Spiraling

by Mat Beausoleil on 2011/12/17

It seems to me that most people are not aware of the spiraling that should occur throughout the body while doing Taijiquan. Even though most people must have seen the ancient diagrams of a body coiled in lines representing the spiraling paths of the silk reeling energy (chansijin) characteristic of Chen style Taijiquan, very few people seem to be able to explain or even understand what this principle actually is. Obviously, it is not only important to know how to create spiraling throughout the body, but also to understand why spiraling and the unique energy it creates is so important to the art.

Because of a spiral’s special dynamics, there are several specific reasons why its use is so important when practicing Taijiquan. One of the main reasons is that any rotation of a spiraled object naturally forces all of its energy into its core. This ensures that the energy does not leak out the sides but is totally contained in its center to be pushed out at its extremities. If the body is able to spiral properly as the result of correct training, its spirals function in the very same manner; the energy is concentrated in the core of the spiraled body and is able to travel through the limbs and torso without leaking out.

The spiraling of the body also keeps the arches of the body tightly wound up and connected, which results in the feeling of being “full”. Because the tendons are trained everyday to twist in opposite directions and withstand enormous amounts of tension and pressure, the degree of tightness of the spirals in the body seems to have no limit. This twisting action in the tendons allows energy to be built up and stored, very much like a wind up toy.

What happens to the energy of a spiraling object when it rotates is even more interesting. Let’s use the example of a screw. As pressure is applied and pushed down to the tip of the screw, at first glance the energy only seems to be spiraling downwards. However, if observed more closely, one quickly realizes that the energy is also being pushed back up the threads of the screw. You can know this by simply looking at the directions of the threads of a screw as it rotates and also by the simple fact that the dust always gets pushed back up the threads and out of the hole. This means that its energy is being split or “separated” and sent out to both extremities at the same time. I feel that this is why traditionally, people have described this phenomenon as the separation of yin and yang energies.

When one tries to screw something into an impenetrable surface, the energy of the screw functions in the same manner regardless of whether it is penetrating the surface or not. This can very easily be seen and understood if tried. Another important point is to notice that although the screw looks like it is screwing in, it is actually only rotating and not moving forward. This is the magic of the spiral and why it seems to be the basis of Chen style Taijiquan. Therefore, the goal of any Taijiquan player practicing the form or push hands must be to produce this spiral which separates the energy which moves it into each extremity. Just like the screw, although the spiraling occurring seems to be “moving” the body, it is simply an illusion; the energy is separating, giving only the appearance of forward or retreating movement.

This explains how in Taijiquan one is able to produce movement without moving and why it is said that every push is also a pull and vice versa. To produce these spirals throughout the body one must meticulously follow the principles and rules of the art. The main points to remember when producing spirals in the arm is to sink the shoulder down to the front and slightly inward into the armpit. This naturally pushes the elbow out to the side which according to the rules, should be pointing down to the ground at all times. As for the hand, it should be twisted in the opposite direction with the palm facing downward at a 45 degree angle.

If one is flexible enough to keep the shoulder in this position, point the elbow downward and twist the hand over so it is facing palm down, a spiral running through the arm will have been created. As for the legs, the kua should always be stretched open and the knees should never collapse. This creates a spiral in the thighs. To make the spiral run down the calves into the foot however, it is imperative that the feet be placed in their correct positions and the angles be exact. Many people are careless about foot positioning and turn out the toes of the feet instead of pushing the heels out into the correct angles. This is bad practice as the spiraling of the legs is also dependent on the twisting of the joints in separate directions.

Once the feet are correctly placed, the rear knee should be constantly pushed outward as much as possible. The spiral of the torso is created mainly by keeping the eyes locked on the opponent as the upper and lower bodies turn in separate directions. If the lower back is pushed out and the tailbone tucked in, the spiral of the spine is remarkably tightened. When screwing something in, the screw must remain stable in order to concentrate the energy into its core and out at the tip. If the screw wobbles too much, the energy is dispersed and no penetrating power is produced. Therefore, one must be connected in order to hold the spirals in a straight line so that they don’t wobble or toss about.

When a student is able to achieve stable rotations, one will notice that the body seems to automatically turn and propel the limbs in and out. The spirals also ensure that everything works and rotates in perfect synchronicity and timing. The terms commonly used to describe this in Master Chen Zhonghua’s Practical Method system are differential and proportionality. When movements have differential, every part of the body moves proportionately in terms of spiral, weight, length and power. When this is accomplished, no energy or muscle power is used or felt when moving.

