The Centre Moves the Peripherals: Practising Tai Chi
By Erle Montaigue
October 7, 1989

When practising Tai Chi one must always take important notice of where the movement originates from. For instance, ballet dancers are able to perform the movements of T'ai chi perfectly. At least they look perfect to the untrained eye but usually their movement is being originated from the hands or feet and not coming from the centre.
(Note from Eli: I was told recently by an ex professional Ballet dancer that in fact every move they do does come from the centre. In the above comment Dad probably had been teaching some ballet dancers that were not at that level yet, so he got the wrong idea that they move from the hands. Personally what I would say is the difference is that a ballet dancer moves from the centre to create grace and beauty, where is taiji does so to create power in striking) 

Every minute movement must move from the centre. Even the hooking of the fingers in the posture 'tan-pien' or single whip must originate from the centre. When this movement is performed we must not just move the fingers into place while the rest of the body does nothing, there will be a circular movement of the lower abdomen which causes this wrist movement to take place. If you were to exaggerate the movements of a seasoned T'ai chi player, you would notice that all movement comes from a slight inner tensing of the lower abdomen. At a more advanced stage this movement must also be circular. I.e.; the lower abdomen must slightly tense internally firstly on one side, go over the top and then down the other side to coincide with the circular movement of the hands and indeed this slight internal tension must make the hands move accordingly. However, there is no easy way to learn this inner movement as it must come with experience. All a teacher is able to do is to tell the student about this most important aspect and hope that they get it along the way. Usually the student will stumble across it by accident and discover how much extra power is generated.

The movement called 'fishes in eight' for instance must originate from the centre with a slight tensing of the lower abdomen so that it is the lower abdomen that causes the palms to move in such a manner. If this is not done, we lose the 'inner meaning' of the technique i.e.; a finger strike to the eyes followed by an elbow strike to 'the mind point' on the side of the jaw with a point strike to the left or right wrist area to lung and heart points.

Sounds complicated but it's all there in the movement when practising tai chi.

This is not an easy task as we all of us are so used to superficial movement which is hand originated that it will take many years of training to get the centre to activate the palms and feet as we used to when we were small children.

It is said in the classics that the movement must come from the feet is directed by the waist and manifests in the palms. So we see from this that all movement must be directed by the waist or lower abdomen. Only when the wrists have come completely into 'sung' will the movement be able to arise from the centre and when this happens, a whole new world of T'ai chi movement will be experienced so that one will never be able to go back to originating the movement from the peripherals. So much power is gained by the execution of this classic that it would seem to some to be supernatural but it isn't. All movement is based purely upon physics and so too are the movements from T'ai chi. In the same way that physics professors are able to perform seemingly supernatural feats using simple laws of physics so too are we able to make use of those laws in practising tai chi.

Many people simply stumble upon these laws and because they do not know about physics they actually believe that they are performing supernatural feats when all the time they are only using physical laws, natural laws which are there for all of us sub-supermen to use.

To begin training in the use of the centre when practising tai chi we use the group of postures called 'wave hands in clouds'. This is ideal as the movement is so perfectly rounded and allows the centre to move the waist and hands. We perform the postures with static feet standing in the qigong posture and only turn from the waist. The lower abdomen is tensed lightly internally so that the movement of the wrists only comes from this movement. Try and feel where the lower abdomen needs to be lightly tensed to cause this wrists to turn and fold. When this movement is achieved then we begin the movement of the feet. Remembering at all times that the wrists must be in total 'sung' for any internal movement to happen at all.

Another excellent training method to gain this central movement when practising tai chi is pushing hands. You will notice that I called this exercise a training method and that is all it is and should never be used in tournament or for fighting etc. If you are able to lose all ego and allow your partner to push you over and not try to resist, only trying to rely upon the classics etc, then all that you have read about T'ai chi in those classics will manifest to you. Slowly you will find that you are not being pushed over so easily and you seem to be using less and less power to stop yourself from being attacked. This is because your sub-conscious mind is finally getting the message about the laws of physics and will cause your body to react in the absolute correct way to defend against that on-coming force.

As I said earlier we are not supermen/women (well some of us aren't) and so if it is required that the body actually give way and be pushed over then that sometimes is the only way out to stop us from being hurt. So don't worry if you are continually being pushed over. Just try to stick to the classics of straight back with absolutely no bending of the waist, use only centrifugal force to spin the force away. Tuck the chin in so that there is like an iron rod running up your backbone and turn your waist in compliance with the on-coming force and in conjunction with your palms being moved from the centre. Think about your feet. Make like a tree with the feet as the roots and no force in your upper body at all. Keep the power in your feet and the looseness in your upper body and the movement will only come from the centre.

Gradually, your push hands will place into your sub-conscious mind an internal movement which will be born of the abstract movements and techniques from the pushing hands practice so that when you are attacked, your mind will cause your body to react accordingly with any number of defensive measures which could mean that you punch him out or lock him up or throw him down. But it will all spring initially from your push hands practice. However, if you try to use push hands as a tournament exercise or for competition then you will only be trying to win and that's not what T'ai chi is all about. When you start to think about what technique you can use to defeat your push hands opponent then you will lose all idea of the internal and abstract and so never gain the internal art of T'ai chi. T'ai Chi is not wrestling, although wrestling does have it's place but that's another story.