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What is a Spiral - Part 1

During Chen Taiji classes questions often arise about spirals.  Why does Chen use spirals?  What do we mean by spiralling?  What is a spiral?

The spiral is one of the fundamental shapes of geometry.  It expresses an order and proportion that is often found in the dynamic creativity of nature.  From the growth of a sunflower’s head to the harmony of the human body the spiral can help us to understand something of the immanent pattern that connects humanity, nature and the universe.

Spiralling energy exercises are one of the fundamentals of Chen Taiji, and more than anything else, it is the way that Chen uses spiralling movements that differentiates it from other styles of taiji.  The concept of the spiral informs not only the Chan Si Gong, but the movements of the forms and push hands as well.  The Chen family even use a taiji symbol in the form of a spiral to represent their system.  The spiral is an important subject for taiji students and one that has both practical and philosophical aspects.  So, then - what is a spiral?

The Chen family taiji diagaram or Taiji Tu

Most dictionaries will contain at least two basic definitions of a spiral: that a spiral is another name for a helix (i.e. a curve that lies on a cone or a cylinder at a constant angle to the line), and that a spiral is one of several plane curves formed by a point winding about a fixed point at an ever increasing distance from it. Both of these definitions can be useful to help understand the way that Chen uses spirals.

The Helix Spiral

A cylindrical helix looks like the coil spring that you sometimes see used on car suspensions.  We can consider this kind of spiral in relation to the body in many ways.  Even if we only consider the relatively trivial image of the spring we can learn something about the basic stances of taiji.  Stances should be at a comfortable height from which you can either sink or rise.  This ‘natural’ height should be the basis for your equilibrium.  The suspension on a car allows it to absorb the impacts of bumps or holes in a road.  If a force is applied to a spring it becomes compressed until it has absorbed the energy then it snaps back to its equilibrium position.  The same should be true of a stance.  You should be able to use your stances to absorb and return someone’s energy.  The image of the spring can be likened to the fundamental energy of taiji – peng.

The helix spiral illustrates the way that energy travels from the feet to the hands.  When pushing with the right hand you should root with the left foot creating an upward spiral movement around the body.  Part of the trick of taiji is the way that energy is seldom moving in only one plane.  A taiji push, although seemingly horizontal, will often have a vertical aspect to it (either rising or sinking) and it is this that makes it difficult to resist. 

Most people will be familiar with the notion of “Flatland”.  “Flatland” is a two dimensional world – think of a sheet of paper.  If a fork were to pass vertically through “Flatland”, the flatlanders would initially experience a number of unconnected points which would join together into a line, that varied in thickness before disappearing.  Now imagine a helix passing through “Flatland”.  You would the appearance of a single point moving in a regular circle.  To stop the point moving you have to stop the vertical movement.  The same principle applies to taiji.

To address a movement on one line you also have to take into account the other planes that it is operating on.  In practice this means learning to be aware of the limits of the movement.  Most people can only rise or sink, advance or retreat so far before they over-extend their stance.  If you can encourage someone to over-extend themselves you can take their energy, break their root, and control their centre.

Of course, in taiji you seldom if ever only use one hand.  The hands often form a yin / yang relationship with each other, creating a double helix of movement about the body.  As energy extends upward and outward from the left foot to the right hand it also travels inward and downward from the left hand to the right foot. A similar helical relationship can also be observed in the way that hexagrams pair up in the conventional arrangement of the I Ching.  This is one of the fundamental ways that taiji has taken up the teachings of Taoism and applied them for martial purposes.

A helix always operates in at least three dimensions.  It is the way that Chen Taiji uses multiple dimensions that sets it apart from many other martial arts.  A normal attack such as a punch can be understood as a straight line from one point to another.  The advantage of this form of attack is its simplicity.  It makes use of what is in theory the shortest distance between two points thus maximising speed and minimising the use of time.  Martial theories of lines are extremely useful.  You can understand another person’s movements in terms of lines - advance and retreat.  If you develop the line into a grid it is also a good way of coming to terms with the fundamentals of footwork.  An understanding of lines provides an excellent foundation from which to develop.  It even explains it’s own weakness.

Once a line has been committed to it is relatively easily avoided or broken.  A helical attack is different.  It advances simultaneously along several separate and constantly changing lines.  If the path of any one of these imaginary lines is blocked, others will still be open and the very existence of a blockage may actually suggest or create new lines.  A helical path is not committed to in the same way as a straight line, because it is always multiple and never just one thing.  It remains relaxed, fluid and adaptable.

The absence of tension allows taiji generate and channel qi in a natural way producing effortless power.  To understand how taiji accomplishes this one only needs to read a little of the Tao Te Ching.  ‘Being and non-being produce each other’ (‘The Essential Tao’ – T. Cleary). The taiji spiral is fundamental to Taoist concepts of manifestation.  By making the spiral central to all its movements Chen taiji aims to follow the way of unimpeded harmony.  The links between the movement of the spiral, natural proportion and the principles of Taoism will be explored in the second part of this article.

Glenn Gossling