I’ve been learning Tai Chi for a little over three years now; and, as part of his classes, my teacher also teaches us Silk-Reeling Exercises. They’re not as flashy as the form, but I’ve gotten a lot out of them: both from how they feel on their own and how they help me isolate aspects of the form.

So I figured I’d write down some of the things I’ve been thinking about when I go through the exercises. I offer no warranty as to whether I’m actually approaching the exercises correctly: I’m actually a little nervous to be writing this just after reading Chen Xiaowang talk about how it can be harmful if you focus on the wrong thing! Hopefully if more advanced students read this, they’ll point out areas where I’m slipping up.

I’m not going to focus on individual exercises (with one exception); instead, I’m going to talk about aspects that are applicable across many of the exercises. And I’m going to list too much to actively keep in your head at any one time: what I’ve done is try to focus on one of these aspects for maybe a couple of months until I feel like I’ve got it at least partially internalized, at which point it goes into the background. (And then it pops out again when I notice that I’m getting that aspect wrong!) And, as I start internalizing more aspects, I start uncovering new ones to think about; I’m all ears for suggestions for other things I should be thinking about next during the exercises.


Tense and Relax

Most of the time, in a given exercise, you get tenser in one part of the exercise and you relax in another part. For example, when doing Elbow Rotation, you tense when your elbows are going up and out, and relax when they’re going down and in; a similar thing happens with the Hand Maneuvers.

Tense doesn’t mean stiff; relaxed doesn’t mean floppy. It’s more about how your energy is extending and then settling. (Or gathering?) Though I guess there are some places where relaxing has a somewhat different tenor: e.g. letting your arms fall as you relax them during Chest and Abdomen Folding, or paying attention to how your arms shift if you keep your shoulders relaxed during Spine Stretch?

A related concept: opening and closing. Especially during the first few exercises, you’re opening and closing your chest as you tense and relax.

Align Your Knees with Your Feet

Your knees should basically always be pointing in the same direction as your feet. This is very important to reduce the chance of knee problems: if you don’t do this you’ll put extra strain on your knees as forces are going in the wrong direction.

So sneak a look down every once in a while: if you’re rotating to the left, for example, make sure that your right knee is still lined up with your right foot, that it’s not starting to lean left. The way you generally accomplish this is to make sure that your kua stays open; I’ll talk about that more in a bit.

Turn Your Waist

When you turn your waist, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to turn your hips. Some turning of your hips is fine, though usually your hips turn less than your waist; but if the turning makes it as far down as your knees, then that’s bad: your knees will go out of alignment.

So be conscious of whether you’re turning your waist, your hips, or your knees; in particular, when doing Waist Turning with Punching, focus on turning your waist rather than your hips.

Sink into Your Kua

Your kua is where your thigh meets your hip; and, basically, whenever you move your legs without moving your feet, think about whether you should sink into the kua on the side that you’re moving towards.

In particular, if you feel a twinge in your knees, that could be a sign that you’re sinking into your knees rather than into your kua. (It could, of course, also be a sign that your knees are out of alignment!) I used to do this a lot during Knee Rotation; my knees feel a lot better now that I’m sinking into my kua more. And sinking into your kua has benefits other than reducing knee strain, to be sure: I’ll talk about that a little more below.

Loose Connection between Top and Bottom

The above items all point at the connection between the top and bottom of your body. Say, for example, that you’re doing Shoulder Rotation. It’s not going to be isolated to your shoulder: you’re going to want to open and close your chest as you turn, tensing and relaxing. And, as you open, your torso will want to turn and move back on the side where you’re moving your shoulder; this is good!

But you don’t want that to translate directly into turning all the way down your body: your knees should remain stable, and you also want to keep your torso upright, instead of tilting it. So, if you want to keep your torso upright as you move your shoulder and chest back, then you’ll have to move your hips back to stay underneath your torso; you do this by sinking into your kua on your back leg. And you’re turning your torso while doing this; most of the turning should be absorbed by your waist, with your hips only turning by a relatively small angle.

When doing upper-body movements like this, I think of my hips as traveling on a track between having my weight on my left leg and on my right leg; my torso is going up in a line from my hips (as opposed to being tilted), turning significantly more, and my thighs are acting like shock absorbers, with the kua doing most of the work. So the two halves of my body are connected, but the motion changes from more circular on the top to more linear on the bottom: there’s still some amount of spiral motion everywhere, but its character changes.

Dantian Movement

When doing the various silk reeling exercises, I found it interesting to pay attention to what my dantian was doing. I wasn’t so much using my dantian to guide the rest of my body as seeing how movements in the rest of my body were reflected in my dantian.

For example, when doing Shoulder Rotations, listen to your dantian, and think about how it moves differently when you’re only rotating one shoulder versus when you’re rotating both shoulders on the same side versus how you’re rotating both shoulders alternating.

