Learning how to learn

After an immensely enjoyable weekend of learning Lindy Hop with my partner in Bristol recently and with our intense Tai Chi retreat with Chen Bing in Greece looming beautifully on the horizon I have been mulling over the art of learning. For when I spend time with my teachers, Chen Xiao Wang and Chen Bing, I am always keen to learn as much and as well as possible. Learning is a fundamentally liberating experience and vastly enjoyable on many levels. This is especially so when the subject or skill at hand facilitates and emphasises mind/body integration. For me, remembering facts and information has very little to do with education and in fact very much interferes with learning proper. There are lots of people who can talk the talk (i.e. regurgitate useless information and stories) but not so many that can walk the walk. So when at our Lindy Hop workshop I saw that the teachers were excellent dancers who moved really well and in a lovely natural fashion I was very happy to follow their instruction. I watched them intently and listened very carefully to all of their instructions making sure all the time that I followed as well as I could continually updating and improving the basic steps I had learned previously. This required a lot of concentration which I liked because when one really focuses on what is happening in the present moment it is a seriously liberating experience and here that real learning takes place.

Chen Bing Demonstrates – watch like a hawk!

Over the last two decades I’ve attended a great many different Tai Chi classes, private lessons, workshops and seminars. Of course, I have also been teaching full-time for the last ten years or so and spent many hours training on my own. It is really interesting to see that everyone gets something different out of each class or seminar. The worst thing is when someone feels that they haven’t learned anything from the teacher or that they are not getting what they want. They often blame the teacher, however it is down to each individual to be responsible for their own learning.

Probably the main factor that influences ones ability to learn is having the actual desire and perseverance to do so. Without this it is rare that people are able to pay attention enough or are willing to go through the inevitable discomfort of not knowing. However, without entering the ocean of creative uncertainty it is impossible for us to do or produce anything new. In psychology a model of four stages of competence is often used to describe the learning process:

1) Unconscious incompetence

The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

2) Conscious incompetence

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

3) Conscious competence

The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

4) Unconscious competence

The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.


Corrections are like a gift – capitalise on them

From my experience as a teacher and as a student it seems that most practitioners of Tai Chi never get past the first stage of ‘unconscious incompetence’ which is indeed a great shame. In seminars people complain that what the teacher is teaching is too basic or that they didn’t learn what they thought they needed or desired to learn. Often they wanted to learn some really tasty technique or hear a profound verse of wisdom that they can recite to themselves (or others – bloody teachers!). Usually, however, the teacher is trying to teach exactly what we need to learn and most of us in stark reality really struggle to achieve basic basics which take hours and hours of personal practise time to realise on the most simple physical level. This vital and solid foundation is what paves the way to the superior health and fitness benefits and of course any real martial skills that one can glean from good Tai Chi training.

Chen Bing demonstrates 'Lazily Tying the Coat'

Listen carefully and follow every instruction – not just the ones you prefer. You’ll be suprised at how much you miss!

I was chatting with Chen Bing, a teacher I really admire, over dinner one time and he said that in order to really understand and know Tai Chi, to really improve one’s ability, one has to look for errors in one’s practise and not simply revel in the things you can do well or just go through he motions blindly. The key, he added, was learning how to pay complete attention to what you’re doing, to accurately feel your entire body and mind, and search out the elements/deviations that do not correspond with the Tai Chi principle in the most simple and visceral way. From here, he said, you can really grow although it is a never-ending process. His final thought, which he added with a wry smile, ‘it is just like life’.

Follow attentively – never assume anything

So, my advice for all you keen learners and especially those players joining us with Chen Bing in Greece later this month is this: learn how to pay attention. Here are some tips that I find useful:

i) Watch the teacher like a hawk, perceive his movements as deeply as you can. Give your mirror neurons a chance to help you out and feel as if you are doing it too. Don’t think, don’t intellectualise, categorise or judge, just watch and experience as best you can.

ii) Listen very carefully and follow all of his instructions to the letter. If you assume that you are already doing so then it is very likely that you are not! Instead, assume that all the instructions are aimed at you specifically and not someone else. Which of course they are.

iii) Focus intently on finding out whether or not your body is doing what you think it is. When you follow the teacher allow 50% of your attention to be on perceiving his movement and the other 50% on your own. Don’t follow blindly, drift off of space out – pay attention!

iiii) Never assume you know anything. Practise diligently and consistently on your own to make Tai Chi yours. Any corrections the teacher gives you are like a gift. Don’t just ignore them, find them and feel them, make them your own.

I still can’t Lindy Hop very well but I know that I will be able to if I simply Pay Attention, Practise and Persevere. Enjoy!


Posted in Chen Bing, learning, Martial arts, mindfulness, movement, Tai Chi | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments


