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What is a Spiral - Part 2

‘The Tao produces one,

One produces two,

Two produce three…’

(Verse 42 – ‘Tao Te Ching)

Chen Taiji expresses the principles of Taoism through the movement of the spiral.  There are many, many spirals in Chen Taiji: spirals that can be seen in the twisting and turning of the body, spirals that can be seen in the paths traced by the hands.  If you try to keep track of the number of spiralling movements as you practice the Chen forms you will quickly lose count.

Taoism has always studied and reflected upon nature, looking for the patterns and principles that connect such diverse phenomena as the growth of plants, the formation of clouds and the movement of the seasons.  The principles of Taoism are based on nature and the way the Tao manifests itself in nature.  For centuries Taoism has studied the cycles of creation and decay, the way that energy increases and decreases.  The Taiji diagram is one of the best known of Taoist representations of these natural cycles.  Taoism clearly recognises the links between spiral, proportion, and nature. The numerical progression in the above quotation from the Tao Te Ching can be seen a spiral - a plane curve formed by a point winding about a fixed point at an ever increasing distance from it.

A spiral following such a numerical progression could be considered as displaying a ‘golden proportion’.  If we represent the progression of the golden proportion by the letters a, b, c, d we can say that c=a+b and d=b+c, and we can represent the proportion as a:b = b:(a+b).  Thus the Tao Te Ching’s progression can be extrapolated into: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 etc.  This is the kind of spiral that is frequently found in nature – from the unfurling of a fern frond to the growth of seeds in the head of a sunflower or the breaking of a wave.  It is also the same kind of spiral that is expressed by the movement of the left hand as it opens from the dan tien to single whip.

If we examine the patterns of such phenomena closely we often find that they are not the result of one single spiral but two complementary spirals moving in opposite directions.  On the head of a sunflower we can clearly trace the two spirals moving in opposite directions through the pattern made by the seeds.  Similarly, in Chen Taiji it is easy to see the frequent complementary movement of the hands as they spiral in opposite directions – one up, one down; one left one right; one forward, one back.  This union of opposites either in the growth of the plant or the movement of a body can be seen as expressions of yin and yang.

The numeric proportions that make up a spiral can be divided into unequal pairs of numbers typified by major and minor sections. The progression from one to two, two to three and three to five can be seen as a continuous movement from lesser to greater.  The lesser and greater, minor and major can be seen as a relationship of complementary opposites, making yin and yang fundamental to the structure of the spiral.

With Chen Taiji the yin yang structure of the spiral can also be considered in relation to the speed, or the acceleration curve, of a movement.  The speed of movements tends to have an inverse relationship to the proportional structure of the shape creating a further pair of complementary opposites.  The movements tend to be quicker, more yang, during the minor, or yin, section of the spiral.  In practice this means that movements become slower and softer towards the end of a spiral.  This distinguishes taiji from most other martial arts, which often aim at achieving maximum speed at the extremes of extension.

If you examine the taiji forms you will notice that most of the spiral movements emanate from the dan tien.  The dan tien can be said to be the centre of movement.  This holds true on both the vertical and the horizontal planes.  We can also consider the spiral in relation to the body in another way.  If we consider a spiral as an expression of proportion we can look at the proportions of the human body in terms of a spiral.  The bones of the limbs are smallest at their extremes (the tips of the fingers) and get progressively longer, from finger to knuckle, to wrist, elbow, and shoulder.  Thus as the left hand describes an outward spiral, in the single whip movement, the bone structure of the body creates an inward spiral on the right side of the body from the hook along the arm to the dan tien.

Diagram showing the geometry of physical proportions

The skeletal structure of the body is an important consideration in the way that taiji is used.  The pattern of proportions shows how the hands can be made into centres, and used to take control of the balance of the whole body.  The skeleton and the mobile parts of the body can also be considered to be in a yin yang relationship.  The skeleton can be considered to be yang in that it is hard while the rest of the body is soft but it can also become yin in that it can be made to be extremely still.

Now that we have come this far we can see so many spirals, moving in so many mutually opposing directions, in ever changing relationships of yin and yang that create numerous centres constantly moving about one another that it may seem that taiji is too complex to begin to contemplate. However, taiji is about doing and it is only by doing it that the contradictory can become complementary.

The spiral is the principle of the Tao that can be traced throughout the manifestation of creation.  It can be seen in the progressive divisions of yin and yang delineated by the I Ching that leads from Wu Chi to the ten thousand things.  Chen Taiji makes use of this generative power of the spiral in its movements to increase and train the qi.  Taiji is a ball and you cannot have yin without yang.  As you train your qi you also train your bones, until eventually you gain an inner stillness and strength that cannot be achieved in any other way.

Glenn Gossling