The Eight Principles of Tai Chi

The Eight Principles of Tai Chi are a teaching aid to help students focus on a single aspect of Tai Chi in isolation and a useful tool for self analysis of your own Tai Chi form. Yet the importance of the principles is not in the physical movement of Tai Chi but in the spiritual teaching they offer.

Tai Chi, the Great Universal, is an holistic practice, working on mind, body and spirit. While many practitioners focus on the physical and mental benefits of Tai Chi, its original purpose was to support spiritual development. The origin of tai chi is usually attributed to Bodhidharma, a monk who traveled from the West into China in the 6th century. He found that monks in China did not have the strength and vitality for sustained meditation. He developed a series of exercises to strengthen them and these movements formed the basis on which Tai chi was developed.

The spiritual aspects of Tai Chi are not at all obvious and unless you have a teacher who emphasises its spiritual nature you may be unaware of it. By spiritual development growth we mean the rediscovering our permanent unchanging quality, which we were born with and that remains with us when we die. This need not necessarily be associated with religion, although religions are paths to help us to reconnect or bind back (the latin word religare means to bind back) to our spiritual nature.

Tai Chi, Chi Kung and Meditation form a core practice to help us to rediscover our spiritual nature. They open up the body’s energy channels, allowing us to increase our vital life force and to become open to Universal life force. They train the mind to become stiller and more focused, allowing us to find the silence in which we can find the inner voice of our true nature. They strengthen and develop the heart centre, which is the centre of our Being. While the Dan Tien is the centre of physical movement, and the third eye the centre of our spiritual connection, the heart binds and integrates all these. It is in the heart that we feel, or sense, our essential nature. In stillness and openness we are able to connect our physical being to the Universal life force. The Eight principles of Tai Chi reflect not only the basis of tai Chi movement but also the principles of spiritual growth. The fundamental nature of Tai chi movement reflects the greater aspect of universal movement, and in doing so, our potential to connect to Universal energy.

The spiritual aspects of the Eight Principles were never taught to me and they only became obvious when I decided to write them down. I was first introduced to them in the second year of the Infinite Tai Chi Teacher Training course. Up to that point although I had learnt the movement and had some feeling of Chi, I thought that I understood the nature of Tai Chi. Yet in truth I had not even started to learn. A third year student, Phil Spiers, was teaching a small group of us. Phil was experienced in different forms of Tai Chi, having had previous experience in Chen style. He asked us to demonstrate the form, yet before we had gone very far, he stopped us and said, 2What on Earth are you doing?” and then described several things we were doing wrong. “The movement should come from your waist, keep the shoulders down, keep the joints unlocked.” I was shocked because I thought I knew what I was doing. This was the start of me really learning Tai Chi. The list stayed with me and it was developed and reinforced by my teacher Alison Pickles. I had to completely re-learn the form, right back to the start, to apply the principles of Tai Chi movement. I later started to use the principles in my own teaching. They are a very useful teaching aid. They help to teach a specific aspect of movement in isolation and help the student to learn to break down and analyse their own movement. I kept promising my students that I would write them down, and it was only when I did that, that their true significance became apparent. As I wrote them down, it was obvious to me that each principle could be applied at a more fundamental level, that of life itself.

Not only do the principles govern the physical Tai Chi movement they also relate back to the fundamental purpose of Tai Chi. The origins of Tai Chi show that the movements on which they are based were created originally not for martial purposes but to support spiritual growth. Although seemingly Buddhist in origin they also seem to have been influenced by Taoist practices. The Eight Principles of Tai Chi movement reflect this spiritual background to the form. The Eight Principles of Tai Chi help us to develop the Tai Chi movement, but they can also be applied back into our lives. Tai Chi and life are not separate. Your Tai Chi movement reflects where you are in your life, your openness and your blockages. As you change so will your Tai Chi form. The opposite is also true, as you develop your Tai Chi form, you can bring the learning into your life.