Eventually, the spirals running from the feet, will connect and run through the legs and dantian, up the spine, into the arms and out through the hands. Correct spiraling through the dantian and up the spine when the lower and upper bodies turn in opposite directions forces the body to spiral down and sink down on a perfect vertical axis every time the spine is turned. The tighter everything is on the inside, the tighter and more precise the spirals will be. Because the spirals of the body are made and held together by strong elastic tendons, I believe the spiral does not only separate and distribute the energies, but also creates it.

When the spiral is tightened and twisted, just like the toy, the energy is created and stored in its flexible and elastic material. When it is elongated, the stored energy is released into its extremities. Being “connected” is the only way the body can properly spiral. Without the tightened tendons, there is no true spiral because no core is created for the energy to travel through. Simply creating external spirals by turning over the hands when doing Taijiquan is just that, external. The internal part of this art obviously must happens within the body.

After much practice, one realizes that there is a direct correlation to being connected and the tightness of the spirals; the tighter the “connection” throughout the body is, the tighter the spirals will be. The tighter the spirals, the more energy is concentrated into the core. The more concentrated the energy is in the core, the more penetrating it is when it is released. This seems to explain why some people have described a master’s energy to a laser beam which is able to penetrate an opponent’s body.

 

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

studentofmethod December 17, 2011 at 2:51 am

Thank you Matt. That was a very concise and detailed explanation of spiraling. It gives me a lot to think about. Thanks for taking the time to write this up.

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Gary Readore December 17, 2011 at 6:51 am

Thanks Matt, very good article!

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ksloke December 17, 2011 at 6:51 am

If I may add and conjecture, a spiraling surface also provides a continuously changing contact surface (the contact interface between your opponent) that the opponent cannot latch on to counteract (i.e. to apply a countervailing force). It also confuses the opponent, and cannot sense the actual direction of the applied spiral force.

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James Tam December 18, 2011 at 9:19 am

I agree. Good point to keep in mind.

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ttruscott December 17, 2011 at 11:15 am

Thanks, Matt.

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Gary Readore December 17, 2011 at 12:44 pm

I’ll add something else. I have studied Yang style for 20 years now as well as another Chen style for a year or two. I also had the tai chi book by Jou Tsung Hua and saw the picture of the man with the spirals going around the legs and arms. I was always found this interesting and engaging but never understood it until I started studying the Practical Method over a year ago. Everything is starting to make sense now.

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James Tam December 17, 2011 at 5:18 pm

Matt
Thank you for the very interesting and detailed article on spiralling. The yin-yang aspect of the spiral that you described was new to me. I assume that the spiralling energy perhaps can be equated to the “peng” energy. The question that I am wondering is, “Where is the softness that people tend to speak about of Tai Chi?” Is this also hidden somewhere in the spiralling? In what ways? How? Any thoughts on this? Thanks.
JT

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matbeausoleil December 17, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Hey James,

Fluidity and softness are two other aspects of the form that seem to cause a lot of confusion amongst most students. As we try to emulate the externally soft demeanour of our masters, we don’t realize that what makes their movements so special is the result of years of hard “internal” training. Most people simply look at the final product without understanding that it is the following of a systematic process of transforming the internal body that allows these masters to move so gracefully. Proper spiralling of the body and limbs produces total proportionality and differential in terms of speed, weight, length and power. Because of this, a practitioner not only has the appearance of being soft but also feels that way to the touch. However, because his body is properly “connected” these deceivingly soft limbs are “full” and totally engaged at all times. I guess the snake and how it moves could be a perfect example of this principle. When you see the fluidity and gracefulness of a snake in movement or even to the touch, you would assume that it is “soft”. However, we all know that snakes have tremendous power, agility and speed that can be called up in the blink of an eye. I think it’s safe to say that snakes are always “connected”.

In my opinion, this is why making progress and understanding internal martial arts is so difficult. Students must understand that fluidity is the end result of Taijiquan training and not the starting point. I believe that as a beginner, one should not seek to have soft and fluid movements but should move in a more mechanical manner which helps the internal body develop certain movement patterns which lead to differential and proportionality in movement. Eventually, after training in this mechanical manner for some time, the outside appearance will develop fluidity and softness.

