Nervous system

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Strong or clumsy?

It is extremely common for people to confuse 'strength' with clumsiness. When someone exerts their muscles and imposes an excess of strength, they are often considered to be strong.
Yet, how is this a reflection of strength? Surely a skilled use of strength requires the appropriate degree of strength relative to the needs of the activity?

Only use what you need

If you were to pick up an egg or a glass and exert too much strength, then the object will break in your hand. The nervous system is responsible for gauging how much strength needs to be applied.

Listen to your body

As you exert pressure upon an object, your body experiences resistance and there is biofeedback which tells you how much strength is necessary.
Most adults in the Western world have a faulty nervous system and the information it provides is inaccurate.
Instead of applying only the necessary amount of strength, it is normal and comfortable to use an incredible excess. This fatigues the muscles, blunts the nervous system and makes you clumsy.

How we move conveys energy and youth not how buff we are.

(Anne Elliott)


Tai chi requires you to re-tune the nervous system. This is a lengthy process involving a lot of partner work and a serious amount of patience. It will not happen overnight.
Sensitivity work encourages you to feel how much pressure you are applying and how much is pressing against your body.
You learn to re-assess the information and accept when an excess of strength is being used. Typically, muscular exertion is constant and ongoing. It is normal, habitual and you never notice it.

Active change

This process is not easy. Many beginners train tai chi for ages and never learn to become soft. Why? They pay attention to the end result and not the means.
This is foolish, since the means produces the end. If we do not learn to listen to our body, then it is easy to become injured. Strains, stress and discomfort are ignored.


If you want to move smoothly and easily, and respond well in combat, train your nervous system. Weight-lifting and gym work can often result in large muscles but poor sensitivity.
These are not recommended supplements for tai chi. If you want larger muscles, do more qigong.


Tai chi requires the body to perform technically complicated movements in an extremely controlled fashion. Clumsiness must be transcended.
You must become very aware of your own body and make every single movement deliberate and careful. This is not to be confused with prissiness.
It is one of the reasons why some of the training is performed slowly.


The key to coordination is not high repetition, but quality practice. Training mistakes and bad habits is a waste of time.
You must be committed to patience and measure your progress in months and years, not days. How long did the bad habits take to acquire? Is anything going to be fixed overnight?
Your body needs time to re-grow.


Sensitivity skills are not easy to learn. Beginners usually apply way too much force and rely upon local limb strength rather than using neigong.
No more than '4 ounces of pressure' should be exerted upon your body or expressed by you at any given time. This is much less than people realise.

The nervous system and the automatic machine are fundamentally alike in that they are devices, which make decisions on the basis of decisions they made in the past.

(Norbert Wiener)

Tai chi does not use force

It circumvents strength, re-directs kinetic energy and exploits balance.
There is a whole area of study called 'jing' which requires you to learn different types of physical feeling and refine the effect of your action.
It is considered to be energy expression; in which you are working with the lightest of contact yet profoundly affecting your partner. Even striking is done without brute force.
A clumsy person receives adverse feedback when striking but does not even notice.


Students usually get a crude sense of tai chi quite quickly but never get very good at it. The reason why is simple... There are 3 considerations:

  1. The speed/pace determined by your level of excitement.

  2. The actual speed that your nervous system can currently handle.

  3. How present you really are.

The discrepancy between the 3 is the issue. Your mind/emotions wants to go fast but your nervous system cannot cope. And maybe you're not fully aware because you're thinking about other things

Ability decides

The solution is to go much slower than you want to. Go at a pace that your body/mind can handle. You will start to physically 'feel' every subtle nuance and shift and change taking place.
You will be there, rather than 'zoning out'. Eventually all you will experience is that moment; those changes - and how your body automatically responds - without the need to think consciously.
As you become more skilled, your nervous system will comfortably allow you to move at whatever pace the situation demands...


A healthy nervous system is not simply a physical matter. The smoothness and grace of the tai chi movements must be complimented and enhanced by your composure.
A psychologically tense person will be incapable of skilled body movement. Neurologists maintain that the mind affects the physical nervous system, and the nervous system affects the mind.
Calm mind and body are connected.


Taoism and Zen help with composure. They put life and your relationship with the world into perspective.
Instead of accepting conventions, orthodoxy and received wisdom, these disciplines encourage you to find out for yourself. The approach is grounded in the tangible, in the substantial.
Everyone who trains our syllabus is changed by the experience. Their lives are more peaceful and they are less prone to depression, anxiety, anger and aggression.
They learn not to exert unnecessary strength and to yield in the face of force.

Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023