webYears ago when I used to be an avid reader I came across a collection of short stories by
the well known author John Wyndham (Day of the Triffids et al). One particular story, the
name of which I have long forgotten, was about a group of futuristic humanoids who had
traveled to Earth in their unbridled anti-gravity spaceships. Upon seeing our seemingly
prehistoric locomotive machines and the burning of fossil fuels as our chief source of
power they scoffed at our ignorance of natural resources. Instead of fighting gravity to
move, they suggested, wouldn’t it make much more sense to harness the power of this
limitless and constant force? At the time of reading I had just started my training in Tai Chi
and the story resonated with me because I was fascinated by the way Tai Chi was
teaching me how to make gravity my friend using it to achieve a kind of effortless
movement and strength that I hadn’t been aware of in all of my previous training.
In the same way that a fish probably doesn’t notice the water that constantly supports it,
very few of us are aware of the reliable and reassuring force of gravity around which the
human body structure organises itself. Not only does harnessing this force create
immense stability and balance but it is also responsible for creating natural effortless movement, lift, nimbleness and expansion in the body. Such an obvious natural phenomenon is usually ignored by most and unfortunately impeded by the strange ways that people think that they should use their bodies and more specifically how they should look.
For me, learning how to move well is the most important and beneficial first (and ongoing
step) in human physical education. It requires that we restore the tremendous amount of
natural awareness we all seem to lose as we get older and firmly cement the body and
mind as one unit. On the other hand, what is prehistoric to me is that many people
specifically use their bodies in a way that burns as many calories as possible. This is
usually called ‘exercise’. This gross waste of energy is synonymous with health and fitness
in ‘The West’ whereas the majority of the population in the rest of the world barely have enough calories to live comfortably on a daily basis. It makes you think doesn’t it?
Join us for our new Summer term of Tai Chi and Qigong courses from the week beginning
4th July.You will learn much more than you think! All the details are on the website:
Posted in Anatomy Trains, Balance, biotensegrity, mindfulness, movement, Tai Chi, taijiquan | 6 Comments

An Interview with Grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang


Last year I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang during his annual week of training in Reading hosted by Karel and Eva. (1) I’m not one who goes in for hero worship in any shape or form but after having trained with Master Chen for the last 14 years I have found his teaching to be an extremely insightful and positive influence on my Taiji training and, dare I say it, my life also. Therefore, the interview was something I was very much looking forward to and even a little nervous about. The day soon came round and this particular June afternoon found us all sitting around the kitchen table at Karel and Eva’s nursing steaming cups of delicious Oolong tea. Master Chen, looking very dapper in his jet black silk suit, sat across the table from me his meaty, bear-like hands gesturing beautifully as he talked. Despite punctuating his words with the occasional explosive Fajin, I soon felt greatly at ease and found myself just happily listening, simply immersed in the story of the Chen family history straight from the horse’s mouth:

SM: Thanks very much for meeting me today Master Chen. Could you start things off by talking about the history of Chen Family Taiji a little?

CXW: OK…It’s my pleasure. We’ll start from the 9th generation of Chen Family Taiji with Chen Wangting. For a long time Chen Wangting was an army general and scholar during the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644). He was a fearsome fighter both with weapons and in unarmed combat. Being the winner of many battles he was highly recognised and rewarded by the emperor but when the Ming dynasty came to an end and the Qing dynasty began (1644-1911) he didn’t want to serve the Qing dynasty and decided to retire to Chenjigou village.

Back in Chenjiagou he lived a simple life and farmed his land during the warmer months of the year and over the winters he worked on developing Taiji. Chen Wangting was already a very good martial artist when he retired and had lots of fighting experience, he was also a scholar and widely travelled. So he combined all of his knowledge of fighting and Taoist principles (yin/yang principle), Meridian theory and Chinese Medical theory. All these different elements he brought together and created a new kind of movement that was good for the body, good the mind and good for fighting: Chansigong, the Silk-reeling technique or spiralling movement. He devised 5 Taiji forms as well as pushing hands routines – the pushing hands routines were to help people train together but without injuring each other so much when sparring. He also created some two person spear fighting routines.

After Chen Wangting the next few generations all did well and prospered and the Taiji practise stayed the same. At the 14th generation things changed with Chen Changxing. He did Taiji very well. He was a good fighter and trained many of his students to work as bodyguards on trade convoys as there were many bandits in the area in those days. There are many, many stories about Chen Changxing’s Taiji skills but I’m not going to talk too much about stories today just Chen Family history. Chen Changxing condensed the five hand forms into just two sets: Yilu and Erlu. We would call them Laojia or old frame today. The weapons forms and pushing-hands routines are much the same as they ever were.


One principle, three kinds of motion

One of Chen Changxing’s friends was a wealthy business man who owned a Chinese Medicine shop in a town nearby. One day a couple came in and offered to sell him their son to work in his shop. He accepted and this 12 year old boy was Yang Lu Chan – he went on to create Yang style Taiji. By the time he was 18 Yang Lu Chan had outgrown shop work and so he was sent to work for Chen Changxing. Working as a servant in Chenjiagou over the years, Yang Lu Chan often had a chance to watch Chen Changxing teaching his students Taiji. One night when Chen Changxing was on his way home he noticed someone in the shadows practising something that looked a little like Taiji but didn’t recognise him as one of his students. He asked Yang Lu Chan where he had learned Taiji and Yang Lu Chan explained that he had learned just by watching here and there while doing his job and by training at night time. Around this time Yang Lu Chan was given his freedom by his owner and he was allowed to stay in Chenjiagou – he stayed for for 6 years of basic training. After this first period he went away travelling as he wanted to test his Taiji skills against other martial artists in the land. He fought against many other people and found that while he didn’t ever lose, he also didn’t ever win. So he came back to Chen village to train with Chen Changxing for another six years.

A funny story during this time is that one night after class Yang Lu Chan was following Chen Changxing up some stairs on their way home. Young Yang, who was carrying a lamp to light the way, decided that this was a good time to test his master. He blew out the lamp and in the darkness grabbed Chen Changxing around the waist to try and topple him off the stairs. Chen Changxing responded straight away, he was very fast. Using a movement like ‘Fists Drape Over the Body’ with a little Fajin (Master Chen gestures violently in his chair) he knocked Yang Lu Chan all the way down the stairs to the bottom where Yang got up on to his knees and bowed repeatedly saying ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!!’

