With hundreds of years of theorizing on how to progress in tai chi and perform tai chi correctly, you would think that there would be documentation on how to move the body. With that amount of time and attention, you would also imagine that ideas and techniques would be boiled down to the simplest of processes. On both accounts you would be right! The tai chi 5 step method tells us everything we need to know.
Tai Chi 5 Step Method is instructions on how to move the body forward (進步 Jin Bu), backward (退步 Tui Bu), to the left (左顧 Zo Gu), to the right (左顧 Yo Pan), and relaxing (中定 Zong Ding) to the center. It is paired with the 8 Energies of Tai Chi to collectively create the Song of Tai Chi 13 Postures.
Understanding the Tai Chi 5 Step Method is essential for all practitioners at every level. We have dedicated our time below to understanding the five steps and included a handy chart to reference later. In two separate articles we dive into the 8 energies of tai chi and the Song of 13 Postures so that you can see how these five steps fit into the bigger picture.
An Explanation of the Tai Chi 5 Steps or Wu Bu 五步
Wu Bu translates directly to “five 五 steps 步.” On the one hand, it is as simple as it seems. The body can move in four cardinal directions and can stay centered and sink down. On the other hand, Wu Bu carries deeper instruction telling us how to transition while maintaining posture and balance. It shows us how to connect the different movements of tai chi into a flowing rhythm rather than having independent movements that just follow one right after the other. It explains how to shift our weight so that we are nimbly stepping with “empty steps” and then transferring our weight so that we don’t lose our balance or over commit. And lastly, it instructs us how to maintain attention and concentration as we move from one tai chi posture to the next.
So those two characters (五步) are telling us about 5 steps. But an expanded definition of WuBu would include the idea of weight shifts, posture maintenance, intention, and direction. Ultimately, the goal of tai chi is to align the body and posture so that energy is free to travel and be used to promote health or issue force. If we are not aligned, we use more energy than we need to or can’t create as much force as we would like.
Here is a chart summing up the 5 movements and then we will dive into each one.
Tai Chi 5 Steps (Wu Bu 五步)
|Advance Forward||進步||Jin Bu||Step and Press||An unweighted step forward and then transferring weight onto the foot.|
|Retreat Backward||退步||Tui Bu||Repulse Monkey||An unweighted step backward and then transferring weight onto the foot.|
|Eyes Focus Right / Right Step||左顧||Yo Pan||Ending Lazy About Tying Coat||An unweighted step right and then transferring weight onto the foot or stepping in to bring weight to the center.|
|Eyes Focus Left / Left Step||左顧||Zo Gu||Beginning of (big) Roll Back||An unweighted step left and then transferring weight onto the foot or stepping in to bring weight to the center.|
|Central Balance||中定||Zong Ding||White Crane Spreads Wings||Rising from the crown of the head and sinking from the tailbone.|
Tai Chi 5 Step Method Explained
Stepping is just stepping right? Do you mean to tell me that there is a better way to move than how I have been throughout my life? The truth is yes, after a certain age. Most young children begin walking in an absolutely perfect manner. The sink onto one leg before stepping. Then they put one empty foot forward and pull the ground with the sole of the foot to transfer the weight onto it. We normally only see this in adults when they are walking on ice. Very young children also look before they step sideways or backwards. And, they pause and relax before taking that step.
How do adults walk? Typically. they throw the upper body forward and then land with their weight on every step. They carry their emotion in their posture whether it is leaning with grit and determination or hunched shoulders undertaking tasks they don’t want to. Maybe they walk correctly when they are injured to make sure not to put too much pressure on a sore knee or ankle. Even in those circumstances they often throw the leg out at an angle and circle it around to avoid having to properly bend at the hip, knee, or ankle.
The tai chi 5 step method offers us a way to learn how to move in the five basic directions correctly.
1. Advance Forward – Jin Bu – 進步
Advancing steps are undertaken with careful transfers of weight. You sink onto one leg and lift the empty leg to step placing the heal down first. It’s only when the foot is securely on the ground that you transfer weight forward.
