Five Basic Principles of T’ai Chi


This principle is the foundation for all the others. “Relax” is the hub of the wheel through which all the other principles function. The Chinese character for this principle actually contains the meaning of “relax” and “sink.” In relaxing we want to let the weight of our bodies sink into the ground. Thinking of weight as a function of gravity helps us to recognize it as a dynamic force that penetrates into the ground. In T’ai Chi this force is known as our “root.” It is important to understand that “Relax” does not mean “Collapse.” The downward movement of the weight is balanced by an upward supportive energy that reaches up through the top of the head. An analogy would be to imagine a water fountain inside the body that sends water up through the top of the head. At the same time the water from the fountain is landing on the outside of the body and dripping down. We feel in “relax” both the upward and downward movement. In T’ai Chi we want to perform the choreography of the form using the least amount of effort possible. “Relax” is facilitated through practicing the other principles.

Body Upright

We are standing on the planet earth. The earth has a toll it charges for us standing on it. It is the weight of our bodies. The weight of our bodies belongs to the earth.  It is simply the manifestation of the gravitational pull of the earth. The way we can most fully “relax” is to “yield” to the force of gravity by aligning our bodies with it. The way we do this is using the idea of a “plumb line” (a string with a weight attached to it so it hangs along the line of gravity). We imagine a string lifting us up from the top of the head and a small weight hanging from the tailbone. This image aligns the spine, allowing the weight of the body to drop along the line of gravity all the way through the feet into the ground.  Another way of describing this principle is simply balance. If the body is in balance, it is aligned with gravity and it is relaxed.

Separate Weight

Also called separate Yin and Yang/full and empty/substantial and insubstantial. As we move through the T’ai Chi postures, we do so by shifting the weight from one leg to the other.  This is probably the most physically demanding aspect of T’ai Chi. Standing on one leg, completely separating the weight will, over time, strengthen the legs. This strength in the legs brings confidence to our balance and our connection to the earth, allowing us to deepen the level of relaxation we experience in the upper body/torso. The large muscles in the legs are designed to take the weight of the body. They are better suited to this task than are the muscles in the neck and shoulders where we tend to hold our tension. In relaxing the areas in the upper body and pelvis, we allow the weight to sink. This connects the legs to the rest of the body in a way that allows the body to move as a unit. In the T’ai Chi Classics this idea is described as movement being, “rooted in the feet, developed in the legs, directed by the waist, and manifest in the hands.” In the beginning, students tend to focus on the movement of the hands. Better to focus on the legs and hips as the source of the movement of the hands.

Flexible Waist

Also described as “turning from the waist.” The waist in T’ai Chi is considered the pelvis or hips, not the line above the hips where you might be fitted for a pair of pants.  All turning movement in T’ai Chi comes from the hips. We have a tendency to be overly oriented to our hands and with good reason. Throughout evolutionary history the opposable thumb has served us well. However, this concentration of our awareness on the hands contributes to the tension we experience in our neck and shoulders. We often act as if the body’s “steering wheel” is the chest and shoulders. In T’ai Chi it is the hips. Not only do we want the movement to be steered by the hips, but also we want the chest and shoulders to stay aligned with them. “Eyes, nose and navel” remain in alignment at all times. Again this principle relates to “relax.” If we turn the shoulders farther than the hips, we produce a twist in the spine. This is tension and compresses the spine in the same way twisting a wet towel compresses it to wring water from it. With the head top lifted up, the spine hangs along the line of gravity. Turning from the hips ensures that the spine remains relaxed throughout the movements of the T’ai Chi form.  In T’ai Chi there is a saying, “One thing moves, everything moves.” Relaxing and turning from the hips integrates the upper and lower body in a unified movement.

Beautiful Lady’s Hand

This is described as keeping the wrist straight from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. Probably the simplest of the five basic principles, its importance cannot be overstated.  The wrist is the first of the “nine gates” in the body to relax and open. Again, this principle is closely linked to the principle of relax. Keeping the wrist straight softens and relaxes the entire arm. This facilitates the circulation all the way through the fingertips. The bent wrist acts in much the same way a fold in a garden hose restricts the flow of water through it. Keeping the wrist straight allows the movement of the legs and waist to manifest in the hands.