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matbeausoleil December 17, 2011 at 7:10 pm

Hey James,

Fluidity and softness are two other aspects of the form that seem to cause a lot of confusion amongst most students. As we try to emulate the externally soft demeanour of our masters, we don’t realize that what makes their movements so special is the result of years of hard “internal” training. Most people simply look at the final product without understanding that it is the following of a systematic process of transforming the internal body that allows these masters to move so gracefully. Proper spiralling of the body and limbs produces total proportionality and differential in terms of speed, weight, length and power. Because of this, a practitioner not only has the appearance of being soft but also feels that way to the touch. However, because his body is properly “connected” these deceivingly soft limbs are “full” and totally engaged at all times. I guess the snake and how it moves could be a perfect example of this principle. When you see the fluidity and gracefulness of a snake in movement or even to the touch, you would assume that it is “soft”. However, we all know that snakes have tremendous power, agility and speed that can be called up in the blink of an eye. I think it’s safe to say that snakes are always “connected”.

In my opinion, this is why making progress and understanding internal martial arts is so difficult. Students must understand that fluidity is the end result of Taijiquan training and not the starting point. I believe that as a beginner, one should not seek to have soft and fluid movements but should move in a more mechanical manner which helps the internal body develop certain movement patterns which lead to differential and proportionality in movement. Eventually, after training in this mechanical manner for some time, the outside appearance will develop fluidity and softness.

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Carlos Hanson December 17, 2011 at 8:41 pm

I agree with switching the perspective that fluidity and softness should be viewed as the final product rather than the starting point. Prior to studying the Practical Method, I would over-exaggerate movements during practice, so I could feel each movement more easily. However, I still had the idea that I should be soft. I demonstrate that in the video taken of me in Edmonton. Master Chen said I was too loose. I could see that.

Now, I occasionally worry that I might be working too hard, but I feel the movements more, and I have come to understand what a push and a pull are within my practice of Yilu. It changes everything. “Don’t move” is a fascinating thing to practice, especially as it develops the spirals in the movements.

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Calvin Chow December 17, 2011 at 10:49 pm

Great article. When we observe a screw being drived into a wood board, it takes one rotation to advance one thread to thread distance. For example, the thread to thread distance is 1mm and the diameter of thread is 5 mm, then it takes the circular distance 4mm x 3.1416=15.7 mm to move the tip to go 1mm forward along the rotation axis. As Energy = Force x Distance, for same energy to hammer a nail 1mm into the wood board, it requires much stronger driving force. It takes probably 15.7 times stronger than using a screw in same size. That is why using screwdriver requires less force for the same work done. To put it back to Taiji, it is a 1mm Ying-Yang Seperation as there is a pair of oppositional force toward the screw tip and head. In doing positive circle last count, hand out, the body forms a big spiral along around an axis along the rear foot and the front hand. When we stretch and rotate the body joints, we push them toward both opposite ends along the same line. When Master Chen push me with small hand movement and bounce me out, he mentioned his body movement inside behind the hands is tremendous. This may explain it.

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Alex December 17, 2011 at 11:48 pm

I believe soft is something you feel when taiji is done to you, but not what you feel when applying ‘soft’ on someone else. It seems to be another case of ‘separated feeling’ (ie, the person doing the move doesn’t feel the same thing as the person having the move done on them.

more importantly, Verse 3 talks about it in the Practical Method book. pg 87-88
Hong mentions that soft is used to neutralize hardness (neutralizing the force from a dot onto the line), but he mentions beginners make the mistake of losing power (becoming deficient) when neutralizing. I believe would be either a loss of timing (not being in sync with the person’s incoming attack of hard) or deviation of structure in some way so the power in the structure is gone.

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James Tam December 18, 2011 at 9:09 am

Thanks Alex for carrying the ball forward. I am attracted towards your idea of “neutralizing the force from a dot onto the line” because it seems so perfect for the “softness within the screw/spiral” concept. A follow-up question would be: In which direction does the energy go in neutralization of the force from the dot into the line? Towards or away from the ground? Or is this line (no pun intended) of thinking completely wrong/irrelevant?

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Alex December 18, 2011 at 3:09 pm

your welcome, must confess it’s not my idea though. :)

ya, honestly, there is a gap between what Hong talks about and my current practice. I wanted to mention it so people could dig deeper if they wanted. My understanding of the line and dot are rudimentary at the moment so really can’t elucidate much on that.

