A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
Toying with Tai Chi
by Christopher Dow
The movements of Tai Chi Chuan can be difficult to learn, but once you do, they seem perfectly natural as you flow through the form. In fact, being relaxed and natural are the name of the game in Tai Chi, otherwise, playing Tai Chi becomes a chore rather than a relief, and the practice becomes less effective for both health and self-defense. That doesn’t mean that Tai Chi should be easy or rote or effortless. It’s still work, but work of the sort that elevates rather than crushes. In that respect it has much in common with play.
Children at play instinctively understand that their play is in deadly earnest as long as it remains unattached to outcome. This allows their actions to have meaning without negatively impacting their lives after play. I can be the nasty bad guy in play, but afterwards, I revert to my usual, less bad self. In this essay, though, I’m not going to digress further into play as a topic; instead, I’m going to look with Tai Chi eyes at some of the objects that children and adults play with.
Tops and Gyroscopes
One of the first Tai Chi metaphors I ever heard was a comparison of the Tai Chi Chuanist with a spinning top. There are four basic types of tops: hand-thrown, spindles, device activated, and mechanical. (Figure 1) Each type is spun in a different manner, but no matter how a top is fashioned or how it begins spinning, the result is the same: it spins around its axis until friction consumes enough energy for the top to wobble then fall over.
But while a top is spinning, if an object, say a penny, is tossed at it, the top’s spin both diverts and repels the object. In part, this occurs because, in the instant that the penny strikes, the spin moves it laterally away from the body of the top, and then that same spin, now lateral, for a split instant, to the penny’s tangent, propels the penny away. But the spin is possible only because the top, when spinning, rotates around an axis. In other words, it embodies Central Equilibrium. Otherwise the energy that can cause spin will only cause uncontrolled tumbling.
Central Equilibrium does not exist in an inert top, even though the object does have one major potential axis and a great, almost infinite, number of other potential axes. It is the circular movement of the top’s mass around one of these axes that generates Central Equilibrium. Central Equilibrium, in other words, does not exist in a body at rest. Without Central Equilibrium, there is no spin, and spin cannot exist without generating a Central Equilibrium. The idea in Tai Chi is to refine the diameter of Central Equilibrium to an infinitely small axis, around which perfect balance exists.
Interestingly enough, the stability—call it rootedness—of the top while spinning around its Central Equilibrium also is an equal factor in the top’s ability to repel a penny. While a top is spinning, it is impossible to touch its Central Equilibrium because the body of top will repel any touch. Okay, maybe not always, you say. You can toss an anvil on the top and crush it, proving me wrong. But am I wrong? The anvil is massive enough to halt the top’s spin in the instant before it crushes the top. So, the spin still has to be halted in order to touch the top’s Central Equilibrium, in which case, the Central Equilibrium is lost and cannot be touched.
But I digress, and dropping an anvil onto a top is tantamount to throwing a fully-loaded eighteen-wheeler onto a Tai Chi player. In practical terms, if you nudge a top, your finger will be deflected, and the top might creep backward a bit, but it will remain in a relatively upright orientation. The rootedness of a spinning top might be related to the fact that it is completely single-weighted—its balance is almost absolute. Tai Chi players know that real power is generated from single-weightedness in the body, which allows not only for stability but for full expression of power by combining physical movement with a surge of internal energy, both along a single path.
Gyroscopes take the ideas of Central Equilibrium and single-weightedness a step farther. (Figure 2) Once you set a gyroscope spinning, the entire device takes on the quality of living body that you can pick up and handle. Because of the fly-wheel-like spin of the rotor, a gyroscope has almost exactly the same weight at every degree of its circumference. And because of this absolute equilibrium throughout the body of the gyroscope—rotor, gimbal, and frame—all the weight of the gyroscope is focused down into its single foot. Remarkably, you can lay a spinning gyroscope almost onto its side, with only its foot touching a pedestal or table edge, and it will seemingly float there, sideways, in apparent contravention of the pull of gravity. But really, since all the forces of the gyroscope are directed down into the foot, even a canted gyroscope has a Central Equilibrium that roots itself directly to Earth’s gravity at the central point of its foot. (2)
In fact, a spinning gyroscope can give a good sense of how rootedness can develop natural resistance—by this I mean internal energy rather than strength—against outside force. Set a gyroscope spinning, place it on its foot, and try giving it a gentle shove from the side with your finger. You’ll feel pressure pushing back, even though the gyroscope has neither muscle, motors, nor intent.