There is a real advantage to learning how to step forward correctly because it can reduce, eliminate, or avoid all knee pain for the rest of your life. Knee pain is primarily caused by two things: landing with your weight on your step with the knee out in front of the toe, and turning on a foot that has your weight on it. Both of these can be avoided with by properly advancing forward.
From a martial standpoint, confidently advancing on your opponent means you can enter their space for close attacks. Most importantly, most righthanded people rely on a left-foot-forward stance. Being able to transfer your forward and backward quickly means your forward left leg can’t be kicked out from under you.
2. Retreat Backward – Tui Bu – 退步
Retreating steps are the opposite of advancing steps. You do them in the same empty manner but you step by putting your toe down first. Secondly, because you are going backward, you need to look first. This seems like an obvious point but I can’t tell you how many new tai chi students just step back without rotating to look out of the corner of the eye to see what is behind them.
A second aspect of retreating steps is that it teaches us how to center the weight before stepping. If you were to walk backward in the sand you would see patterns of halfmoon shapes as the empty foot comes back alongside the weighted foot before moving back out to having the weight transferred onto it.
Martially, stepping backward is a retreat that leads an opponent into a position that pulls them off balance or can expose their side or front to you for you to better strike at close proximity.
3. Eyes Focus Right / Right Step – Yo Pan – 左顧
Sideways steps always include discussions of the eyes because there is a look and weight shift in the opposite direction from where you are intending to go. For example, if you were to step out to the right like in Six Sealing Four Closing, you rotate and look to the left, swing your arms to the left effectively shifting your weight, sink onto the weighted leg, and then step out to the right. This is a far cry from “just stepping right,” a.k.a, falling with your weight on your food.
Stepping right correctly turns you into a better fighter because as people attack with their right leg or fist, you can move to the right and out of the way. It also safely and quickly moves your weight right freeing up your left leg for trips and kicks.
Eyes Focus Left / Left Step – Tui Bo – 退步
No surprise here, stepping left is just like stepping right but in the opposite direction! This is tai chi, so of course it is not that simple. We all have a dominant side which makes stepping in the dominant direction relatively easy. We all kick with a specific foot. We all start walking by stepping with the same foot 99% of the time. By exercising our rights to use both feet that we have been given, we gain the dexterity, flexibility, and responsiveness that most of us gave up as a child.
Just as with stepping right, to step left properly look, sink, shift weight the opposite direction, empty step, align the knee with the toe, and then transfer weight.
While fighting, being able to left step is really powerful because most people attack with their right side. A left step allow you to close the distance to their right side blunting their power. It is also very unconventional as opponents expect you to be moving to the right. Lastly, it let’s you stay fresh during push hands or fighting matches because you are tiring both legs out equally.
5. Central Balance – Zong Ding – 中定
Settling at the center is the movement that usually gets passed over by our western minds. We’re not actually doing anything right? Aren’t we just sitting there? Central Balance is probably the most important of the tai chi 5 steps. Think of it as a settling, a relaxation, and an exhale before we do anything. It is taking a split second to resettle ourselves and make sure everything is perfect before we begin the next movement.
Each time you balance yourself at the center is an opportunity to push up at the crown of the head and pull down at the tailbone. You ensure your posture is great and that you are breathing deeply into the belly. This ensures that your forward, backward, left, or right step comes out of the gate in the most perfect way possible.
Central balance requires an equilibrium between the two legs. During push hands or fighting, this enables us to retain our balance when we are grabbed, drop our weight when someone is trying to throw us, breath deeply to expand to break holds, and pivot successfully to perform a throw.
Why are the Tai Chi 5 Steps Important?
Performing tai chi correctly requires coordination of the entire body. This includes movements of the arms being coordinated with stepping. Coordinating breathing with an expansion and compression of the body. Coordinating weight shifts with light, intentional stepping. When you feel great from tai chi or when it looks good, it is because there is an alignment and grace radiating out of every move. When you are stepping correctly you are not putting undue pressure on joints. When you are breathing deeply with your movements, your whole form (and day!) takes on a relaxed fashion in the same way animals move and forage throughout the woods.
Intro Reading: What is Tai Chi?