Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, November 18, 2022

Turning the Waist in Taijiquan

Turning, not twisting the waist is a foundational principal of taijiquan movement. Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Thoughts on Tai Chi on that topic. The full post may be read here.

What does “waist” mean in Tai Chi Chuan? Isn’t the waist just the waist? Is it necessary to complicate it and analyse the meaning of this common word?  Well, first, Chinese is obviously another language than English. And we know that words don’t always have the exact same meaning in different languages.

Still, this post might seem provocative, as everyone translate the Chinese character “yao” into “waist”, including the most famous “Masters” today who travel around the World to personally sign their commercial books at two-day seminars for many hundreds of participants, eagerly waiting to learn about the deep secrets of Tai Chi that are reserved for only a chosen few. I guess that having a master, or even Grandmaster(!), signing their book make many students feel as they have achieved “more” through their training.

But as I myself am neither famous or travel around signing books, I couldn’t care less about the commercial aspects of being politically Tai Chi correct. So let’s start from the beginning by explaining the Chinese character for “waist“.

In the Tai Chi Classics, this character is “yao” or 腰. This character, that belongs to 3000 most common characters (Ranked no. 1228 to be precise), or Yao, is indeed a common Chinese word for what we mean by waist, or the area around the back and belly, between the ribs and the hips. This is that makes the upper body rotate horizontally while the lower part of the body remains mor or less stable. In Western tradition the waist is what separate the upper and lower body. And sure, we can use “yao” in this sense as well. Yao can be used for “waistline” and the word for belt in Chinese is yaodai, 腰带.

So where, and in what context, do we use the character yao in Tai Chi? Well, It’s right there in the Tai Chi Classics, in the probably most common and well known Tai Chi saying:


Rooted in the feet, ​
fa/issue through the legs,
controlled by the ​yao, 
expressed through the fingers.

What many masters on many books have explained, and what I would believe that most Tai Chi practitioners should agree on, is that everything must move together as a whole, as one single movement. Foot, legs, yao, arm and hand. Well, “shou” 手 or “hand” can be used for the whole arm as well. So you could interpret this character, here in this context, as the whole arm, right out to the fingers. When one part moves, the rest of the parts move at the same time. Everything should have a direct connection through movement.

Okay then, let’s go back to the yao. What you need to know is that Chinese people don’t necessarily associate character yao in the same way Western people do with waist. In Chinese, Yao can mean “waist”. But foremost, this character is associated with the lower back. One common translation you can see in dictionaries is in fact: the lower back.


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