This article forms part 1 of a 3 part series of interlinked writings on the baseline skills of tai-chi and the internal martial arts. It originally appeared in the Mike Sigman blogspot in October, 2012.
Once, a Chinese friend and I were discussing the differences between “internal martial-arts” and “external martial-arts”. He mentioned that in earlier China, many martial arts used the six-harmonies method of movement that is the hallmark of the so-called “internal martial arts”. Even today you can find a goodly number of old, pedigreed Chinese martial arts that contain the term “Liu He” (“six harmonies”) in their full title, but over time many arts have devolved to less pure usage of the use of qi, jin, and dantian, regardless of the name they use and the classics that they espouse. Today, because body movement must be completely re-patterned, only a small number of arts attempt to use the full six-harmonies movement principles and of course not everyone practicing those arts fully complies with traditional requirements.
Many of the admonitions that are included in the “Taijiquan Classics” from the Yang-style Taijiquan are actually just repetitions of the old lore about six-harmonies movement and are not necessarily specific to just Taijiquan. However, Taijiquan is one of the arts that use the full six-harmonies movement, even though they normally use the reeling-silk (chansijin) term.
The “reeling silk” movement of Taijiquan is actually just another way of describing focused six-harmonies movement. The same apothegms and injunctions found in Taijiquan lore can be found in the traditions of many other Chinese martial-arts and much of this lore was established back when six-harmonies movement was the classically correct way to move.
As I understand it, currently all styles of traditional Taijiquan state that they use the silk-reeling forces as the basis for their movements. All of the so-called internal-styles of martial-arts (the neijia) base their movement on six-harmonies movement, so the below discussion is applicable to Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, etc., with the understanding that of course there are some minor variations of application within the neijia styles, but no differences of importance.
The six-harmonies are often summed up very tersely as being comprised of the three internal harmonies (nei san he) and the three external harmonies (wai san he). The three internal harmonies are the essence of using the “intent”, the “yi”, to bring power from the ground or gravity to a place in the body. The three external harmonies describe how the body is tied together as one unit controlled by the dantian, such that the hand and foot are connected lengthwise by the body’s connective tissue. Between these two sets of three harmonies, the body has to move very differently than the normal mode of movement we have practiced since we were babies.
The traditional Chinese lore has it that a fetus in the womb (pre-natal or “pre-heaven”) moves with the ‘natural’ movement of six-harmonies, but that after a baby is born (post-natal or “post heaven”) the movement reverts to what we normally use. To re-learn the proper six-harmonies movement takes training and practice, though: “this movement is not intuitive; it must be learned” is an old saying.
So, the six-harmonies movement represents the idealized movement of the human body in accordance with its natural configurations; traditional Chinese medicine’s acupuncture theory adheres also to this idealization of the natural flow of strength through the body.
To the untrained eye, a person who is moving with six-harmonies movement can appear to be using normal movement so it’s fairly common to find many people emulating Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, Bagua, etc., styles using normal movement while focusing on the mysteries of “the form” and missing the point that it is the movement using six-harmonies which is the important thing. Let’s take a look at some of the implications of six-harmonies movement in Silk-Reeling.
Although it is easy to get into the weeds with an analysis of silk-reeling movement, muscle-tendon channels, and other things, the basic theory is fairly simple. As a matter of fact, the idea of tying various phenomena of the body and the universe into a simple theory-of-everything is the basis for the ancient Chinese cosmology, so we should be able to examine some general principles about silk-reeling, fairly easily.
The basic theory of six-harmonies movement starts with the idea of using the powers of the Earth (gravity) and the powers of the Heavens (mainly air and pressure) and combining those powers with the personal developmental -powers of Man’s whole body. Strength and qi always go hand in hand, according to the traditional perspective, but using strength and qi in the manner of the internal arts still requires specialized training.
Early Chinese studies viewed the strength of the body as being primarily along connected pathways involving several muscles, tendons, and connective tissues, using the skeleton as a base. Those pathways generally go longitudinally up and down the body and some channels (Yin channels) are involved with weight downward and the Closing aspects of the body; some channels (Yang channels) are involved with conveying the solidity of the ground upward and outward in the Opening of the body.
