A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
by Christopher Dow
The litany of important ideas to observe in Tai Chi is quite long. You have to pay attention to this and that and this other, all while you’re doing thus and such and meditating on your movement and the non-movement within that movement. And trying to remember what comes next.
We have to relax, drop our awareness of weight and energy into our legs—one at a time, clearly and distinctly. We have to move in a way that unfolds and refolds our bodies in specific patterns. We have to open and round the joints so that the energy can flow through them correctly. Moreover, we have to learn to do all this with as little muscular exertion as possible.
And importantly, we have to learn to spiral that energy from our torsos into the legs, where it rebounds from the feet and spirals back up into pelvic area, which includes the hips and waist. This is where the energy is redirected into the torso, which can be done in various ways. Those various ways, which are the different force/energy applications of Tai Chi as defined by the Thirteen Postures, are not the main subject of this article, though we might touch on them. Instead, we’ll look at how a core secret of Tai Chi movement within the pelvic area can transform and direct the energy effectively. Why, in other words, “the waist is the commander,” as is stated in the Tai Chi Classics, and why Tai Chi is called Tai Chi. I’ll refer to this core movement as the Infinity Twist.
When those not in the know observe Tai Chi movements, they usually see the motions of the limbs—especially the arms. Those in the know know that the real area of the body to observe is below the thorax: the waist, hips, and legs. All those arm movements are just being motivated by pulses or waves of combined motion and energy that originate in the lower body. (Figure 1) But it takes control to refine and manipulate those pulses into useful work. The old analogy from the Tai Chi Classics is: The legs are the people, the waist is the commander, and the arms and hands are the army or the state. The collective power of the people give strength and energy to the commander, who then directs his troops or, alternately, his government, into action.
Each of these three elements must be strong in order for the whole to function well. An excellent leader with a well-trained army will lose the war if his people do not support him with their strength; a weak leader causes a disjunction between the people and the government; and a disfunctional military/government will leave the best of leaders at a disadvantage, even if he is backed by a strong people. In the optimum situation, the people urge—and surge—and the commander, sensing that internal movement, directs his forces—army and government—appropriately. Or the people are quiet, and the leader and army remain quiescent.
Right in the middle of the Tai Chi dynamic is the commander—the waist—and here is where the raw force and energy from the legs, as expressed by the hips, are combined and directed into useful upper body movements. But the pelvic area, in and of itself, isn’t the commander. It’s just the house of the commander, where the commander has the physiological tools necessary to effect proper control, such as the hip joints, the flexible connection between the lumbar vertebra and the pelvis, and the ability to flex the kua, or the fold between the torso and upper thigh.
These tools are utilized by the true commander, which is the specific figure-eight movement I’m calling the Infinity Twist. The shape of it is seen in the center of the doubled taijitu (Figure 2). It is a movement central to the large number of principles that the Tai Chi Chuanist must pay attention to because it is the core of Tai Chi’s spiraling action and ability to store and release energy without losing momentum. It’s not more important than sung, say, or maintaining certain body alignment, or other crucial principles of tai chi. It’s equally important. You can’t pick up something without your shoulder, arm, and hand working in conjunction. To effect correct movement, all the parts of the body that are involved must coordinate their efforts in accordance with correct principles. It is the same with the combined dynamics of sung, the Infinity Twist, and a handful of other important Tai Ch principles.
There are fascinating aspects about this core movement, for the Infinity Twist is active at the interface within the body where raw energy is refined and directed and where yin and yang movements and energies exchange and interchange. I’ve written a lot about the many syncretic aspects of the taijitu—the tai chi symbol—elsewhere on this site and in Circling the Square: Observations on the Dynamics of Tai Chi Chuan, so I’ll try not to replicate much of that material here.
The Infinity Twist is the central figure-eight in the middle of the taijitu. It’s the infinity symbol. And, as that might indicate, it holds a whole lot more. It lies at the center of almost every Tai Chi movement, large and small, and that presence is the reason the art is named after the ideas exemplified by the tai chi symbol. To the point here, it is the way the Tai Chi exponent rotates his or her sense of movement, gravity, centeredness of mass, and energy field in a figure-eight pattern around an axis.
The most important axis is Central Equilibrium, or an imaginary line drawn from the crown of your head through your torso, through your perineum, and into the ground midway between your feet when you’re standing in a normal front-facing stance. (Figure 3) In this case, the axis of Central Equilibrium stabs straight through the crossing point where the two circles of the taijitu meet. But there are two side axes, as well, and each can substitute for Central Equilibrium when one’s weight is on one side or the other. Some Tai Chi movements emphasize Central Equilibrium, while others rely more on the side axes for single-weighted stability and release of power. Yet others transition through a combination of two or even all three axes during the movement.