After this time Yang Lu Chan went away to make a life on his own and ended up teaching Taiji to the royal family in Beijing. Over time he changed his Taiji for the royal family to make it easier to learn. He made it simpler, a little less hard work, without the silk-reeling and the difficult movements like the jumps and Fajin. People say that he came back to Chenjiagou for another 6 years but it’s not true. He did come back to visit once for a few days but he didn’t stay. Many historical records show this. When he came back to visit he was very well dressed, wearing a long fox fur coat. Everybody said to him how smart and regal he looked but he just replied that the coat was only made from dog fur.


In the 15th generation there was Chen Gengyun. He worked as a bodyguard protecting convoys full of valuable goods. Once when he was working away from home his convoy ended up being delayed by three years. When he eventually got back home to his wife she opened his suitcase to find that nothing inside has been touched. She asked him why and he replied that he had just been practising Taiji continuously all day and all night. He just slept when he was tired and as soon as he woke up he would immediately start training again. He didn’t have any time to open his suitcase. Another time when Chen Gengyun was working away he and a friend went to see an outdoor play. There was a big audience and about halfway through the performance a large group of trouble makers started to push the crowd violently to get to Chen Gengyun to challenge him to a fight – he was very well known for his Taiji. Chen Gengyun simply stood his ground and didn’t do a thing. The crowd broke upon him like water flowing around a stone, all falling to the floor when they tried to shove him or move him. He and his friend made a quick get-away only to soon be cut off at a bridge over the local river. On the one side was the gang and on the other Chen Gengyun and his friend. Chen Gengyun told his friend to hold on tightly to his belt and not to let go under any circumstances. Then suddenly he strode across the bridge right through the crowd with one arm in front sweeping all those at the front off the bridge and into the river. Seeing this, all the others behind were scared and ran away.


The 16th generation was Chen Yanxi he was a well known body guard trainer. There are many stories about him but for another time. The 17thth generation was Chen Fa Ke, my grandfather. He was very famous. He was well known for his Taiji skills and for being a very good fighter. But also everyone liked him for having a good heart – he was very humble and always tried to help people. As well as teaching Taiji, Chen Fa Ke worked for the police in Wenxian helping them catch bandits. The police would often call for Chen Fa Ke to come and help them and by using his fierce Qinna he was always able catch and control them.

Another story is that at one time in Wenxian there was a large group of bandits who were part of a religious cult that believed that they were invincible, that no blade or bullet could hurt them. They were called the Red Spear Gang and were causing a lot of trouble in the region. When he’d had enough, the chief of police at Wenxian sent a message asking if Chen Fa Ke could come and sort them out. Chen Fa Ke agreed and on his way there he was met by the gang at a large bridge across the river outside Wenxian. Someone had told them that he was coming. At the front of the crowd was the big boss with a long spear. He said Chen Fa Ke couldn’t come across and laughed saying that nobody could hurt him or his gang, that no blade or bullet could pierce them. Chen Fa Ke just stood there calmly, holding his plain wooden staff. Suddenly the big boss lunged at Chen Fa Ke with his spear. In one very fast movement Chen parried the blow and hit the boss in the chest with the end of his staff – it went straight through his body and two feet out the other side. When they saw this the rest of the gang suddenly lost confidence and ran away, of course they were not invincible after all, and they never came back.

Chen Fa Ke spent 30 years teaching in Beijing. He developed the New Frame (Xinjia) forms, yilu and erlu. He made the chansigong, the silk-reeling technique, clearer and more intricate and added more fajin, more spiralling movement and more martial applications.

In the 18th generation there was my father Chen Zhao Xu, and Chen Zhaopi, Chen Zhaokui and Chen Zhao Chi – all who reached a very high level in Taiji. Chen Zhaopi and Chen Zhaokui were most well known teachers but it was Chen Zhaoxu and Chen Zhaochi who had the highest level.

WCTAG, Jan Silberstorff (22)

The 19th generation is not as good as the previous generations. That is why I always practise very hard. Before 1980 I spent a lot of time looking for what teachers were left, to find out what the standard was after my father’s generation. I couldn’t find anything so I just practised very hard myself. After many years of training, after lots of trial and error, practising hard every day, trying this and trying that and always asking questions but not being happy with the answers I eventually discovered the Taiji principle myself during the year 1979-1980. The principle never changes: one Taiji principle, three kinds of motion. Since 1980, when I’m training, every day there is less deviation, the principle is clearer and more delicate. Every day my Dantien gets stronger, my body gets stronger and my Qi is more flowing. So every year since 1980 my Taiji improves, it only gets better because the principle is now clear. Each year you can see the difference. If the principle is not clear it is very difficult to improve your Taiji and you don’t know your deviations.

In 1980 I started working for the Chinese government. They wanted to start to promote Chen family Taiji to more people. But they said that other martial arts have basic exercises (Jibengong) and that Taiji is too difficult. I said to them that Laojia yilu is the basic exercise in Taiji! They said Laojia is too difficult – so from here I developed the silk-reeling exercises to help people learn Taiji and to make the principle clearer.


Back in the day – serious concentration!

In 1984 I started teaching in Europe and everyone found that Laojia is too difficult. So I developed the 38 form by taking out most of the repetitions in Laojia…but this was still too long for people to learn! So then I developed the 19 form and it’s still too long for most people! People don’t know how to learn… but in any form, in any number of movements it’s always the same principle: 1 principle, three kinds of motion. From one principle come one thousand movements.

