The Spheres of Taiji Quan

When practising Taji Quan we are often told to straighten the posture by lifting the head or move slowly as if moving underwater etc., but I do not hear a great deal of information on the fundamental principle of ‘spheres’. Discovering the spheres of Taiji Quan is both enjoyable and enlightening, they are categorised as internal and external, however for this article we will only examine the external.

But first, let’s spice up the topic with a great classic Taiji clip.

Now back towhat we started off with.

Bagua Zhang on the other hand is more widely recognised for its spheres as they are blatantly obvious when you see it performed, but compared to Bagua Zhang, Taiji spheres are not so obvious although they are there.

When asked what makes Taiji Quan unique amongst other health/martial arts I always reply “It trains you to become round like a ball”, therefore let us examine some characteristics of an inflated ball:

1. Pressure inside is greater than that on the outside:
This is what gives a ball its shape, the outward expansion of air pressure pushing on the inside skin of the ball forms its spherical shape.
This principle is relevant to our Taiji Quan postures in that we relax the muscles, joint and sinews, then build up a positive pressure of air (Qi) throughout the body which inflates the torso and limbs and creates the sphere.

Similarly, if we relax some of the air (Qi) out of the body it has a deflating effect, however even when the pressure is released the sphere must still be maintained.

Jou Tsung Hwa author of The Tao of Tai Chi Chuan confirms: The purpose of Tai Chi Chuan is to train the individual to become like a dynamic Tai Chi or rotating sphere, which for the martial arts is the most balanced and beautiful of all shapes”.

2. Only a small area of the ball is in contact with another surface at any one time:
When compared to a square box you will notice that the box has a much larger surface area in contact to that of a ball.

You will also have noticed how much easier it is to pick up or grip a square object to a circular one, and how something round negotiates itself past other objects much more quickly and smoothly than a square shaped object that would probably be jammed tight.

With this principle in mind, one could say that prior to discovering the spheres we more than likely behaved like the square box, i.e. sluggish in movement and collapsing when pressed.
When attacked, a square edged frame gives the attacker more places to grip, strike and control, exposing more weak points to collapse giving easier access to your centre of gravity.

On the other hand a sphere is less easy to grab, strike and control with no exposed weak point to he collapsed and because your centre of gravity is constantly rotating around a small point of contact your center of gravity is protected.

When attacked, Yang Luchan, the founder of the Yang School of Taiji Quan reacted like a solid rotating sphere and any attempts to uproot him proved ineffective.

3. Rotation around a central axis:
In the same way as a ball rotates around this axis (which is located in an invisible area mid air centrally inside), we should move in much the same way.
The ball is an inanimate structure which can be pushed backwards without it rotating by finding the direct line on its surface that links to its central axis point.
The equivalent to this is found in pushing hands when we sense our opponents root and then press inward to break it.
We however being animate can deflect the direction of the press by turning our spheres left or right and depending on the vertical angle of attack, up or down. This having the effect of spinning the opponent off. This central axis point is located at the direct center of the ball and providing it remains fully inflated the ball will never fall over.
We on the other hand have to stand on two feet which obviously is where we differ from a ball but through Taiji training we learn to lower our center of gravity and make the “Five Bows” (two anus, legs and the torso see figure 1) work for us as a sphere when being pushed.
Should we ever succumb to being pushed over we can emulate the ball again by rolling out and therefore we too in principle should never fall over because even when rolling we spin around our central axis point Dan Tien). “Trained to become like a sphere, the individual when attacked cannot be caught in a position of unstable equilibrium”.

4. When pushed a trapped ball will repel from within: Place a large football or beach ball against a wall then push through it as if trying to collapse the sphere, you will be instantly repulsed by the pressure built up inside. This would be different however if air was released from the ball at the moment of the push which would result in the ball collapsing in and you probably with it.
To examine this principle we should get someone to push our forearms whilst we hold “Press” posture. As they push we breathe in and at the same time allow some give in our forearms, then fill the arms with Qi (air) as we breathe out which repulses the attacker in much the same way as the ball (see figure 2).

This also applies to the legs and the torso using the joints of the legs and spine to flex the sphere which is basically what they mean in the Taiji Classics when they say: “always seek the straight with a curve”. To put it all into perspective we need to understand that Qi behaves much like water and therefore we should compare our torso and limbs to a hose pipe which when kinked greatly reduces the flow of water.
By developing the spheres in the body we are eliminating the possibility of “kinks” which block the Qi leading to internal damage. Understanding the Taiji spheres brings us closer to the Tao as the universe is it sphere which creates natural roundness in all it touches.

by Peter Newton

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