Use of isolated, “normal” strength dilutes or hinders the flow of ground-support strength upward and gravity-derived strength downward. In other words, muscular tension blocks the flow of source-power from the solidity of the ground or the weight via gravity, hence this type of movement training requires that the body be “relaxed”, but connected.
An illustration of the muscle-tendon channels or of the acupuncture meridians while the arms are up in the air is very enlightening about the longitudinal aspects of the strength and qi flow of the body, from hands to feet with the dantian and mingmen in the middle as controllers. If you can find an illustration of the acupuncture meridians (they derive from the muscle-tendon channels, so they’re just thin versions of the muscle-tendon channels), take a look at the way the channels run almost completely longitudinally.
Although the channels run basically longitudinally, the longitudinal channels spiral and wind-unwind as the body expands and contracts because of the natural lay of the muscles, tendons, and joints.
It’s critical to constantly remember that the solidity of the ground is the basis of all upward forces and that the weight of gravity is primary base of all downward forces. Imagine holding a book on your head: the body structure should relax so that the weight of the book goes easily through so that it is resting on the soles of the feet. At the same time there should always be a relaxed tensile connection originating at the feet and connecting upward to every point in the body.
Since the solidity of the ground and the downward pull of gravity are the two primary forces, it is an interesting exercise to think through why even sideways movement (or the arms, legs, etc. to the sides) are actually only aspects of Up and Down coupled with the connective tissues of the body.
What’s not immediately apparent to someone viewing the muscle-tendon channels is that although not all the channels go from lower-body to upper-body, the channels can combine in the middle of the body and sometimes various channels will coordinate with other channels in the course of performing a particular task or holding a posture. In other words, while some channels don’t appear to go all the way from top to bottom, by connecting with other channels as needed, the full longitudinal range is fulfilled. And very importantly, the central dantian/mingmen is positioned to manipulate the muscle-tendon channels, bridging and connecting the channels that stop at the middle and manipulating the body-length major channels.
Mantak Chia, in his book Iron Shirt Chi Kung I, did some excellent illustrations of various postures in which some of the channels are shown forming various frames. Below are two figures done by Chia which illustrate the body connection via muscle-tendon channels for “Close” and “Open”. There are a number of other worthwhile illustrations in the same book.
In the classical sense, the muscle-tendon channels can be looked at as ways to convey the strength of the ground upward and the closing-inward associated with down-weighting, but there is another view that is worth considering at the same time, in terms of where the channels originate.
In the physical human body, the front of the body and the undersides of the limbs contract in a way analogous to the underside of a running cheetah, greyhound dog, etc., as the legs close together and helped by the sinking weight of the body that is the result of gravity. In other words, the muscle-tendon channels along the front of the torso and the undersides and inner-sides of the limbs generally reflect a contraction, sinking and drawing in.
The back of the body expands as the solidity of the ground is pushed into it (mainly up the bones), in the same manner as the back (and backsides of limbs) of a running cheetah, greyhound dog, etc., at the widest extension. So, the muscle-tendon channels of the back of the torso and the backsides and outsides of the limbs generally reflect expansion, rising and extension.
The torso of the body normally reflects expansion up the back and contraction down the front, just as in the running cheetah example above, so the directions of qi flow for the microcosmic and macrocosmic orbits can be understood fairly clearly if you think about the expansion and contraction of the body and the powers of the solidity of the earth and the weight of gravity.
Reiterating the primary ideas so far, the basic forces of the ground-support and gravity from the earth are used as much as possible for power and muscle-tendon channels convey the power, with the dantian manipulating the channels and body as needed.
In order to keep a simple view, instead of using the confusing array of muscle-tendon channels we can simplify our view of Opening and Closing (expansion and contraction) by picturing a layer or “suit” of elastic material covering the body. The front of the suit is the contractile side and the back of the suit is the expansive side.
If we move the center of the torso, we can move the hands or feet as long as a slight tensile connection exists over the whole surface of the suit, connecting the hands/feet to the center. Moving the hands or feet without this connection is simply bringing normal muscular strength into play.
As a brief aside, our imaginary suit that covers the body has two weak points: the anus and the mouth. The integrity of the suit is maintained by closing the mouth while placing the tip of the tongue to the upper palate; the anus/perineum area is slightly pulled upward.