The Eight Principles

1. Every Movement Starts from the Centre
All the Tai chi movement comes from the waist, the Dan Tien. This always comes first and leads the rest of the movement. The Dan Tien is the centre of the body’s power. When we move from the centre everything else follows naturally.

“In life we learn to go with the flow of the Universe, to work with the natural rhythms of life and life becomes so much easier. This is the principle upon which all else is based, the one truth that governs all. If we let the universal energy lead our life then we no longer need to strive and struggle, everything we need is done for us.”

2. Everything is Curved, Nothing is Straight
Keep the wrists, elbows and fingers unlocked. Keep the shoulders down. Open up the hips, unlock the knees and ankles. Locking out any of the joints cuts off the flow of Chi, the life force. We give way rather than resist. Once we are locked and rigid we are vulnerable.

“We learn the path of least resistance, to flow like a river. Avoid rigidity in our lives, be open to different approaches, different ways.”

3. Everything Changes, Nothing Stays the Same
Our weight shifts, constantly moving, filling one side and emptying the other. Feel the weight move, awareness of the emptiness and the fullness. Always move as though you are ready for the unexpected. Put down the heel first, so you can turn to face a different direction. Sink the weight down gently so that you can lift up again if necessary. Adapt your form to how you feel, sometimes stronger and more expansive, sometimes soft, gentle and nurturing.

“Tai Chi is the universal dance of life, the constant interplay of Yin and Yang. Expect the unexpected in your life. Nothing will stay the same for long. Be open to change and see it as exciting instead of threatening.”

4. We all Need Space to Grow
Keep the arms and hands away from the body, giving yourself space. Make sure that there is space under the arms for the body to breathe freely. We work not only on the physical level but out into the auric field. The more open and confident you are the more open and confident the movement.

“In order to make change in your life you need to give yourself time and space. We cannot change while our lives are so busy that we do not give ourselves time for contemplation, reflection and meditation. The purpose of life is to grow, spiritually, and we cannot do that while our life is filled with the mundane.”

5. Strength and Suppleness, Like a Tree
Make sure that you are well rooted into the ground, that your stance is strong and well grounded. Keep the upper body relaxed and the upper body movement flowing. We keep the connection to earth energy through our strong stance enabling us to balance the strong energy of Heaven. Reflect the Yin and Yang of nature in your stance and movement.

“We maintain balance in our lives. While we seek spiritual growth and development we also stay grounded in our physical existence. Life is the opportunity for us to learn. We learn to grow spiritually through life’s lessons, so we need to seek the balance in our lives. Although the body is balanced at the Dan Tien our Being is balanced at the heart.”

6. We Live in a World of Illusion
The Tai Chi movement is illusionary. Minimise the physical movement. Let the movement come from the turn of the waist and the shifting of the weight, with only minimal movement of the arms, wrists and hands. We reduce the physical effort enabling us to go deeper into our meditation.

“Our perception of the world around us is based on judgement and does not represent the truth. Learn to look beyond your perception to see the truth. Nothing in this world is what it seems, only when we release our judgement can we see truth.”

7. In Stillness We Seek Movement
Always seek stillness when you do your Tai Chi practice. Use quiet surroundings, still the mind, and still the emotions. Let the movement arise out of the stillness. We work with the Chi, the subtle energy. Our awareness of the Chi and of our senses comes with a quiet mind, focused and alert.

“If we are to know ourselves as we truly are, we first need to find stillness and peace inside. It is only through this stillness, through knowing our true self that we can make sustained change in our life. Only in the stillness can we find our true nature. “

8. Maintain Your Thread to Heaven
Keep the back straight and the head drawn upwards towards Heaven. Align the 7 energy centres. Keep the head held upwards do not let the head drop forward to look at the hands or feet. Follow them, with the eyes softly focused.

“We learn to maintain our connection to Divine guidance, to let Spirit direct our lives. If we choose to let the universe lead our lives we need to learn to connect and listen to the Divine. The body is a vehicle for spiritual connection. It is not coincidence that traditional positions for prayer and meditation create a vertical alignment of the body. The energy body creates a vehicle for direct communication with the Divine.”