Tai chi practitioners grapple with how to move correctly throughout the form, how to connect the movements, and how to get to that place where your form not only looks beautiful but makes you feel fantastic as well. It’s not an easy feat and is made even more difficult when you are brand new and are just trying to memorize the movements and get them in the right order. Truth be told, every student of tai chi has battled with this since the art was invested. And that’s why the eight energies of tai chi have been used to teach us the strength, balance, and health that learning the form promises.
The eight energies of tai chi (Bā jìn 八勁) are the primary ways force is transferred and applied with the body. They are also known as the eight gates (Bā mén 八門) because they are described as four cardinal and four secondary directions as it relates to a compass. These eight energies or “jins” include peng (ward off), lu (roll back), ji (press), an (push down), tsai (pluck), lieh (split), zhou (elbow), and kao (shoulder).
Too often, conversations about tai chi’s eight energies are left in the clouds or at an esoteric level where we understand that movement creates force in different directions but have no idea how to apply it to our form. Secondly, doing tai chi is supposed to make our health and life better. Just how does applying these eight elements of tai chi energy do that for us? It’s actually pretty straight forward.
Let’s start by talking about what the eight energies of tai chi are using a really easy table to remember them and videos to see exactly what they look like. Then, the 8 energies are paired with the 5 steps to create the Song of 13 Tai Chi Postures which we cover in separate essays.
What Are the Eight Energies of Tai Chi?
There is a simple and a complicated was to think about tai chi’s eight energies. At its core, it is nothing more than a physics lesson describing how we raise, lower, push, pull, and separate by using force. Thinking back to our high school science classrooms, there are ways we can produce energy that are efficient and inefficient. For example, a car with greased wheels goes down the hill faster with less energy because of how we modified the axels. The same is true for us. We move throughout the day using energy. If we can produce work very efficiently, we get the same amount of work done having used less energy. Another example here: Imagine spending a day moving your household (e.g., lifting boxes, pushing brooms, carrying things…) by only using your arms instead of lifting with the legs. We would be exhausted.
There is also a deep philosophical dimension to the eight energies. Chinese medicine would describe us using our own vital energy (qi) to act on physical energy (li) with intention (focus). The combining of qi and li properly creates a third dynamic energy called jing. Jing is the (potential) energy that we use to lift, sink, move, etcetera. Sounds like physics right?
This is why conversations about the eight energies are often so confusing. They focus only on the philosophical part without thinking about simple mechanics. But now that we know we are just trying to set up the perfect scenario where we can produce the most amount of force with the least amount of effort, it becomes more obvious what we need to focus on and what we need to do.
The Eight Energies of Tai Chi Chuan
So, what are the different ways we can move or body, move someone else’s body, or move an object? It turns out there are eight primary ways. Here’s a chart and then let’s dive a bit more into each one specifically. I have included good video examples for each of the energies and started at the point they are showing a good demonstration of the energy. They are not in English or subtitled but after reading the example you will know what you are looking at.
Tai Chi Eight Energies
|Ward Off||掤||Peng||Opening Movement||Outward and upward expansion.|
|Roll Back||捋||Lu||Big Roll Back||Dragging or pulling movement with weight shift.|
|Press||擠||Gi||Punch||Forward forceful press with hands.|
|Push / Press Down||按||An||Push Down ending 6 Sealing – Closing||Pushing down with sinking of weight.|
|Grasp / Pluck||採||Tsai||Stab Fist Upward||Upward shift with downward dropping or centering of weight.|
|Split||裂||Lie||Hand Movements in Reverse Stepping||Pressing out with hands or arms in opposite directions from center of body.|
|Elbow Strike||肘||Zhou||Forward or Right Elbow Strike||Strike with or expansion into elbow.|
|Shoulder Strike||靠||Cow||Shoulder Movement in Cloud Hands||Strike with or expansion into shoulder.|
1. Peng Energy (ward off) 掤
Peng is an expanding, opening energy that moves upward and outward from the ground. Peng can be thought of as the natural energy that holds up anything with a structure. It is directly connected to the ground and is only achieved through great relaxation and proper body alignment where any applied force would be connected from the ground rather than being resisted with muscular strength. Also unique to Peng is the fact that it builds energy as force is applied against it, much like when a spring is compressed.