In the same way that the muscle-tendon channels go longitudinally top to toe, connecting the suit lengthwise, the tensile connection of the body also goes from the top of the body to the toes, so it is important to understand that while a movement of the dantian can move the hand, the connection to the feet insures that the same movement of the hand simultaneously affects the foot -- usually the foot on the same side, but since most of the muscle-tendon channels are more or less “half channel” (not fully lengthwise), they can join and cross-coordinate as needed at the dantian/mingmen, the nexus and controller of the channels and body in the ideal six-harmonies movement.
Because of the lengthwise connection of the body, the winding inward of the elbow (as an example) by the dantian turning is reflected in a near-simultaneous winding inward of the knee on that side; the winding inward of the shoulder is matched by an inward torsion at the hip-joint because of the tensile connection; the inward winding of the wrist is reflected by an inward torsion at the ankle because of the lengthwise connection of the body. This is what the Three External Harmonies refers to.
If you’ve followed the general logic up to this point, you can more or less imagine yourself as a well-inflated human-shaped balloon (head lightly held up with a string to assist the elastic tension; feet glued to the floor) with an elastic skin or “suit”. If someone twists your arm, the twisting tension in the arm will affect the elastic suit of the torso and legs, all the way to the floor. The idea of one part of the body having a tensile connection to all the rest of the body is the basis of silk-reeling practice. The whole body’s elastic connection and coordinated muscles, using the ground support and gravity, are stronger than “normal” strength.
The Balloon Man model gives us a good feel for understanding a connected, global-body elasticity, but it can also help to understand more about what a “dantian” does, physically. For instance, if we imagine a well-inflated Balloon man, it’s easy to understand the main/central dantian-mingmen area as being the logical place to control forces, etc., via elastic connection, to the extremities of the body-whole.
Similarly, it’s fairly easy to see that there is a nexus of control of the Balloon Man’s elastic suit between the legs: this is where the lower dantian is and it is indeed an area of control that is deliberately developed in martial training. However, the lower-dantian is itself only a secondary nexus because its movements are initiated first by the main dantian. I.e., the dantian/nexus inside the perineum area is “slaved” to the main dantian. The lower-dantian is the lower endpoint of controlling nexuses, but it connects elastically to the feet.
The central chest and the area directly opposite on the back are another secondary area of control, slaved to the main dantian, and this represents the chest dantian. Flexion of the central body’s ‘suit’ or elasticity out to the arms, down to the main-dantian and upward toward the head happens in the torso.
The hollow of the throat is also a nexus, or dantian. The upper endpoint of the various elastically-connected nexuses is the dantian between the eyebrows at the yintang. There is a relationship between functional dantian-nexuses and the idea of chakras that probably extends far back to ancient times.
The ancient Chinese and Indians view of how the body worked is more complex than just these simple physical representations, of course, but it has to be understood the full discussion of the human body using the qi-paradigm, channels, dantians, etc., does include these very functional relationships that we’re discussing. Once the physical interrelationship of dantians, connectivity, channels, etc., is understood, the larger understanding is not that far away.
An arm or leg (or even a part of the torso) can wind outward or inward. In the traditional view the body opens and expands upward from the earth while winding outward; the body sinks/closes with gravity while contracting inward. During expansion and opening, the back of the suit is the main driver with the spine straightening while the joints like the elbows and knees straighten and wind outward. During contraction (Close), the front of the suit is the main driver with the spine bending while all the joints bend and wind inward. A number of the old illustrations in various internal arts illustrate the two different potential winding directions by showing spirals on the body going in opposite ways.
Remember that no part of the body winds or moves without all parts of the body winding and moving if the connection of the body has been practiced and developed. Most beginners who do not have some development of the body-connection (or “suit”) are reduced to simply coordinating the body until exercises and breath-training have developed the connection. So don’t be discouraged if you don’t feel all of these connections at first; as the connections develop it is easier to do everything correctly and naturally because it is easy to feel that that is simply the way the body works.