Master Chen’s hands-on corrections are invaluable

SM: Thanks Master Chen, that’s excellent. Could you tell me a little bit more about Taiji principles and how to practise?

CXW: OK, no problem. There is just one principle and three kinds of motion. The one principle is that the whole body moves together following the Dantien. In every movement the whole-body moves together but the Dantien leads the movement and the whole body must be supported in all directions. This is very important. One principle, three kinds of motion: the three kinds of motion are as follows…First, horizontal motion, the Dantien rotates horizontally. The second kind of motion is vertical motion, the Dantien rotates vertically. The third kind of motion is a combination of the first two. Any movement that is doesn’t follow the principle is a deviation. So when we are training every day we are trying to find and reduce our deviations from the Taiji principle.

Really, it’s impossible to have no deviation at all and one lifetime isn’t enough, but this is the principle that guides our training. Even the most advanced and precisely engineered machinery has some deviation. It is just natural to have deviations but as we reduce it everything really improves, we become stronger, more balanced, more flowing.


Legs cooked- very amusing all round!

SM: Master Chen, after all these years do you still feel like your Taiji is improving?

CXW: Every day. Every day in my training there is less deviation. Every day I have some questions that I work on and every day some answers. Since 1980 when I discovered the principle I always improve: more balanced, Dantien stronger, Qi more flowing. Training Taiji is never ending, there is always more to discover and you can always improve.

SM: Just one last thing Master Chen. What are your hopes for the future of your Taiji?

CXW: After all my decades of training and teaching Taiji I look back and see all the wrong turns I have made. Now I realise that everything is the same and comes from the same principles. After all of my experiences I realise that the way is actually from the complicated to the simple. My purpose is to put signs on all the wrong turns where students can easily lose their way, to make the path clearer for them. If I can simply help people improve their Taiji then I will be very happy and all my wishes will have come true.

SM: That’s great. Thank you very much for your time Master Chen.

Sam Moor teaches Chen Taiji full time across Sussex: http://www.sussextaichi.co.uk

i For more details see: http://www.ciaa.co.uk

Pictures of Master Chen courtesy of WCTAG

Posted in Chen Taijiquan, Chen Xiao Wang, Martial arts, movement, Tai Chi, taijiquan | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Making mistakes

Everybody makes mistakes or so the saying goes. There is often a lot of common sense in these old adages and this one certainly rings true, for wisdom comes from experience and experience comes from making mistakes. In fact, it is usually when we’re not frequently making little mistakes here and there, and learning as a direct result, that we set ourselves up for something seriously undesirable and unexpected in the form of a really big mistake. In most aspects of our culture the acceptable norm is to avoid mistakes, little or otherwise, at all costs.  To do this however, is very counter-productive as it denies oneself a highly valuable source of adaptation and learning – two of life’s essential essentials. Mistakes, if you capitalise on them, make you very resilient and at best antifragile[i], the precise opposite of fragile.

Some corrections for Sam

Rather than putting me into a ‘correct’ or fixed posture, Master Chen adjusts the body to create a certain feeling of fluid whole-body connection and calmness. This is infinitely more useful than a fixed idea.

Back in the day Tai Chi was taught in a non-prescriptive fashion with the emphasis lying heavily upon the student’s ability to observe, practise independently, evolve and learn heuristically i.e. from trial and error, observation and discovery. By developing and relying upon one’s evolving experience, common sense, creativity and incremental exploration the student, through diligent training, actually uncovers Tai Chi for herself. The teacher simply points a finger in the right direction:

 ‘It is like a finger pointing away to the moon; if you look at the finger then you miss all the heavenly glory.’

So, by learning in this way the student develops independence and many other unexpected and invaluable skills which translate into domains other than Tai Chi, such as daily life, relationships and business. Students who are new to Tai Chi usually avoid training on their own because they want to avoid making mistakes. They want to ‘remember’ the movements/exercises ‘correctly’. I usually explain that Tai Chi has nothing at all to do remembering anything other than the necessity to practise every day. Similarly, I like to vaguely suggest that terms such as ‘right and wrong’ or ‘correct and incorrect’ have nothing to do with anything related to our training seeing that they are such limited and unrealistic concepts.

Tai Chi training i.e. learning how move well and focus your mind, is similar to learning how to play a musical instrument – but with Tai Chi it is your body/mind that is the instrument. So you just have let go a little and make some ugly noises to begin with, for if you don’t have any feedback from your actions you simply can’t learn anything. Reading books about music or remembering music theory will not enable you to be able to play beautifully or indeed at all. You just have to do it. It is the same with Tai Chi and, of course, life. Just as a wise old master once said: ‘You have to be in it to win it!’

Most of us are very much used to being spoon fed information from various external sources (educational institutes) and confuse this top down process with more wholesome grass roots learning. The infinitely more useful heuristic model of learning can be difficult for us modern folk to get our heads around but if you always have to rely on someone else to give you information in order to know what you are doing then you are in a very fragile and weak position. So remember, don’t cry over spilled milk, instead simply learn from it




[i] Check out Antifragile by Nassim Taleb.

Posted in Chen Taijiquan, Chen Xiao Wang, Fascia, movement, Tai Chi, taijiquan | 2 Comments

Tai Chi, Fascia & Biotensegrity

I have always had a deep passion for nature which is one of the reasons why I love Tai Chi so much. In particular I am consistently fascinated at how all of Earth’s inhabitants, from the tiniest of bacteria to the biggest of mammals, are inextricably linked through one vast ecological web.