Another amusing toy that is similar in its reliance on Central Equilibrium is what I used to call a twizzle drum until I learned the term “drum monkey,” which is much more colorful. (Figure 3) It’s also more commonly called a hand drum, though lots of small drums that are struck with the hands, such as bongos and tambourines, also are called hand drums.
Apparently the drum monkey has no specific origin since it can be found in Asian, African, and Native American cultures. The real use of drum monkeys is ceremonial, though most people think of them as novelty toys. But their import for tai chi can be seen during the climactic fight in Karate Kid II when the villagers twizzle drum monkeys to encourage Ralph Macchio’s character to go with the flow so he can defeat his opponent.
When you look at the action of a drum monkey, it’s easy to see the message Macchio’s cheerleaders were sending: Loosen and relax your shoulders, and let the twisting of the body around Central Equilibrium (the handle) naturally rotate the drum (the torso), flinging the arms (the strings with the beads attached to their ends) in the appropriate directions. After all, a drum monkey has absolutely no strength in its arms, yet the rotation of its body around Central Equilibrium causes the strings and terminal beads to whip quite furiously back and forth against the drum heads. In Tai Chi, one simply adds some refinements to the movements to control and direct the flinging arms to best effect.
Rubber bands might be the only “toy” that can be found in every office. You can stretch them, shoot them, cat’s-cradle them, and twist them. Not only are they fun, they are instructive for Tai Chi.
The way that a twisted rubber band can store energy then release it is amply demonstrated by rubber-band airplanes: those balsa wood toy fliers with red plastic propellers and tiny wheels mounted on springy wires. Twist the propeller for a large number of turns, then let the plane go, and the uncoiling energy of the rubber band spins the prop, which pulls the plane through the air.
Tai Chi, too, relies on twisting movements to coil energy that then uncoils into, against, or away from an opponent. The main difference is that the rubber band in the airplane is twisted for a large number of turns, while the Tai Chi Chuanist only twists part way around. But the elastic bands of the human body—known as tendons and fascia—are considerably more powerful than the rubber band in the toy airplane, and they are connected to major muscles and muscle groups. Even a partial twist and recoil of the body, appropriately applied and augmented by proper muscular action, is powerful enough to send the opponent flying. Interestingly, the uncoiling often is accompanied by a corkscrewing movement of a limb—usually an arm—that aids in expressing the power of the uncoiling, just as the uncoiling of the rubber band in the airplane activates the corkscrew of the propeller, which is what actually manifests the energy from the coiled rubberband. (See “Natural Patterns” for a discussion of spirals and corkscrewing action.)
Rubber bands can be stretched and released as well as twisted. Who among us hasn’t shot a rubber band across the room—probably at somebody? In a very similar way, the Tai Chi player can stretch or compress tendons and fascia, loading them with elastic energy that can be suddenly released against or away from an opponent. Often the energy that is loaded comes from the opponent’s own force, which then, in that mysterious interface that exists between yin and yang, is transformed into the exponent’s power. Depending on the method of release, the resulting surge of energy can be controlled as a dull wave front that can surgingly expel an opponent, or as a sharp jolt that will penetrate his body.
I have employed a large rubber band in my classes as a teaching tool. It’s a big one that I found at Office Depot, and the darn thing cost about $7! (Figure 5) You also could also use a bungee cord whose ends have been hooked and duct-taped together. I have the student loop the band around both wrists, for example, and do split movements such as Slant Flying or Single Whip, telling them to feel the growing tension and to control it not through the band but through their shoulders and back. In essence, the rubber band amplifies the elastic stretch and release of the tendons and fascia and gives even a novice a tangible sensation of stretching out and then releasing the stretch instead of simply moving the limbs without internal energy. In some split movements, the stretch can be released to effect from either end (Slant Flying, for example), while in others, the release is primarily unidirectional (Single Whip, for example).