There are two basic martial-arts postures in Asian martial-arts: Open and Close. In “Close” there is stress inward along the front of the body and the inward parts of the limbs; the knees and elbows and the joints bend and are generally under contractile forces of the front. Wing Chun’s basic stance, Uechi Ryu karate’s basic stance, “Play Pipa” (in Taiji), the closed aspect of “Squatting Monkey” (in Dai Family Xinyi), and in many other martial arts can be found variations of the Closed position of stances.
In “Open” the expansive forces from the back of the body and the outsides of the limbs pull the knees and elbows outward and the body lengthens, joints opening. Postures like “Single Whip” exemplify Open. In classically correct postures there is always a balance of the forces of Close and Open or Yin and Yang.
The body, when moving from the dantian and connected together as a whole, is constantly moving from Close to Open to Close to Open, and so on, no matter the posture or application.
So, as an example, in the opening of a Taiji form with the raising and lowering of the arms, the arms are raised by the solidity of the ground pushing up as the back of the “suit” expands, the dantian turns, and the body Opens. As the expansion of the back and Open reach their limits of power, the front of the “suit” has been stretched to its limits and is now ready to take over with the Close of the body, the dantian turning downward, and so on. As the Close of the body reaches its limits, the back’s elastic power is then once again positioned to begin to Open.
This cycle of Close to Open to Close to Open, etc., is Taiji, just as the Yin-Yang symbols indicate with their constant cycle of one element increasing to its limits and the other element assumes dominance.
Naturally, the previous explanation is simplified in order to illustrate the general idea; a complete treatment of all the components of whole-body movement, breath/pressure, weight-shifts, etc., isn’t needed in order to convey the basic Yin-Yang concept that is Taiji.
When the body Opens and Closes sideways, for instance in “High Pat on Horse”, the same forces of the solidity of the ground and the downward weight are used, so sideways movements always have an element of up and down to them. The body naturally winds inward on Closing and unwinds outward on Open, but if you pay attention, it is easy to see that the expansion of the back of the elastic, imaginary “suit” is powering unwinding and the front of the imaginary “suit” is powering the inward winding. So the general rule is “Upward and unwinding/expanding, Downward and winding inward”.
There are only 2 intrinsic directions in which the body winds and unwinds (the Ni and Shun windings previously mentioned). One direction of winding is controlled by forces expanding up the back and closing down the front (the normal direction of movement, as in the Microcosmic Orbit). The other direction of winding is controlled by forces pushing up the front of the body and then pulled down the back and sides (the reverse direction of movement).
To illustrate silk-reeling winding within the concept of Yin-Yang (Tai Chi) in an overly simplistic example of basic reeling-silk movement, imagine waving your straightened arm horizontally out to the side of the body (keep palm facing inward or frontward) and then waving it back in front to your center line. Imagine an elastic ribbon from your mingmen to the little finger that controls the outward wave until the elastic tension runs out. If you also imagine an elastic ribbon going from the dantian point, up the ribs and out the inner/under part of the arm out to the thumb, this front ribbon gradually gets tensioned as the arm swings outward to its limit and is therefore ready to pull the arm back in. So in this simple 2-dimensional example of two elastic ribbons, one in front from dantian to thumb and one in back from mingmen to little finger, the idea of Tai Chi as the exchange of energy from one to the other becomes clearer as first one ribbon’s tension is dominant and then the other ribbon’s tension is dominant in a constant cycle. Of course, bear in mind that in reality the ribbons would also connect from the mid-body down to the feet, but let’s keep things simple.
Real dantian movements tend to be more 3-dimensional than the above example and involve up and down components and connections in which gravity and the solidity of the ground drive all movements.
In the normal “circulation” of the energy of movement, movement/qi comes upward out of the mingmen and returns downward, pulled by the dantian, according to traditional tenets. This theory of movement also relates to the microcosmic orbit for the torso or to the so-called macrocosmic orbit of movement if the limbs are involved.
In three-dimensional movement there are four components of the arm-wave: up, across and outward, down, toward the body. When the arm is brought downward in the circular movement, both shoulders and both hips relax; the weight from the body, focused at the dantian is being added to the arm to bring it down.
