Mapping out your tai chi form – a tool to help

Learning a tai chi form takes time. It can be hard to remember the order of moves, and one little mistake can throw you off for the rest of the sequence.

I recommend ‘mapping out’ the form, by which I mean paying close attention to the direction that you are facing in with each move.

Mapping is easiest if you always practise in the same place, and always start in the same direction. I mapped out my own form in a church hall in Oxford 20 years ago and I can still clearly visualise what it looked like inside! Even now I sometimes refer back to that mental map when running through my form.

To help my students map out their own form I have produced a PDF that lists the moves of the form and providing an arrow which indicates the direction that each move ends up facing.

I’ve provided a sample section above. If you’d like a copy of the full 2 page map then drop me an email or leave a comment below.


Counting the Moves in the Cheng Man-Ch’ing 37 Posture Form

How many moves are there in the 37 move form?

This may sound like a trick question, but the answer is actually 65 moves. This is because many of the moves are repeated. For example Single Whip appears five times, Brush Left Knee Push appears three times. The table below lists all 65 occurrences of the 37 unique moves.

The early sections of the form take the longest to learn, because every move is fresh. But once you get past a certain point, you will be familiar with many of the moves and will race through the rest of the form.

The last column of the table is useful for those who are learning the form, because gives you an idea of your real rate of progress.

Punch Under Elbow is the 23rd of the 65 moves, or 35 %  of the way through the form. But if you consider only the unique moves it is actually the halfway point – by the time you get here you have learned 49 % of the form

Making these calculations strikes me as a distinctly un-Tai Chi thing to do, but I  think there is a lot of value learning all the moves quite quickly, rather than focussing on each one in great detail.  Once you have learned the sequence you can focus on developing relaxation and flow. Don’t forget to go back and refine the individual sections though!


Tai Chi without the Mumbo Jumbo*

Cheng Man-Ch’ing stated that to attempt to discuss Tai Chi without reference to Yin, Yang and the Five Elements (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water) is like discussing mathematics without mentioning arithmetic or algebra. By which I presume he meant that it was pointless.

This can be off-putting to people of a Western mindset who have not been schooled in the fundamentals of Chinese philosophy. Does this mean that such people cannot benefit from Tai Chi? Of course not!

In their excellent book ‘Tai Chi for Every Body’, Eva and Karel Koskuba explain fundamentals of Tai Chi in terms recognisable to, but likely unfamiliar to, modern westerners.

Here is my summary…

Tonic and Phasic Muscles

We have two types of muscles, Tonic and Phasic.

Tonic muscles support our posture, stabilising us against the pull of gravity. They are not under conscious control. Their use is effortless. These muscles are always working. They also control our breathing, digestion, and blood circulation.

Phasic muscles are used to move, we can relax and contract them at will. Such  use requires effort. Deliberate motions such as lifting your leg, closing your hand or turning your head all primarily use phasic muscles.

Chi and Tonic and Phasic Muscles

In Tai Chi training we are encouraged to cultivate our chi to achieve the ideal of effortless action (wu wei). We are told that relaxation is the key to cultivating the chi.

The Koskubas interpret this as an instruction  to relax all the muscles that are within our conscious control (Phasic) and allow the postural (Tonic) muscles to do their job, making constant, subconscious adjustments to keep us standing erect despite gravity’s constant pull, the wind and any other forces that  may be acting on us.

In order to let the tonic muscles do their job, we must have proper posture. This is not the normal state of the typical western adult, in which improper posture has to be compensated for by active use of the Phasic muscles.

Try for yourself

Now you know the theory, try to stand upright for as long as you can, with proper posture (head balanced, neck relaxed, upper body balanced  on top of hips, whole body balanced on top of feet and ankles).

If your posture was correct and your phasic muscles were relaxed you could maintain this position indefinitely, using no more effort than is required to keep your heart beating.

Unless you have perfect posture and complete relaxation you will not be able to stand upright indefinitely. You will be able to identify the phasic muscles that you are using to compensate – they are the ones that hurt!

By standing and attempting to relax, while  making adjustments to your posture you will be able to stand for longer without experiencing pain**. This means that your posture is improving.



* Note that I am not dismissing Chinese philosophy as mumbo jumbo – merely noting that to those unschooled in its concepts it may as well be mumbo jumbo.

** Cheng Man-Ch’ing was once asked by a student when his legs would stop hurting. The professor replied that when his legs stop hurting he would  have stopped improving. In other words, when he had attained perfect posture.

Yunrou’s automotive metaphor for Tai Chi

Over the holidays I caught up with a few back episodes of the Forbidden Rice Podcast. produced by the renowned American Taoist, martial artist and writer Yunrou.

One episode that stuck with me was the following automotive metaphor for Tai Chi.

A car is a machine that uses an engine to convert fuel into power. That power is then connected to the ground using the transmission and directed using a steering wheel.

Here’s how Yunrou relates this to Tai Chi.

Gravity is the fuel for Tai Chi – without gravity one cannot drop the centre of gravity, because there isn’t one!

Relaxation is Tai Chi’s engine.  Relaxation can be thought of as the body’s response to gravity, hence it does the same job as an engine, converting fuel into power.

The Tan Tien ( a point about an inch below the navel, 3/7 of the way from back to front) is Tai Chi’s  transmission – it connects the power to the ground.

The Lower back is Tai Chi’s steering wheel, through which one directs the power to the hands and feet and the rest of the body.

Keep this in mind next time you practise. I found it helpful and I hope you do too.


Cheng Man-ch’ing’s advice for beginning Tai Chi students

Some wise words from Professor Cheng Man-ch’ing for those starting out on their tai chi journey. He warns that this practise may cause some discomfort, but that one must be fearless in the face of such pain, the taking of which is ‘beneficial to one’s heart organ and the development of the brain’.

“The fundamental method for a person who has just begun to do tai chi is to take three to five minutes in the morning and the evening, alternating standing first on one leg then on the other. Gradually the time is lengthened, gradually the person sits lower. The mind should be put into the tan tien, and without forcing, even a little bit,  the heart of the foot should adhere to the ground. When one is rooting, he should extend his middle and index fingers to hold onto the back of a chair or the edge of a table in order to be stable. After a while when that is familiar he can take away the middle finger using just the index finger assistance. Eventually this will become very stable and the person will not needs to be assisted by his fingers any more. Then one can utilise the ‘Lifting Hands’ and ‘Playing Guitar’ as two positions for this standing (or rooting) discipline.”

The quote is from Wolfe Lowenthal’s ‘There Are No Secrets: Professor Cheng Man-ch’ing and his Tai Chi Chuan‘.  Where he talks about ‘rooting’ he is referring to the feeling of the weight of the  body dropping into the ground through the ‘Bubbling Well’ point, just behind the ball of the foot. ‘Lifting Hands’ and ‘Playing Guitar’ are positions from the Yang Style Short Form. These positions are demonstrated in the images below, reproduced from Cheng Man’ch’ing’s book ‘T’ai Chi Ch’uan: A Simplified Method of Calisthenics for Health & Self Defence‘.