Chen style Taijiquan is complex: weight shifts, whirling arms, stepping, dantian rotation, sinking the hips, weight in the feet, relaxing the chest… all the while trying to remember the next move! Fortunately, there is hope. Each move can be broken down into principle components and practiced individually and re-assembled during form practice. Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang is credited with developing the simple exercises known as Silk Reeling (缠丝功 chánsīgōng).
David Gaffney and Davidine Sim say it very well in their book “The Essence of Taijiquan:
“The silk reeling exercises comprise of individual movements, the mechanics of which make clear the basis for one or more movements contained within the form. They provide a pathway of utilising jin (劲) or trained power” (pg 168)
The name, Silk Reeling, comes from “the old days” when people would pull silk from the cocoon by hand. Apparently, this process required a very slow and consistent pull to coax the silk thread off the cocoon. This image is so foreign that it is hard to grasp what is being implied. For now, just think of it as the name of these exercises. There are several basic exercises Grandmaster teaches, and with a little practice you can turn just about every move in the Laojia Yilu into a Silk Reeling exercise, however, for this article I will focus on the first, formal, exercise and leave it up to the reader to apply this information to the other parts of the form.
The first silk reeling exercise is usually referred to as “Front Silk Reeling” (正面缠丝功 zhèngmiàn chánsīgōng) or sometimes just “the first single hand silk reeling”. Unfortunately, no poetic names as in the forms such as “crane spreads wings” or “snake creeps up the mountain”… maybe I’ll call it “the bat flies at midnight”!
Anyway, there is a starting sequence, but I am going to skip it for the sake of brevity. Starting with the right side, the feet are spread more than shoulder width and the weight is on the right foot. The feet are mostly pointing forward. The right hand is extended, with a slight bend in the elbow, fingers up and the left hand is resting comfortably on the top of the pelvis.
1) The first movement is a very slight sink into the right foot and hip with the right hand floating down to the level of the last ribs. Think of this as a mostly internal change. Don’t worry about what that means, I’ll explain later. Remember to sink in the hips and the feet and don’t bend over and relax the shoulder… and remember to keep it simple
2) Then, shift the weight to the left side and the right hand comes to rest in front of the dantian, fingers pointing slightly to the left. Think of this one as a mostly external change because we can see in the picture below, the weight is shifted to his (our right) left side.
3) The next action is to sink into the left foot and hip and raise the arm to shoulder level, palm down. Getting into this position is more of an internal change.
4) Finally, shift the weight to the right side and spiral the palm out. As you come to rest drop the elbow slightly to arrive back at the start.
Congrats! Now do that 10,000 more times and you’ll be on your way to mastership!*
* Your mileage may vary, not guaranteed, void where prohibited, batteries not included, additional practice and guidance may be required.
Now that we have the basic moves down, let’s explore this exercise a little deeper. Everyone is familiar with the yin/yang symbol that is often associated with Taiji and Taoism, but Jan Silberstorff showed us a very interesting property of this symbol.
The Yin/Yang symbol is composed of two sides each representing the two opposing, but equal forces and each contains part of the other. Additionally, it is a circle and so has no beginning and no end and is complete by itself. The “yang” forces are masculine, enlarging, big, outward, etc, while the “yin” forces are feminine, shrinking, small, inward, etc. It is the natural state of dynamic equilibrium that nature seeks as one force flows into another. Ok, make sure you are sitting down or well-grounded and prepare for your mind to be blown…. Stay with me here, we’re going to get deep.
This yin/yang symbol it is actually a map of every move in Taiji!
Still with me? Let’s see how it works.
The theory goes, if you strive to mimic this balance in your movements, you will be moving in harmony with the flow of nature. Let’s see how we can apply this symbol to the Silk Reeling movement above. If you try to punch someone, you can’t unless you actually draw back your hand. If you had started with the hand fully extended, you can’t really hit them (I suppose you could run at them in some sort of jousting maneuver, but let’s stick to just punching and hitting for now). This is because you are at full yang and can’t do more yang until you go back to yin- you can’t open without first closing. So the exercise actually starts in this, fist/hand out position mostly by convention, but it also looks cool. Oh, one thing before I go on, in this section, I refer to “intention”, this just means to put your mind in that particular spot or to think about that spot while doing these moves. I’ve added a helpful purple dot to illustrate where your intention goes.
We start at the top of the diagram with the intention at the fingers/palm as we express full yang.
2) Shift the weight to the other foot and with it, the intention from the hip to the dantien. We are now at full yin (the biggest black part) and the emphasis is on the external action of the weight shift. Here, we are coiled, ready to send the energy back out, so….
3) we begin sending the energy out toward the fingers by making it travel up the back and coming to rest at the 7th Cervical vertebrae. Nod your head forward with the chin toward the chest, reach your hand up to the back of the base of your neck and you will feel one vertebrae protrude a little… That is C7 and is the start of your neck and about where you want to put your intention. You’ll have to use your imagination a bit as the purple dot looks like it is at the throat. Just keep in mind this should be on your back, not your front.
Again, this is more of an internal change because we move the energy/intention more so than the physical body.
4) Finally, we shift the weight to the right side and the energy moves to the fingers/hand. This is the point we would make contact if we were trying to hit an attacker. The emphasis here is more on the external change.
These are static images and they can give the impression the intention jumps from one point to the next. However, this is not the case; you are guiding the intention from the fingers to the elbow, to the waist, to the dantian, out the lower back, up to the upper back, then back out to the elbow and finally the fingers. Your energy is ebbing and flowing like the tides. As you get better and better at feeling the energy, gracefully shifting and smoothing your intention, your movements flow with that tide and they are much more powerful than when everything is disjointed and moving (or not moving) with its own rhythm.
There! You made it! You’ve learned how to do the first Reeling Silk exercise, then we looked at the yin/yang symbol and then applied it to this exercise. Look for a future post on making a subdivision that tells us when it is ok to step!
Travis DePuy is a long time taiji student at the Taoist Sanctuary, and holds a 4th Duan Wei in Chen style Taijiquan, awarded by the Chinese Wushu Association.