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Alex December 18, 2011 at 3:13 pm
Zhao Zhidong December 24, 2011 at 1:19 am

Very good. Spiral is an opposite kind of movement. It separates.

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太极门外转 December 29, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Very detailed and specific. Very good.

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kim allbritain December 31, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Hey Matt,

Another nice article, good job. I have a question for though, in paragraph 6 beginning “to produce these spirals throughout the body…”.

Could you attempt to rephrase this? It does not seem clear to me exactly what you are referring to.
When you state that we “sink the shoulder down to the front and slightly inward into the armpit. This naturally pushes the elbow out to the side”.
I am having a difficult time envisioning this maneuver as when I see this the elbow would be pointing into the trunk as in the in-stroke of a circle. Dropping the shoulder into the armpit and slightly inward would not force it to the outside.

The description of the hand position to create the spiral then is equally confusing (to me). I thought maybe you were referring to the out stroke of the negative circle here ?

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Mat Beausoleil December 31, 2011 at 7:53 pm

Hey Kim,
Great question and I’m sorry my explanations might be a bit ambiguous to you. Due to comments like yours, I am forced to reevaluate and simplify my own personal understandings of these concepts. I thank you for this!
Because of what we are taught from an early age, most people hold their shoulders up and back to the rear as a soldier might do when standing at attention. Unfortunately, this does not conform with Taijiquan posture and must be corrected. When the tendons and ligaments of the shoulders are properly reconditioned due to correct training, the shoulders can naturally relax. As they do this, they sink to the front as if hanging off the torso. When the arm is raised in this state of relaxation, the shoulder should slightly roll in towards the armpit. (The relaxed shoulder should not be ‘pushed down’, but should be rotated inward as if you were trying to turn the top of your shoulder over into the armpit.) When the shoulder is naturally forced into this position because of the relaxation, the elbow naturally turns outwards. (Please try to hold your arm straight out in of you in a relaxed state and try to slightly rotate your shoulder into the armpit… It forces the elbow out.) This outward positioning of the elbow is wrong as it should always be pointed downward. By keeping the shoulder in this (armpit) position and forcing the elbow down to the floor, a slight twist in the tendons running from the shoulder to the elbow will have been created. This is the Taiji spiral! To finish the spiral, the elbow and shoulder must be kept in these opposing directions as the palm rotates as far as possible to face down to the ground.
You see, the key to all of this (Taiji as a whole) is to rotate everything in opposing directions. When the body is properly stretched out and forced to twist in opposite directions, the tendons and ligaments in the limbs naturally spiral or twist. This causes tension which creates and stores some form of elastic and potential energy; kinda like twisting up a rubber band. Because of a spiral’s special dynamics, the energy is split into opposing directions. This creates what Master Chen calls “the ever outward expanding ‘peng’ energy”. I believe THIS and its application to be the true definition of Taijiquan.

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kim allbritain January 1, 2012 at 9:46 am

Matt,
Thanks for the quick response and happy 2012.

The use of the phrase ‘roll into the armpit’ is where the difficulty arose. When I do this I automatically
pull my elbow into the body, pulling the bottom of the shoulder down as a result of the tension created by the elbow,and leaving my palm facing upwards as in the in-stroke of a positive circle.

What I think you are saying in the example is to roll the shoulder into the armpit the opposite way from the top so the palm is facing down, then, yes, the elbow twist outwards.

I feel/see the spiral you mention running from the shoulder through the forearm and into the hand.

So, If I extrapolate your explanation into the pos circle, at the extreme point of the in-stroke, we create this spiral, this increased coiled tension by maintaining the downward pointing elbow yet allowing the
forearm/hand to twist outward.

At this moment, the change from inward to outward stroke of the circle, your exact explanation for creating the spiral seems to match perfectly. The hand rotates from shun to ni while the elbow maintains its position forcing the spiral shape from the shoulder outwards.

I didn’t quite get the context at first. I hope I have it now. Thanks.

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nick tangri January 6, 2012 at 5:38 am

Thank you.

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Mark L Cupryk October 8, 2018 at 4:32 am

I am coming in late and really enjoyed this post. Is there a recommended book that discusses this in further depth with the physics behind the spiral and the motions? Thanks!

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Kelvin Ho October 11, 2018 at 8:49 am
philcusick October 11, 2018 at 8:48 pm

glad that this article resurfaced on the homepage. I had never seen it before. very well written. thank you Matt.

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