When running nature workshops for children one of my conservationist friends illustrates this fact by building a working model of an ecological web using many bits of twine. All of the children assist with the construction; each tentatively holds their own a piece of string which represents some aspect of, or creature from, the natural world. All the threads are then tied together to form a delicate three dimensional web and thus the many facets of our ecology are visibly connected and the constant but gentle pressure of the integrated structure is felt by each individual. Pull on a thread in one particular place and the rest of the web will move to compensate, the change in pressure felt by all. Sever a thread and the integrity of the entire structure is compromised; the web collapses. Each separate part affects the whole. Indeed the model illustrates that there are not really any separate parts. It is just our limited perception, experience and understanding that creates such divisions. It is exactly the same with the human body:

“Fascia forms a continuous tensional network throughout the human body, covering and connecting every single organ, every muscle, and even every nerve fibre.” (1)


“The world is full of obvious things that no-one by any chance ever observes.” Sherlock Homes

Research into the role of fascia as an effective means of understanding the physical reality of the body is still a recent thing but is rapidly gaining much credence in the realms of musculoskeletal and movement therapies and sports science. For practitioners and teachers of Internal Martial Arts such as Tai Chi (Taijiquan) it is really worth looking at and acquiring an idea of the basics, which I will briefly outline here, for there are some stunning similarities between them and perhaps you will be able to observe some correlations in your own training. (2)

Before Anatomy Trains, there was Chen Tai Chi. This image, taken from 'Chen Xin's Illustrated Canon of Chen Family Taijiquan' (1933) shows the spiral line of fascia that courses through the body.

Before Anatomy Trains there was Chen Tai Chi. This image, taken from ‘Chen Xin’s Illustrated Canon of Chen Family Taijiquan’ (1933) shows the spiral line of fascia that courses through the body.

That the human body moves and functions as a single unit, so well illustrated by research into fascia and biotensegrity has, in fact, been well known by Tai Chi players for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Tai Chi training principles are based not upon intellectual theory (theory is a lot like shutting the gate after the horse has bolted) but a long history of direct experience gained through highly perceptive, heuristic movement research, acute empirical observation of natural phenomena (such as the laws of physics) at both micro and macro levels and rigorous proof testing through application (fighting/self-defense/life). All of this experience eventually culminated in a most natural and optimal way to train the human body and mind for health, movement and martial arts that we know and love as Tai Chi.

The first reliable records of Tai Chi proper takes us back to Chen Village, or Chenjiagou, circa the early 1600s and cite Chen Wanting, the Ming Dynasty General, as founder of the art. Chen style Tai Chi has retained all of the authentic flavour and goodness from the old days although unfortunately much of the Tai Chi you see today is in fact  bastardised, modernised and heavily simplified. As such, it is a huge misconception that Tai Chi consists only of slow movements most suitable for the elderly or comprises some kind of pseudo-spiritual dance. Nothing could be further from the truth. At first the student of Tai Chi trains slowly and smoothly to develop highly accurate sense perception (this is requires a calm and focused mind), body coherence and balanced, connected strength. Once these basic requirements are well established we train for speed and power but with an intelligent and calm foundation that we continually work on and seek to improve.

Check out the video of Chen Xiao Wang below. Here he gives a little taster of  some the treats Chen style has to offer. At 3 minutes in you start to see some fireworks! He is 70 years old this year and has been training consistently for over 60 years. He is as strong as bull but as pliable as a baby:

Balanced, relaxed, whole-body movement forms the core principle of all good Tai Chi practice and vastly contributes to its superb efficacy  in not only optimising health and all bodily functions but also as a method for developing superb movement, power and ‘whole-body’ strength without damaging the body on the way. If you consider it carefully, to have this as the key fundamental premise for how one trains makes more sense than many other approaches, for when a system is integrated it will be optimal, adaptive and harmonious in its functioning (3):

“From one principle come ten thousand movements” Chen Xiao Wang (4)

“When one part moves, all parts move; the whole body responds” Tai Chi Classics (5)

So let’s get back to fascia. Fascia is primarily made up of densely packed collagen fibres that comprise an integrated system of sheets, chords and bags that permeate the human body in its entirety. This three dimensional fascial web is jam packed with mechanoreceptors and essentially forms a ‘global’ sensory organ which richly communicates where we are in space, what our bodies are doing and most importantly, how they are doing it. Fascia is elastic in nature and exhibits this quality even more so when in good condition facilitating connected and fluid movement. It responds to the continuous force of gravity around which it organises bodily structure and function; if you can imagine wearing an elasticated wet-suit that permeates your body entirely, adapted and yet ever adaptive to how you most commonly use your body then this may give you some idea of this incredible stuff. Although most of us are not aware of it, to extend out a limb results in a corresponding stretch across the whole fascial ‘body-suit’ priming the body to recoil in one elastic and fluid motion. Whether we run, jump, walk or do Tai Chi a large part of the energy of that movement comes from the elastic recoil and spring-like properties of fascia. Similarly, the Tai Chi classic texts state that:

“When storing energy it is like a drawing a bow, when releasing energy it is like shooting an arrow.” (6)

