Embodied Taoism

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Embodied spirituality

Tai chi is a vehicle for exploring the many insights offered by the elusive and beguiling study of existence known as 'Taoism'. It is a hands-on approach to spirituality.
There is plenty to read (if this is something you enjoy) but the emphasis is mainly upon doing rather than reading, thinking or talking.


Life is lived through action, not words. The art of tai chi is a physical journey that will lead to an inner search for meaning and understanding within the student.

What your body remembers is what is important for you at this particular stage of development.
What your mind forgets, your body is telling you it couldn't use anyhow at this time.


Taoist principles

Tai chi uses the yin/yang principle in combat. The art will work unless the exponent understands what this principles represents in functional practice.

Knowledge gap

Consider this: can a student embody Taoism when they don't remotely understand what Taoism is? Good question...

Mental representation

Dr. K. Anders Ericsson maintains that we interact with life using a series of mental frameworks that enable us to understand what we encounter. He calls these  'mental representations'.
The more comprehensive and informed your mental representation, the better equipped you are to make sense of things.
Your mental representation enables you to make the best use of learning opportunities and enhance your skill.


Imagine if a musician could play a guitar for the entertainment of others? They may accomplish this without actually being able to read music.
Through mimicry and familiarity with the instrument, the guitarist is capable of producing entertaining sounds that please others.
For popular, common entertainment, mimicry is no doubt adequate and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with it... but have you ever listened to 'classical' guitar?


A classic guitarist can read music. Their grasp of the instrument and the comprehension of the music is discernibly more sophisticated than that of an amateur.
Instead of a rough, approximate sound, the music is nuanced, subtle and arguably more impressive

Limited skill

It is possible to speak a language without being able to read or understand the words. Most people who holiday abroad may acquire a smattering of words and develop a limited comprehension.
Others may achieve relative fluency.


If you could speak French fairly well - but could not read a word of French - would you really be considered 'qualified' in French? 'French speaking' perhaps. But there is far more to French than speaking.
Without the ability to read and fully comprehend the language, your understanding would remain partial and incomplete
. The ability to read the source material changes everything.


In tai chi a person might gain some skill through the mimicry of forms, the approximation of patterns, through copying what they see. Herein lies the problem.
Your understanding of the art determines the quality of your tai chi.
Therefore if you copy the patterns without understanding what they mean, why they occur and how they came to be... these omissions will severely compromise your skill level.


At the root of tai chi is Taoism. It behoves every student to read the main texts repeatedly and mindfully until comprehension emerges.
A good copy of The Way and Its Power (e.g. The New Lao Tzu) along with Merton's Way of Chuang Tzu will suffice to begin with.
Don't try to understand every sentence, just read.
Comprehension will come by itself.

Martial principles & practice

Sun Tzu's The Art of War utilises Taoist insights and principles in the context of military combat.
Penguin Classics (Minford version) is an easy read. The book warrants repeated study.
The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi is another book to read many times.
Seeking to implement the teachings in class (and in everyday life) will prove to be quite a challenge for the earnest student.

The Tai Chi Classics

The Tai Chi Classics combine martial principles (and practice) with the Taoist Classics. Buy
The Essence of Tai Chi Chuan - The Literary Tradition by Lo et al. Start with:

  1. Chang treatise

  2. Wang treatise

  3. Wu treatise 

  4. Yang's 10 Essentials

Repeated study - with continual reference to what you are being taught in class - is essential.


The fourth main component for a student to study is human biomechanics. This warrants reading beyond the scope of lessons.
A detailed grasp of 3-D, pressure, adjustment, central equilibrium, centre, internal & external training methods, force, connection, internal/external ratio, listening, nervous system, range & reach, sensitivity, small circle, softness, spontaneity, sticky, yielding,
bracing, impact, minimalism, alignment, natural power, coordination, mobility, ergonomics, moderation, exertion, stretching, muscles, tension and strength is essential.

A 'strummer'?

Strumming a guitar is not the same as being able to read music and play with comprehensive skill.
Similarly, copying the appearance an instructor's practice is hardly the same as understanding it and reproducing all aspects of their art.
If you lack knowledge, experience and sophisticated skill, your shortcut won't take you very far. To become adept you must invest in rigorous study.

Embodied Taoism

Tai chi may indeed be an embodiment of Taoist insights but if you don't know what those insights are, how exactly can you embody them?
Finding out about Taoism is fairly easy but does require long-term study.
There are many books to study but their secrets are not yielded quickly or readily. Your brain needs to change, grow and adapt. Understanding takes time.


Just remember: Taoism is not a belief system. You don't have to believe anything. It is ancient Chinese science. So keep your feet firmly placed on the ground at all times...

The student must become completely soft for the process to take effect; then the student becomes a tai chi boxer. She must push hands as if no one were there.

Few are capable of putting this idea into practice because it is hard to literally accept. Most students harbour the notion that not using force or resistance is a metaphor; a measure of the spirit of the thing rather than a literal statement of method.

(Wolfe Lowenthal)

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Page created 2 August 2001
Last updated
21 April 2017