The Importance of the Circle in the Square

Ni: “Keeps teacher honest.”

After a review of Wu Tang Sword:

Me: “Counting important for students.”

Ni: “Important for teacher, too.”

Me: “The square in the circle.”

Ni: “Square is interrupt.”

Me: “Very difficult.”

Ni: “Interrupt is hard for me, too. But important for Beginners.”

Me: “Important for advanced students too.”

Ni: “Also teacher.”

Me: “Keeps the advanced students honest.”

Ni: “Keeps teacher honest, too.”

Me: “Difficult to be honest.”

Ni, with fire in his eyes now: “Honesty is the most difficult - for the father, the student, the teacher, the politician. They take money.”

(Excerpted from Ni Transmissions)

Circle inside the square exceptionally important

The circle inside the square is exceptionally important in Tai Chi, Wu Tang Sword and Push Hands practice.

Circles is number 4 of Master Ni’s 12 stages. This means that ‘all movements are based on circles’. Many take this to mean that all the movements are curved rather than straight. This is true on the most elementary level. However ellipses, ovals, and curlicues are also curved, but they are not circles. What’s the difference?

A circle is unique from the other curves in that it always fits perfectly inside a square. The circle just touches each side of the square. No more, no less.

This is very different from an oval inside the square that touches none of the edges (flailing around with no intentionality); an oval that touches only two of the edges (only hitting a few of the bases); or an oval that extends beyond the edge of the square (going past the toes or centerline – Ouch! – off balance). Note that each of these styles of movement is just as flowing and curved as circle movements.

What does it mean to touch the sides of the square? In baseball it means to run around the diamond, and touch all the bases. In the first diagram none of the bases are touched, in the second only two are touched, while in the third energy is wasted by running outside the base path.

When teaching it is important to introduce interrupt to show where the sides of the square are – the bases of the diamond. This is what Master Ni meant when he said ‘Square is interrupt’. If the student doesn’t know where the bases are, how can s(he) touch them?

Why bother with the Square, when the Circle feels good?

Why is it important to touch the bases? Flowing continuously certainly feels good. Why focus on the sides of the square, which are so confusing? Why not just move right into the flow of Water rather getting stuck in the picayune details of Fire? All that conscious attention and effort certainly get in the way of the unobstructed continuity of motion. What’s the difference anyway? Probably just semantics. After all the effortless wu wei, non-action in the midst of action, is the goal - #12 in Master Ni’s stages, the ultimate. Why get bogged down with the square when the circle feels so good?

Here are three reasons why it is important to practice the circle inside the square rather than continuously flowing ovals – martial execution, body extension, and increased awareness.

Martial Execution

The circle in the square is crucial martially. It has to do with yielding completely to the opponent’s force in order to guide and control the energy. An oval blocks the full extension of the opponent’s force. The two arrows in the following diagram indicate the spots where there is no yielding even though there is smooth continuous motion. Although similar to the circle hardness replaces yielding when executing ovals. Because it is inherently hard the oval can easily be exploited.

Note that the execution of the oval feels continuous, light and soft internally. However because it lacks yielding, it feels hard externally. Instead of being receptive to the opponent’s force the oval resists its energy. Consequently those who practice ovals frequently feel that their Push Hands partner is hard and unyielding, when they are to blame.

In order to properly execute the circle when retreating one must sink onto the back leg and simultaneously sink the opposite qua (the area around the bikini line). It is easy to make ovals with the upper body. Only by engaging the lower body can these ovals be turned into circles. This is an application of one of the basic Tai Chi principles: “When one part moves, all parts move.”

Body Extension or "Round it out," Master Ni.

Of course those who primarily practice Tai Chi for health might think, "What does this have to do with me? I don't care about the martial component and I certainly don't do Push Hands."

This leads to the second reason for the circle in the square – body extension. Although continuous and curved the oval cheats the body by not hitting the bases. In order to touch the sides of the square one must employ the entire musculature via the sinews and tendons of the body. Many parts of the body can be neglected when making ovals – as there is no need for extension – as the intent is merely to curve the movements. To yield, the essence of the squared circle, it is mandatory to connect the top to the bottom – the torso and arms to the hips and legs. This occurs via the middle, the waist. As the translator, the waist must execute complete circles. Anything less cheats the internal organs from their beloved massage, which is so essential for physical as well as mental health.

Master Ni frequently said, “Round it out.” (Circle round, not oval curved. A hairbreadths difference between sharp and dull.) This engages heaven (circle) and earth (square) via the center (tan tien). And anytime the tan tien is activated the body/mind complex is nourished, which is good for health.

Increased Awareness & Extended Intentionality

Putting the circle inside the square also increases intentionality. It doesn’t take as much intention to curve the body and flow smoothly, as it does to connect lightly and instantaneously with specific points (the tangent of the circle), simultaneous with the curving flow of the body. Similarly the baseball player needs more intentionality to touch the bases than just run around the field. Practicing intentionality leads to increased awareness and mental extension.

Tai Chi and sword practice are meant to train the mind, as well as the body. Indeed Master Ni emphasized spirit over body (shên over jing-chi). Hence placing the circle in the square when practicing Tai Chi and swords is an ideal way to develop and extend the spirit (shên). We can see why the squaring of the circle is so important. The martial, body, and spirit, all benefit from it.

Home  Tai Chi Page  Tai Chi Excerpts  Chinese Alchemy  Tao of China