Incredibly, it has been discovered that the fascia of humans has a similar kinetic storage capacity to that of Kangaroos! (7) Fascia has long been ignored until recent years being seen only as a kind of unimportant bulking agent of the body. However, anyone deeply engaged with any kind of movement practise who has developed the above-average level of body-awareness necessary to do so is likely to agree that the usually favoured isolated muscle presentation as the be all and end all of movement anatomy leaves much to be desired. While some may find it intellectually pleasing to categorise and separate the human body, its actions and functions into disparate bits, it in fact operates and is organised as a unit of function; an integrated whole. (8) The human being grows organically from a single egg and so from conception to expiration this single unit operates inextricably. (9) Separating movement into discrete functions fails to provide an accurate or useful picture of the seamless integration and responsiveness seen in and experienced by a living body. Fortunately, fascia is here to fill the gap:

“…that the complexity of human movement and stability can be derived by summing up the action of these individual muscles is a naive and reductionist conviction.” (10)

The general consensus has been to think of only one or two muscles participating in any given movement but no matter how common this misconception may be the reality is that any movement is essentially a whole-body movement. For movement is not simply the mere coordinated bending of separate hinges but instead expansion, repositioning and contraction of the tensegrity of the body as a whole via the fascial web. (11) So the Tai Chi classics were certainly on to something when they told us that if one part moves, the whole body responds ‘like a string of pearls connected by interwoven threads of silk.’ (12)

At school we learn to intellectually divide the body into the skeletal, muscular, nervous and circulatory systems, etc but the only tissue that can facilitate the integrated responsiveness humans possess is fascia.(13) This ‘living matrix’ is in fact the most abundant component of human matter and forms the bulk of the human body and as such is probably worth paying some attention to. The overall form of the body, as well as the architecture, mechanical and functional properties of all its parts, are largely determined by the configuration and properties of fascia. (14) For example, we have long assumed that the skeletal system holds the body up and that our muscles hang off the skeleton and that specific muscles move the bones in isolation. In reality however, bones float in a three dimensional mass of soft-tissues, their positions determined by the tensional balance or tensegrity of the entire fascial web and thus it is this web that actually comprises our body structure.

It is mainly due to our distinct lack of body awareness and  an incorrect, intellectual understanding of movement that we do not experience the body in this way and thus capitalise on it’s inherent, natural attributes. For usually when we exercise we immediately try to force the body to change in some superficial way rather than learning how pay attention to what it does naturally without interference, intervention or biased-control. It is the ability to pay attention accurately which allows us to discover the inherent  structure of our human form, something that is with us whatever we are doing, whether we are ‘exercising’ or standing in a queue at the supermarket. What more sensible first port of call could there be to commence your training?

It is very curious that even in the typically touted holistic practice of Yoga most practitioners seem bent on achieving controlled aesthetics. Most postures have no relation to good bio-mechanics or whole-body movement and are counter productive to the development of a resilient, elastic body structure that is vital for optimal movement.

All good movement is whole-body movement

All good movement is enjoyable, relaxed, whole-body movement. Isn’t that a good premise to start training from? Photo of Skating Legend Ben Moor-courtesy of Daniel Turner

A body that exhibited tensegrity in an optimal way would be tensionally balanced in all directions under the reliable and constant pressure of gravity. This, incidentally, is the first basic and ongoing (there isn’t a fixed finished product) goal in Tai Chi training and forms the foundation for all subsequent movement. The Tai Chi classics point to this when they say that in our training, specifically regarding how we move, we should seek:

“No hollows and no protuberances. No deficiencies, no excess” (15)

And in regards to perceiving and maintaining such balanced, structural integrity in every movement:

“When there is up, there is down. When there is forwards, there is backwards. When there is left, there is right. When there is opening, there is be closing” (16)

This concept of Tensegrity also known as Biotensegrity (17) is a phrase coined by the designer R. Buckminster Fuller. Tensegrity structures, such as the human body, distribute forces and movement throughout the system via the spring-like fascial web rather than being dealt with locally as they are in lever systems:

“The word ‘tensegrity’ is an invention: a contraction of ‘tensional integrity’. Tensegrity describes a structural-relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviours of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviours. Tensegrity provides the ability to yield increasingly without ultimately breaking or coming asunder”  R. Buckminster Fuller (18)

Nice view of a tensegrity structure...

A man made tensegrity structure.

The classics suggest that through Tai Chi training our bodies can be so well tuned in this way that even a fly alighting from one part of the body should set our entire structure in motion – we should perceive all nuances of movement and indeed external forces as distributed through the whole. (19) Chen Xiao Wang often states that in all of our training we should constantly seek ‘balance in all directions’ and thus develop what he calls ‘all-sided support’.  He is, of course, referring to the facilitation of the inherent biotensegrity of the human body as a most sensible basis for movement.

Hundreds of years before the word biotensegrity was even coined, Tai Chi players were bang on it. Another illustration from Chen Xin (1849-1929) shows the human structure as a sphere - the most economical and useful of shapes.

Hundreds of years before the word biotensegrity was even coined, Tai Chi players were bang on it. Another illustration from Chen Xin (1849-1929) shows the human structure as a sphere – the most economical and useful of shapes.

Tensegrity reverses the centuries-old concept that the skeleton is a frame upon which soft-tissue is draped and replaces it with an integrated fascial fabric with floating compression elements enmeshed within the interstices of tensional elements. (20) One feature of this fascial body structure is that it never stops adapting to how we use it most; the body has a great capacity for structural change at any age so we always can keep learning and improving. (21)

To me, Tai Chi is the science of optimal human movement and being. Through the process of our training we seek to discover and develop ‘global’ or whole–body awareness, connection and movement that is balanced, organised and integrated through the centre of the body. Learning about fascia can help us achieve this, but of course just having an intellectual understanding will not even nearly suffice. First to actually discover a direct sense of this whole-body connection and movement and then to augment what occurs naturally is our ongoing aim.