Magnets are everywhere, from toy horseshoe magnets to the sun and other celestial bodies. They’re found in motors, generators, loudspeakers, electric guitar pickups, computer drives, compasses, and the rubber seal around your refrigerator door—and in the kitchy kitchen magnets you’ve stuck to that fridge. Every electrical wire and device is surrounded by an electromagnetic field, we live totally immersed in the magnetic field generated by Earth, and each of us generates our own magnetic field, albeit a weak one. Magnets are ubiquitous, and they are quite useful as well as being quite natural. Even alone, they make interesting toys as evidenced by the horseshoe magnets you can find in a large number of toyboxes.
Most of us know that a magnet generates a field of force called a magnetic field around itself and that it has two poles: positive and negative. (Figure 6) There, in a nutshell, is the yang and yin of it. The force of the magnetic field emerges from the positive pole, cycles through the space around the magnet in a spherical pattern, and reenters the magnet at the negative pole. Magnetic fields do not have a boundary and theoretically extend infinitely outward, though in practical terms, the effects diminish greatly with distance. Also, magnetic fields and will pass unimpeded or with only minor diminishment through many forms of matter, so they’re kind of supernatural in that regard.
The Eurocentric view of Earth orients the negative pole of planet Earth at the top and the positive pole at the bottom, while the Chinese view is just the opposite—and probably is more accurate spacially if we consider the fountaining of energy to go upward and the reabsorption of it to come in from the bottom, as occurs with the human body in relation to gravitational attraction.
However you look at it, the polarity of magnets demonstrates the yin and yang of things through magnetic attraction and repulsion. If you bring two magnets together at the opposite poles—negative meeting positive—there will be a mutual attraction. (Figure 7) But if you bring the magnets together at similar poles—negative to negative or positive to positive—the two magnets will push against each other with invisible force. The former could be considered an example of single-weightedness and cooperation, while the last two might be examples of double-weightedness and the attendant confrontation of energies that results. If you cooperate and blend your energies, you and your opponent become one, but if you meet force with force, only struggle results.
Many Tai Chi players know how to play with this repelling force when they roll a ball of chi between their hands. (Figure 8) What is happening here is that positive chi energy—which is, at its base, electromagnetic in nature—is emerging from both palms. When positive meets positive, the result is repulsion, and this can be felt as a tangible force between the two palms. Using rotating movements of the hips and waist to motivate the arms and hands gives this force the character of a ball, and this ball can be “rolled” in front of the body, creating a controlled swirl in the individual’s chi/electromagnetic field. (Figure 9) The rotating of the hips not only causes the rolling action, but it also helps power the energy that creates the ball by sending alternating pulses of chi up the legs as you rotate back and forth, amplifying the chi running down the arms and emerging from the palms. The closer the hands roll and the smaller the ball, the greater the pressure between the palms, and the father apart the hands are and the larger the ball, the less the pressure. Again, the power of a magnetic field diminishes over distance.
Figure 1 Four types of tops, top to bottom: hand-thrown, spindle, device activated, and mechanical. (1)
Figure 2 A spinning gyroscope exhibits equal weight in all directions lateral to its plane of spin. All the forces are directed into its foot. (3)
Figure 3 Twizzling the handle of a drum monkey will cause the beads on the ends of the strings to slap against the drum heads even though the strings are completely without energy of their own.
Figure 4 Rubber-band balsa airplanes are powered by the twisting of an elastic band that then releases its energy in a coiling movement, driving the plane through the air. (4)
Figure 5 My large rubber band. The knot in the middle is to shorten the total length of the band. You could use a bungee cord with its ends hooked and taped together.
Figure 6 Magnetism in a bar magnet (top) is caused by an alignment of the iron molecules in a common direction. Magnetism in Earth (center) is produced by geodynamic processes. The electromagnetic chi field (bottom) is generated by bioelectrical energy flowing along the nerves. The fields of all three objects exhibit polarity and extend infinitely in all directions but are most powerful in close proximity to the magnetized object.
Figure 7 Magnets exhibit polarity. Positive and negative are attractive to one another, while positive and positive or negative and negative are mutually repelling. (5)
Figure 8 The Tai Chi sphere can be played at various diameters. The larger the sphere, the more diffuse the sensation between the hands, while smaller manipulations create a greater sensation of heat and density.
Figure 9 The basic Tai Chi manipulation is to roll the Tai Chi sphere from side to side. The spheres with the blank double fish indicate the moment when the energy switches polarity and the ball starts rolling in the opposite direction.