Everything is either powered with the solidity of the ground going through the body or the weight from gravity. This simple relationship of cycling tensions controlled by the dantian and the Up and Down powers from gravity results in the outward swing of the arm actually being a combination of Up power from the ground together with the back’s expansive unwind; the lower inward swing of the arm is the down-weight of gravity coupled with the natural contraction of the front of the body.
In the full 3-dimensional arm-wave exercise, the hand flips over twice. Imagine again the two elastic ribbons, one from the dantian along the ribs and underside of arm to the thumb and one from the mingmen diagonally up the back to the shoulder and out the upper-outer side of the arm to the little finger. As you push (with dantian turning) the hand across the front of the body, the ribbon from the back shortens and pulls the elbow upward, pulling the little finger upward: that’s the first hand flip. As you pull the arm out to the side (dantian turning controls ribbon) with the back ribbon, you gradually run out of front ribbon, so the elbow is pulled downward and the hand flips for the second time. At first, it is important to keep a slight extension in the arm so that the connection from dantian to fingertips is never broken. The dantian pulling on the connective tensions of the entire body is what drives these particular aspects of movement and all reeling-silk movements.
In actual silk-reeling there is slightly more winding than the linear Expansion and Close used in the simple example above. Instead of the linear case of Expand using the mingmen to little finger, the twist pulls around to the thumb, so in the classical pictures a spiral is always shown. In the close, the pull goes all the way around to the little finger on the inward winding. The linear expansion and close is referred to as "pulling silk". The winding open and close is the "reeling silk".
The example of an arm wave can be seen in the embedded video of Chen Bing. John Prince has been kind enough to provide English subtext to the video which was originally posted to YouTube by ChenTaijiMilano. All of the limbs and body wind in the same basic manner as the arm wave that is powered by the solidity of the ground and/or the weight of gravity, through the intrinsic elastic connection of the body as manipulated by the dantien.
Reeling-silk movement, where the dantian is physically involved in manipulating the body is different from the type of movement people have done since babyhood, so it’s difficult for people to grasp that their movements must be totally changed to dantian-centerd movement.
Most people tend to emulate the movements of Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, push-hands, etc., with the common strength that we’ve used so long in our lives, but someone who actually does Taiji well, like Chen Xiaowang and many others, actually has a very strong and articulate dantian and can demonstrate the windings of the body on a larger scale at whim.
The general approach to learning reeling-silk motion in Taijiquan is to start large in order to learn the coordination and then the gradually decrease the size of the overt windings in order to further develop the intrinsic elastic strength of the body. The “Small Frame” forms practices were actually originally developed by and for people who had developed beyond needing the larger training movements of the large and middle-frame forms.
Although there are certainly other aspects of Taiji training (holding postures, breath-pressure devices, physical training, and so on), the major point about silk-reeling/six-harmonies and use of the dantian is that without accomplishing it, it’s not truly an internal martial-art. As an example, someone can do a “Tai Chi form” and something resembling “push-hands” and also know some of the pressure-pulse mechanics varieties that are common in all Chinese martial-arts, but without dantian, body-channel connections, and silk-reeling, it won’t really be Taijiquan in the classical sense.
There was an incident back in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s when a famous member of the Beijing Wushu Team came to the noted Chen-style practitioner, Feng Zhiqiang, and asked him to grade her performance. Feng diplomatically said that he would grade her “C”. The grading criteria in contemporary wushu performances are different from the evaluations used in traditional wushu by accomplished experts. A traditional expert is going to look for true reeling-silk movement, jin, qi, and so on.
When learning to use reeling-silk movement, the first problem is keeping the channels relaxed for the propagation of “qi”. If you don’t use the dantian to move the channels, you cannot, by definition, be allowing the optimum flow of power because without the dantian doing the work, local muscular motion must be in use. Remember that many channels stop at the dantien and it is the dantien that connects channels as needed for strength and qi propagation.
It takes a lot of practice for using the dantian and whole-body connection to become the natural mode of movement, but it does happen. Doing a thousand forms using the dantian, ground-support jin, gravity-jin, and the whole-body connection, though, is much more effective at learning to move with the dantian than to do a thousand forms without reeling-silk movement. Once the mode of moving with reeling-silk is learned, though, there is a beautiful complexity in the feeling of the surface and deeper windings of the body as you move through the form.