Right from the start, in the warm-ups and basic exercises that beginners often find tedious, and throughout all aspects of our training should we seek to observe the simplicity of whole-body integration. For once you start to get a sense of the golden feeling of whole-body movement, all training becomes is a real pleasure that is sweet like honey. Not some kind of chore to blindly flagellate ourselves with. Even basic movements like warming up specific joints should always directly relate to the whole and we can find out how by acutely focusing the mind on the physical job in hand firmly cementing the inextricable link between mind and body:

“The skin is no more separated from the brain than a surface of a lake is separate from its depths; the two are different locations in a continuous medium…The brain is a single functional unit, from cortex to fingertips to toes. To touch the surface is to stir the depths.” (22)


There is a great deal to be learned from looking at nature – a quiet mind allows us to fully observe and take it all in

A good way that we can discover and develop these principles is whilst training something very simple such as the maintaining of a simple ‘neutral’ standing posture as in Zhanzhuang (standing meditation, it’s simple and brilliant – learn it from a decent teacher). The absence of deliberate movement focuses the mind into the body and heightens the senses. This allows us to discover and thus relax the restricted and unfelt areas of our body structure, which for most people, especially in the beginning, comprises the majority. This way we can improve our direct sense and functioning of the whole fascial net.

With regular practice we can perceive steadily more and start to clearly experience the body as a balanced and connected unit. As we progress to simple movements we see if we can perceive and achieve the same level of integration; do we feel the elasticity that fascia imparts to our movement? Can we feel the spherical nature of our tensionally balanced form? From here we progress to training more complicated movements, a Tai Chi form for example, and it is much more difficult to allow the same principles to come to fruition. It is an ongoing process and any deviations that we might discover can be resolved by taking a step back to the preceding basics and ironing out what seem to be current discrepancies:

“Learning Taijiquan means to educate oneself. It is like slowly advancing from primary school to university. As time passes, more and more knowledge is gained. Without the foundations of primary school and secondary school one will not able to follow the seminars at university.” Chen Xiao Wang (23)

The properties of fascia mirror many aspects of how we approach training in Tai Chi and allows us a more contempory way of understanding what we do. The important point is that not only do we normally fail to understand that the body functions as an integrated unit on an intellectual level but also on an experiential level; surprisingly low levels of body awareness or body-intelligence are the norm in our society, even (and often especially) in the very active. We tend to rely on our arms and hands and it is here that most of our awareness lies. If we were to think of the archetypal image of strength we would probably see an arm with a bulging bicep in our mind’s eye rather than a body in its entirety well connected, balanced and integrated. Remembering that the body moves as one unit, supported by our understanding of fascia, can help us keep on the right track with our training rather than being distracted by what we consider to be separate parts.

My research into fascia has yielded much more interesting and realistic results that relate to my own training and experience than I have ever encountered in the field of traditional anatomy or Traditional Chinese Medicine. I have found that the parallels with these findings and the principles in Internal Martial Arts that I know from my own direct experience are not only striking in their similarity but also fascinating. They have been very useful in my own training and teaching as I feel this more contempory and scientific approach to anatomy and movement nicely backs up what we do in Tai Chi (and related arts) without having to rely on the traditional obscurities that seem to distract people from good training so very readily.

I know of a number of established and well respected Yoga teachers who now use fascia as a basis for teaching their art rather than the traditional abstract, sometimes nonsensical concepts and explanations. (24) For me the properties of fascia, and our understanding of biotensegrity, are far more relevant to Tai Chi and similarly a basic level of comprehension can drastically help clear up misunderstandings and more abstract notions about and apparent in the art. By making it more understandable and palatable to modern society increasing numbers of people are likely to practice (the big secret) and thus enjoy the vast benefits that come from immersing oneself deep within the golden sensation of freedom of movement and natural power.

Sam Moor teaches Chen Tai Chi full time in Sussex.



1. Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body. 2012, Elsevier.
2. An accessible place to start is ‘Anatomy Trains’ by Thomas Myers, Elsevier.
3. Siegal, D. The Mindful Therapist. Norton. 2010
4. Chen Xiaowang Yanshi. Chen Family Taijiquan. 2008.
5. Liao, W. Tai Chi Classiscs. Shambala. 2000

6. Ibid
7. Sawicki, G. Exercise Sports Science Review.37. 2009
8. Sills, F. Craniosacral Biodynamics. Volume One. North Atlantic Books. 2001
9. Myers, T. In Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body. 2012, Elsevier.
10. Myer, T. Anatomy Trains. 2001. Elsevier.
11. Levin, S and Martin, D, C. In Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body.
12. Liao, W. Tai Chi Classiscs. Shambala. 2000
13. Schultz, R. and Feitis, R. The Endless Web: Fascial Anatomy and Physical Reality. 1996, North Atlantic Books
14. Oschman, J. Energy Medicine in Therapeutics and Human Performance. 2003, Elsevier.
15. Liao, W. Tai Chi Classiscs. Shambala. 2000

16. Ibid

17. Check out: http://www.biotensegrity.com
18. Fuller, B. Synergetics. New York: Macmillan. 1975
19. Liao, W. Tai Chi Classiscs. Shambala. 2000
20. Levin, S & Martin, DC. In Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body. 2012, Elsevier.
21. Schultz, R. and Feitis, R.
22. Juhan, D. Job’s Body: A Handbook for Bodywork. 1987, Station Hill Press, NY.
23. Xiaowang, Chen. The Five Levels of Taijiquan. 2012, Singing Dragon.
24. Check out: http://www.intelligentyoga.co.uk/

Posted in Anatomy Trains, biotensegrity, Chen Taijiquan, Chen Xiao Wang, Fascia, Martial arts, mindfulness, movement, Tai Chi, yoga | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

Roll with it…

I was never all that keen on the 90s band Oasis but when they wrote the song ‘Roll with it’ they were on to something. Going with the flow or indeed rolling with the punches is a key part of the Tai Chi approach to training body and mind and is vital, of course, for dealing with all of life’s ups and downs. For when you resist something it creates tension.

