The five-phase theory is crucial to Chinese thought and by extension to Tai Chi as well. The five phases are earth, water, fire, wood and metal. Let us focus on earth, a phase which is central to Tai Chi.
The Chinese created earthen walls to protect their cities. In a similar manner one should constantly protect the body’s boundaries from attack when practicing Tai Chi. This includes the most vulnerable areas – the crotch, neck, face and body. One achieves this with the limbs – the arms and legs. This dynamic external boundary should never collapse.
Maintaining constant sphericity is one method of establishing the body boundary. The individual expands to the external limits of his or her body by rounding the arms in the front and the spine in the back. This body sphere provides the same function as the earthen city walls. It is the border with emptiness in the middle. This is the meaning of ‘hollowing the body’ or ‘empty body’.
The world inside our earthen walls is most important. There is no need to conquer or venture outward because our inner life is so fulfilling. It is only necessary to protect the boundaries from barbarian attack. Hence we never need to leave this body boundary.
Maintaining the border protects the body. However it is equally essential not to extend past the boundaries. As such the ancient Chinese remained within their earthen walls when under attack. Extension past the borders is unbalanced and leaves the center unprotected. In Tai Chi this occurs when the knee, hand or any internal body part extends past the circle defined by the two feet and the hidden leg, with the toe being the utmost limit of extension. In terms of the inner walls the elbow is not to extend past the knee, nor is the chin is to extend past the head cylinder, nor is the belly to extend past the pelvis, nor is the butt to extend past the hips.
Not only are Tai Chi practitioners unbalanced when extending past these boundaries they are also in danger of injuring themselves. Knee damage occurs when extending past the toe; the neck is damaged when it juts out past the core of the body, and the back is damaged when the belly extends too far forward or the butt sticks out in the back.
The strength of these earthen walls was of paramount importance in the defense of these ancient cities. As such some schools of Tai Chi focus a lifetime upon foundation building – strengthening our earth – our own body structure.
When a section of the wall collapses, which it frequently does, it must be rebuilt. Because of the lack of proper maintenance certain parts of our body sphere have collapsed. These parts must be strengthened and rebuilt. Normally this has to do with building up the musculature dealing with maintaining proper posture rather than the muscles having to do with extension. Because of the focus upon extension most people have strong legs and arms combined with a weak body. Proper Tai Chi practice trains us to have strong bodies, which will naturally repair collapse and create a strong foundation.
There are certain parts of our body wall that are prone to collapse. The lower spine tends to collapse forward, the middle spine backward, and the upper spine forward, producing an ‘S’ configuration. This is a broken wall providing no strength. Furthermore extra stress is placed at the curves causing unnecessary back problems. Proper Tai Chi training rebuilds the proper body muscles to turn the ‘S’ into a straight line. Once straightened the back, specifically the spine, provides a stronger defensive boundary as well as being the source of power.
In terms of the extremities: when we fail to maintain our body sphere by rounding our limbs the elbows and knees tend to collapse inwards. The knee deficiency throws the body out of balance and puts extra pressure upon the knee joints leading to potential injury. The old wall eventually crumbles. The elbow collapse makes the body and shoulders more vulnerable to attack as the outer defenses are down. The barbarians break through at the weakest point.
As most of us practice Tai Chi for health, not self-defense, gravity is the barbarian force that is attacking our earthen walls. Gravity is an external force, which is continually pulling us downwards to the ground. And it always wins in the end – pulling us down into a warm grave beneath its surface.
If the individual doesn’t defend him/herself from gravity attacks then back, knee, neck and hip problems follow and/or the person is pulled off balance, falling down, and breaking bones – most likely hips. Gravity is indeed a formidable opponent and probably, for most of us, our primary enemy.
The best defense against gravity is the strengthening of our foundation by maintaining a body sphere. This rounding out minimizes the effect of gravity by spreading out the inexorable downward pull over the entire body rather than focusing it upon a particular joint or vertebrae. Further extending our life force to the perimeters of our personal walls, leaves an empty center, which is impossible to attack, as there is nothing there.
(Extracted from Tao of China Chapter 42.4)
Home Tai Chi Page Tai Chi Excerpts Chinese Alchemy Tao of China