Ground Connection

You always want to feel connected with the ground; and, when you start paying attention to this, it can be surprisingly visceral. And you want to maintain this connection when shifting your weight from one foot to the other: it’s very easy to loose the connection and get uproooted when doing that. Especially if the weight shift corresponds to a movement that’s rotating upwards: e.g. when shifting weight during Shoulder Rotation, it’s easy to get uprooted when your shoulder rotates along the top, whereas it’s much easier to maintain a ground connection during the bottom half of the rotation.

I think the key to maintaining the ground connection in those circumstances is peng energy: with peng, you’re expanding upwards, but you’re also sinking while doing so, inflating in both directions. So if you can sink into your front foot and actively push from that foot, then you can maintain the ground connection while rotating up and back. I’m not sure what all is going on, though; but, fortunately, the ground connection is a visceral enough feeling that you can use it as feedback when experimenting.

(It’s hard to pay continuous attention to, though! Like I said at the beginning, I’m usually only actively focusing on one of the aspects that I’ve listed here at any given time, the others are more in the back of my mind.)

Energy Flow

This is a concept that I don’t feel like I understand at all well yet: it’s the main thing that I’m trying to experiment with and get a feel for right now. The initial experience that made me think there’s something here that I should pay attention to happened this summer: I’d done a six-hour workshop on Sunday, and then the next Tuesday, when I was doing the Silk-Reeling Exercises, it felt to me like there was some sort of flow actively moving around in my body, almost like something was sloshing around inside of me. (I think it showed up most strongly when doing the double-shoulder Shoulder Rotations; I like that exercise!)

I haven’t actually felt the flow that strongly since then; this is probably a sign that I’m not doing intensive Tai Chi practice frequently enough! But I do now feel weaker versions of it if I’m listening.

There’s also more static feelings of energy. I’ve been feeling tingling in my fingers when doing Tai Chi for a couple of years now; over the last few months, as I’ve been focusing more on relaxing and opening up my kua, I’m feeling sustained warmth between my dantian and kua. I’m actually not sure if these are all manifestations of the same form of energy or not; there’s a lot I need to figure out.


The above aspects are applicable to pretty much all of the Silk-Reeling Exercises: I might use individual exercises as examples, but the concepts are general. But I did want to put in an exhortation to do one of the exercises, namely:

Dantian Rotation

Earlier this year, I decided that I’d do some Dantian Rotations while waiting for the train on the way into work. (Or, if I got to the train station a little late, I’d do them when I got off of the train.) So I started off by doing 15 rotations every morning, and pretty soon I bumped it up to 20 rotations every morning.

And I think it made a big difference to my Tai Chi practice; and, for me, doing 15 or 20 rotations in a single session is qualitatively completely different from doing 6 rotations. (These days I’m actually doing three separate groups of 25 rotations at different times of the day, but that’s not having a big step change: the big change was starting to do 15 a day in a single session.)

Concretely, what happened was, after doing this for a bit, I’d start to feel sensations moving across other parts of my body. When doing the sideways vertical circles at the start, for example, I’d feel movement across my shoulders, and I’d even feel movement across the back of my skull. If I’m paying attention, I can feel those sensations a little bit when doing 6 rotations, but it’s a lot easier to feel them if I’m doing 15 or 20 rotations.

And I noticed my form changing in subtle ways, too: I don’t know for sure that this is related to my doing Dantian Rotations, but I’m pretty sure it is. Concretely, at the end of Grab and Tuck in the Robe, you’re supposed to turn in your left foot a little bit at the end, and when doing Dantian Change, you’re supposed to turn in your right foot a little bit at the end.

That had felt pretty academic to me, but, all of a sudden, my feet started doing that on their own: when moving my arm across the top of my body like that, it became the most natural thing in the world to have my opposite foot move in a way that weakly echoed my arm’s movement. I don’t really understand what’s going on here, but I’m pretty sure that repeatedly doing Dantian Rotations helped me feel connections between movements in the center of my body and movements in outer parts of my body, and that in turn is causing more of my body to move in concert with each other.

So I would recommend giving that a try: find a time in the day when you regularly have a five minute gap, and spend it doing Dantian Rotations. Don’t worry about doing Dantian Rotations perfectly: it’s actually one of the Silk-Reeling Exercises that I’m still most unsure of the best way to do it. But I was getting benefits from it even during a time when (in retrospect) I’m pretty sure I was getting some of the details of it wrong.


I hope people find this interesting, maybe even useful; if I’m saying things that are confusing, please let me know and I’ll try to clarify! And I’m quite sure that there are things that I’m saying here that aren’t quite right, and that there are other aspects of Silk-Reeling Exercises that I should be paying attention to that I’m not thinking of; I’d love to hear more ideas along these lines.

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