Five Elements Theory 101

[pullquote align=”right”]Exploring the philosophy and medical history that contribute to tai chi aids in understanding of how we move.[/pullquote]






There is an esoteric side of tai chi that dips in and out of the Tao, the I-Ching, yin-yang theory, and Buddhist philosophy.  Are these terms new to you or confusing?  Join the club.  This is an amazingly large body of knowledge and very few practitioners have completely wrapped their mind around all of these topics.  Unless coming from a philosophical background or having acupuncture knowledge, nearly no new practitioners have this stuff figured out.  Gaining philosophical understanding is a huge reason why people begin tai chi and yet it can seem intimidating at first.   This article is intended to introduce these philosophical principles and how they relate to the art.

Before we get started we need to understand one thing:

Tai chi leads to an understanding of the philosophical principles.  Philosophical principles are NOT initially needed to understand tai chi. 

This idea too often gets turned around and we are left feeling inept.  Tai chi is the philosophy so start moving and start your understanding.  Secondly, if you begin to research Five Elements Theory you will find authors who feel it is too advanced of a study and should be avoided by new practitioners.  It is thick.  I am not going to lie.  However, if you have a sense for how your movements are connected to your health, you make progress.  You make progress, you stick with tai chi.  You stick with tai chi  and benefit from it immensely.  So let’s introduce ourselves to Five Elements Theory and how it relates to tai chi. 

Five Elements Theory

Two primary forces (yin and yang) interact in the body.  Most people would accept that if your body is out of balance, you are less strong, healthy, and mentally alert. (OK, I’m with you).

What does the Five Elements Theory do?  It explains the relationship between the organs, the way energy gets to the organs (meridians), and how the energy (chi) primarily originates from the kidneys. (Sure, the organs each have a job, this job needs energy, the kidneys make the energy and send it along the meridian highways, check!).

Five Elements Theory Why is this chi energy largely associated with the kidneys?  The kidneys are said to hold opposing fire and water energy.  An imbalance here trickles down to affect other organs depending on the imbalance.  In practical terms, the blood is filtered by the kidneys sending fresh blood back in and toxins out.  (Still with ya.  A happy kidney factory means clean, well fueled organs).

How does this relate to health?  All poor health conditions are due to something that an organ is not doing. For example, bronchitis can be attributed to weak lungs.  Equally so, emotional difficulties are tied to organs and can lead to nervous system imbalances. (Whoa, so I can affect the two sides of this coin?  1) My eating, liquid intake, and exercise affects what arrives at the kidneys. 2) My activities affect how the kidneys function.  But what activities??).

Simplify this.  How does tai chi fit in to five elements theory?

Much of the meditation and concentration involves focusing on your belly where the dantien and mingmen are located.  These directly nourish the nearby kidneys.  The movements of taichi rotate and massage the center.  These activities balance the kidneys.  The kidneys then balance the rest of the system. (Tai chi is designed in-part to nourish and support the activity of the kidneys.  2500 years of research can’t be wrong I guess).

 For those that want to dive down the Five Element Theory rabbit hole I will send you off in a few directions here:

Some practitioners focus on strengthening a certain meridian and organ based on what season it is.  This makes a lot of sense and is quite intriguing.

[table style=”1″]

WinterWaterKidneys,BladderGenerate energy to other organs to stave off fatigue, coldness, and weight gain.
SpringWoodLiver,Gall BladderIncrease strength and stamina for coming summer activity and processing of summer foods
SummerFireHeart,Sm. IntestineStabilize blood flow, blood supply, clarity and process foods of summer.
Late SummerEarthSpleen,StomachObtain energy from the activities and foods of harvest.
FallMetalLungs,Lg. IntestineStrengthen the lungs before the winter months.


Practitioners also link the directions of movements with the five elements to describe the 1) power that is supplied to the movement Five Elements Theory and to 2) identify which movements can be performed to alleviate health concerns.

[table style=”1″]

EarthOn Guard, Centering
FireMove to the Right
WaterMove to the Left


Don’t get overwhelmed by the technical aspects of five elements theory

5 elements theoryYes five elements theory is complex but take away the pieces that you understand and let the rest sink in over time. Know that when you practice and your movements improve, the direct impact on your health can be felt.  We can learn and remain light-hearted.  Here is a funny and perfect example to keep you grounded.  Chinese Five Elements According to South Park

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

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