Peng is the primary of the eight tai chi energies because it is present in all movements. This is a unique relationship for resisting an attack or encountering a force because energies are transformed into Peng as a response. For example, capturing something falling towards you or a strike coming toward you could require you to step back or out of the way (Liu – roll back). As you catch the weight and bend your legs you are building up energy in the legs which compresses like a spring to expand out and back towards the force.
2. Liu Energy (or Lu) (roll back) 捋
Liu is a connecting energy where one absorbs the force of an opponent moving towards them. Liu is different than the other tai chi eight energies because it makes contact with the oncoming energy, sticking to it and moving in the same direction. At no point does it oppose the energy but softly goes with it. From a martial standpoint this can be startling and cause an opponent to lose balance because they were expecting resistance or were expecting to make contact. Typically, when the opponent realizes they have over-committed, they reverse their energy leading to an expansion on your part (Peng) or an attack.
3. Ji Energy (or Gi) (press or squeeze) 擠
Ji energy is most often described as pressing but a closer translation from Chinese is that of “squeezing.” Ji is an attacking energy that moves out from the center of the body. More than simply being a strike, the body is squeezed towards the center because the energy originates from the lower dantian (center), breath moves in, and the strike or attack is initiated with a relaxation that begins like a wave traveling out from the core. Ji energy is most often transmitted with two hands moving forward. Even if one hand is used, the other is connecting to the opponent or the striking hand.
4. An Energy (push) 按
An is a downward directed energy like pushing to the floor. It can be deceptive because it can look like the arms are doing most of the work. However, the arms or hands are making the connection and the push is executed with the entire body. This also means that An energy is often misinterpreted to only be pushing down when in fact it just describes full, attacking energy leaving from the torso so it can be done in any direction. An is a striking energy that is directed at an opponent’s vital organs or is intended to uproot the opponent sending them backward or to the ground.
5. Tsai Energy (or Cai) (pluck or grasp) 採
Tsai is unique among the tai chi eight energies because it is a pulling down or jerking downward movement intended to uproot an opponent. It is a quick and intends to catch the opponent off guard making them feel as if they are falling in a direction they hadn’t planned. Tsai is usually present when an opponent tries to stop an attack. At the point that they realize they are being pushed or hit they try to resist. It’s at the this point that Tsai energy can take advantage of their change and pop them out of their stance or flip them to the ground.
6.Lie Energy (or Lieh) (split) 挒
Lie energy is used to move two things in opposite directions or pull things apart. Unlike the closing and sinking of An energy, Lie is an opening, separating, and expending energy. Lie energy is present every time we have to do two opposing things at once. Giving a martial example, trips and throws involve Lie energy. Think of stepping behind an opponent’s leg and kicking their leg out to the right while you strike their upper body to the left sending them over backwards.
7. Zhou Energy (or Chou) (elbow strike) 肘
Zhou is a short, compact energy that is issued from the elbow. It is generated from the ground and amplified by a powerful rotation of the torso. The elbow remains relaxed almost until the point of contact. Even in the case of blocking, the forearm and elbow stay light to travel quickly and then issue force on contact. Zhou energy is used for close fighting and due to its strength that can be generated quickly it is not normally practiced with partners because of how easily it can damage ribs or bruise.
And a second application of zhou energy.
8. Kao Energy (or Cow) (lean or shoulder strike) 靠
Just like Zhou, Kao is a quick short energy that is used in close fighting or when contact has been made between two bodies. Kao energy is issued from the shoulder as strikes or an explosion of energy to separate you from another person who is holding you. These strikes can be forward, backward, or traditionally to the side. The translation of Kao from Chinese is closer to “leaning” which hints at the angles trajectory of the strike because it is initiated from the ground and transmitted up through the legs.
Practicing the Eight Energies of Tai Chi
There are three primary ways to learn and practice the eight energies of tai chi. First, like above, tai chi’s eight energies are a pretty new idea to most of us and require a bit of book learning or at least reading to learn about the concepts. Second, the energies exist in each movement of the form. Some moves are obvious such as a press being Ji. But some moves are more complex and have several energies embedded in them. After learning the form, to truly understand the movements and perform them correctly, you will have to think about which energy is being used in each move.
Lastly, most styles have separate standing or walking drills that connect the first four primary energies together and the second four energies together. You can also do all eight of them in a row. Here is a great example. In this video he is stepping through and focusing on each of the eight energies in a row.