other to the ground or outside of a ring.  They are reaping the benefits from having gained knowledge from the list above.  How can this be the same thing?

    The fundamental focus of pushing hands.

    Push hands shows us how to apply intention to this invisible internal power.  How you use it is up to you.

    What are the common push hands drills?

    Push hands starts out simple and grows more complex.  This is the same process for whether your intent is martial or health or both.  The difference is that the martially minded pursue sparring routines, fighting, and unrehearsed sparring routines.   Martially focused please note!  You have to increase your sensitivity and move without using your muscle or you will not advance.  You will just be doing a muscle exercise.  Take your time and you will be hugely more effective and stronger.

    It’s very hand to verbally describe push hands so let’s go the easy and fun route and look at some video clips.

    One Handed Push hands: YouTube 00:53

    Stationary Two-handed Push hands:  YouTube 01:57

    Moving Pushhands Patterned:  YouTube  04;00

    Basic Pushhands Application Example:  YouTube – visuals start around 04:20

    Sparring:  YouTube

    How do I find a tai chi push hands group?

    tai chi push handsThis is often harder than learning the drills.  Seek a school or meet-up group that matches your martial/health goals.  Practice can initially be frustrating but then push hands becomes one of the most rewarding events because of the rate at which it increases development.

Additionally, there are books and videos that can get you started.  Check out these tai chi push hands resources on Amazon.