In the early stages of a person’s Tai Chi development, the Infinity Twist will be entirely absent in the novice’s body. You can wave your arms around in Tai Chi movements all day long, but if they aren’t connected through the movement of the waist to the energy of the legs, then those upper-body motions are empty. With long-term practice of the form, though, the twist eventually will appear. At first, it might be askew and wobbly, but with practice, it will take on a smoother circulation.
This is because the twist is built into the movements of the form. Practiced regularly and correctly over a period of time, the movements that train the twist become engrained in the exponent’s usual daily body movements. It often is said that Grasping Bird’s Tail is the most important sequence of movements within the Tai Chi form because all the secrets of the form are contained in this one cluster. On one level, this means that each of the Thirteen Postures is represented within this group, making Grasping Bird’s Tail a mini-primer of basic Tai Chi postures. But perhaps more important, the Grasping Bird’s Tail sequence contains and trains the Infinity Twist.
In the beginning, the size of the Infinity Twist is as large as it can be within the body, with the crossing point at Central Equilibrium and the far edges of the circles reaching to the outside edges of the hips. (Figure 4) The movement is fairly large and easy to discern, and it generally remains so during normal daily form practice. But as time progresses, the practitioner gains the ability to severely reduce the diameter of the twist. The idea is to make the twist as small as possible inside the body, eventually becoming too small and hidden for the average person to spot it. But it is there, centered on one of the three axes, and it remains just as powerful in its ability to circulate energy as it was when it was larger. Or perhaps even more so, since everything can happen so much more quickly and shockingly when energy is released from a small twist.
The Infinity Twist is what takes in energy, turns it into its opposite, and then releases it. And each of the four Cardinal Energies—Wardoff, Rollback, Press, and Push—are released by or find a home in, one section of the Infinity Twist, in both their yang and yin aspects—for fa jin or for neutralizing. Wardoff is released diagonally through the curves in either direction. Rollback can be found in any of the curves that can be released tangentially away from the Infinity Twist. Press is released along the outer side of either circle, either straight forward or straight back. And Push is released through the center, either straight forward or straight back. (Figure 5)
Because the energy spirals down the leg to the foot then changes direction in the foot and rebounds in a spiral that twists back up the leg in the opposite direction, there also is, in the sole of the foot, an Infinity Twist. This is the structure that smoothly transforms the downward spiral into the upward one, and its axis is the Bubbling Well. (Figure 6) The Infinity Twist in the sole is, of course, much smaller to begin with than the one in the waist, and another difference between the two is in the orientation of the Infinity Twist. In the waist, it’s side to side, while in the foot, it’s front-to-back. And like the Infinity Twist in the waist, it too shrinks over time, becoming smaller and smaller, trying to approximate the infinitely tiny, at which time, it expands to take in the world.
The taijitu holds many of Tai chi’s more profound functional and philosophical principles in a simple yet infinitely fascinating symbol. The Infinity Twist is one of the most important and demonstrates that the art truly deserves the name the Grand Ultimate, for it encompasses the principles of the very foundations of reality.
Figure 5 Wardoff (top left) is released diagonally through the curves in either direction. Rollback (top right) can be found in any of the curves that can be released tangentially away from the Infinity Twist. Press (bottom left) is released along the outer or inner side of either circle, either straight forward or straight back. And Push (bottom right) is released through the center, either straight forward or straight back.
Figure 1 Chan-ssu Chin’s most basic form winds the energy through a pattern that mimics the tai chi symbol. While your waist movements, propelled by alternate pushes from the legs, circle around the horizontal taijitu’s circumference and then weave through it’s center, your loosely held arm simultaneously traces the same path on the vertical symbol.
Figure 2 The tai chi symbol depicts the major forces of opposition and cooperation that underlie the functioning of reality. Left, it is depicted in its normal form, right, in its doubled form.
Figure 3 the tai chi exponent rotates his or her sense of movement, gravity, and centeredness of mass in a figure-eight pattern around an axis.
Figure 4 In the beginning, the size of the Infinity Twist is as large as it can be within the body, with the crossing point at Central Equilibrium and the far edges of the circles reaching to the outside edges of the hips. The movement is fairly large and easy to discern, and it generally remains so during normal daily form practice. But as time progresses, the practitioner gains the ability to severely reduce the diameter of the twist.
Figure 6 There is an infinity twist in the sole of the foot, centered on the Bubbling Well of the sole, that can spiral in and out in either direction.