Tension or more specifically the tension that comes from our incessant interference with natural processes, impedes movement, flow and our ability to relax and deal with life in a wholesome way.

The first thing we experiment with and consequently learn in Tai Chi is how to progressively let go of tension and resistance on a physical and mental level. This allows us to develop our awareness and facilitates the ability to move fluidly and effortlessly whilst retaining stability, balance and strength but without becoming rigid or stuck in our ways. As we begin to realise this on a basic physical level (which is quite difficult for most people-especially those who are looking for mystery or subtle energies) it naturally starts to permeate how we live our lives. This is an extremely useful skill to cultivate and comprises the first step on the Tai Chi journey.

So, for me 2016 has already had it’s fair share of ups and downs. All of my new classes are busy with great students keen to learn the art, which is quite delightful and something that makes me very happy. On the downside however, I recently had a very close brush with my own mortality when I managed to crash my car (AKA The Blue Dragon) into a tree on the Chilgrove Road one stormy Saturday morning. Fortunately, I escaped with only a few cuts and bruises and I was very lucky that my Tai Chi body structure absorbed much of the impact. Indeed, the paramedics who attended to me were very surprised at my lack of injury. I am just left with a lump of the windscreen stuck in my hand as a painful reminder….

Happy to have survived!


High impact!

Just to top it off the lovely new replacement car I bought (imaginatively  named The Dark Blue Dragon) was promptly stolen from Brighton three days later! What can you do? After a few deep breaths I realised that material possessions, of course, just come and go like the tide and there’s nothing else to do but let go and move forwards (and sort out all the paperwork!) You just have to roll with it…

Sussex Tai Chi

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Rock On!

Learning how to do something new is brilliant for your mind – it facilitates neuroplasticity which is highly beneficial and keeps neurons firing on pioneering  pathways. Learning how to use your body in a new way is even better  for the same reason but just on a more visceral and integrative level. To learn something that achieves both then provides a double dose of goodness. You probably think I’m just talking about Tai Chi as usual but this time I’m actually referring to rock-climbing (and Tai Chi).

After having been encouraged to watch the highly entertaining American Ninja Warrior (not to be confused with the extremely lame UK version) on YouTube by my partner I found myself pretty impressed by the feats of the contestants, especially their death defying climbing/movement  skills. I began wondering to myself whether or not I could be capable of the same. So as a result of this question niggling away in my brain for some time, and to cut a long story short, we recently enrolled on an indoor rock climbing course at Chichester College where they have a nice 8m high climbing wall.

Slowly does it - don't look down!

Slowly does it – don’t look down!

As well as really looking forward to learning how to climb I was also a little apprehensive; from a young age I have been quite scared of heights though I thought that climbing might be a good way to finally deal with this old demon. The first class soon came around and we met with Joe, our instructor, who took us through all the basic requirements and necessary safety procedures such as how to wear our harnesses and tie-in correctly. Joe’s teaching style was right up my street, him being very relaxed with a great sense of humour. He also had some amusing rhymes to remember how to tie all the appropriate climbing knots, I seem to remember something about strangling a burglar and then poking him in the eye! In terms of climbing technique, much of what he described was very similar to Tai Chi principles such as being aware of your centre of gravity, staying balanced and relaxed, using minimal effort, going with the flow and focusing on moving naturally within your comfortable range of movement.  After hearing all this familiar theory  I was soon feeling quite at ease and confident that climbing, in fact, would be a doddle. Thus I was happy to sacrifice myself as usual and put myself forward to climb first.

Just let go...

Just let go…

As I steadily made my way up the wall I noticed that I had to  completely pay attention to what I was doing and remain in the present moment in order not to fall off. This was quite a strong motivating factor! My Tai Chi training certainly helped with this and my strong legs were very useful for pushing me up so as not rely on upper body strength alone. About three quarters of the way to the top I mistakenly thought it would be a good idea to risk a little look down. A wave of fear washed over me as I tentatively peered at everyone far below and I started to think about what would happen if I were to fall. It suddenly flashed through my mind that I might be frozen to the spot. However, instead of shouting down for someone to call the Fire Brigade to rescue me I  took a couple of deep breaths, refocused myself and carefully finished my climb to the top. At this point Joe yelled up to me to simply let go of the last hold and my partner would belay me down. Again, this suddenly seemed very risky and I felt the fear return, but as the old saying goes ‘in for a penny in for a pound’ and I just had to relax and let go. Of course I survived, and being belayed down to the ground was actually great fun. Back on terra firma I was over the moon and couldn’t wait to try it again.

Since then I have been climbing quite regularly, it’s a very enjoyable supplement to all my other training. I highly recommend it because by climbing lots of different routes it means that you have to try challenging new ways of using your body. Furthermore, you can’t just move blindly or simply rely on brute strength, you really have to pay attention and be body intelligent. Check it out!


Sam Moor teaches Chen style Tai Chi full time across Sussex:


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