The Magic Movements of Tai Chi

Tai Chi can revolutionize how your body feels.

The magic movements of Tai Chi

*Full disclaimer at bottom of page. Short disclaimer here: This article is not for instruction, only for discussion. I am aware it is not 100% correct, the subject matter is too complex for a simple article, but the essence is correct.

Tendon changing exercises is the goal. I bet you did not even know the question. Which is; Why do you have pain, discomfort, non-peak performance, illness …

For many, not all, but many your tendons are the wrong length and your body has shifted. That shift caused a nerve to be touched and that sensation you call pain, or that shift has compromised your proprioception and your mind will not let your muscles have 100% output, or your organ is compressed and not working properly, or there is a full/partial blockage inside causing all kinds of thing, or, or, or.

This is a conversation best had in Chinese because that is where the concept comes from, but as you likely read English I am translating these concepts into English. When I do that it all gets less precise as it’s difficult to translate a language directly. But we venture on.

While in Western anatomy, tendons are considered a type of connective tissue that attaches muscles to bones, in Chinese Medicine, the term “Jin” aka “tendon” is used to describe a variety of tissues, including tendons, ligaments, and fascia and a few muscles all collectively known as the “Sinew” or “Jin Luo”.

Recently at a Tai Chi Workshop a Senior (really experienced, not ‘old’) Instructor was demonstrating and I was asked to feel the expansion of his back. I was asked to write an article about that and here it is.

Unlike what many of us have seen in anatomy text books, the body is not neatly organized units of tissue. It is a wildly complicated mess of overlapping, twisting interwoven tissues that somehow can move us in the directions we want to go. At a recent workshop the teacher said his way of thinking of the body is “one fascia with 600 muscle pockets in it.”

Movement theory is complicated. The reason it is a theory is for many movements the “experts” do not agree on how we actually move, or what tissues are being activated. At a recent course the anatomist said with AI we may finally get some answers, as the complexity of some movements are yet to be fully understood.

I have seen it at my clinic. A patient has a catastrophic injury and a muscle is removed. Yet they can still move as before. How? Other muscles all calculate how to move the limb to where your brain says and an incredibly complicated series of contractions and relaxations happen to move the limb as if the original muscle was doing it.

But not always, many people get injuries and while the muscles are still there and “tests” like it is working fine, they limp, or fall, or fatigue, or it hurts, or, or, or.

In my 28 years of practice the two most common injuries I see are stooped (rounded) shoulders and SI joint (hip) pain. What is causing these injuries? Repetitive stress and lack of use injury. Yes, lack of use can and does injure.  

And that damages tendons (the Western definitions and my Chinese translation of the word.) That includes muscle adhesions, Fascial remodelling, scar tissue, etc.

This is a diagram of organized fascial tissue on the left and damaged “matted” fascial tissue on the right. The study was how dedicated strain (exercise) can reform the tissue back to healthy.

What to do?

The answer is “tendon changing exercises.” The trouble is many read that as tendon stretching exercises and that is just incorrect. It’s changing. Likely a better English word would be Tendon Tuning exercises.

Some tissue needs to be longer (stretching or sedating), some need to stay as they are (static) and other tissue needs to be shortened (strengthening or tonifying). While other tissues need to learn to work together, others become unstuck, others …

Tai Chi done the way our lineage teaches it (as I currently understand it) can do that and that is what I felt touching the instructor. His ability to move and change his tendons and thereby his body.

He asked me to explain to him what I felt and I told him his “Erector Spinae – ES” muscles lengthened. He said wait and moved again and his back widened. Then they widened and lengthened.


He explained he was more demonstrating the move vs focusing on tendon stretching. But once he recognized I can feel movement he went to town and moved all sorts of ways and directions. It was really cool. (Not a medical definition)

I have read of Tai Chi masters that could move their organs around. I have seen Yogi’s move abdominal organs but they do it differently than I understand a tai chi person would. I did not ask the instructor if he could move his organs, next time.

There is a lot to take from that experience. The ability to move selected groups of tissue in selected directions is just amazing. The ability to ‘work’ out pain/discomfort/disease really becomes within reach.

A famous saying in Chinese Medicine is. TONG ZE BU TONG; BU TONG ZE TONG. — HUANG DI NEI JING “If there is free flow, there is no pain; if there is pain, there is lack of free flow.”

Now that does not always apply but in sore low backs it is often ‘where there is too much movement where there should not be, there is pain.’

The most amazing thing I learned from experiencing the teacher move was his ability to widen his Sacroiliac joint “SI”. Or more he just widened his body, but his hips just opened up on the posterior side (back). He opened his SI joints and they closed right back up. It’s astounding.

The number 1 low back disorder, I see, outside of trauma is SI pain. I see it 10 times a week. My working theory is once a person sits more than 30 minutes their Gluteal muscles lose tone, (your butt gets weak). When a person stands that lack of tone creates instability. Which shock loads the SI ligaments (Which are Tendons for our discussion) they stretch and create a structure that does not transfer force from the ground up properly. They seems to stay slightly long and that creates this big compensation in the hips/pelvis/legs/low back.

Ligaments are very hard to ‘make’ move. Yet the instructor did it with ease. It’s a game changer. I for years have been able to lengthen my spine. Through that process I have healed a collapsed disc L2-3 and extreme injury induced scoliosis. I can make my SI’s open/close in Separate kick left and right but really it is available in every Don-yu. That is pretty much in every move. The ability to pump the SI’s has all sorts of benefits outside the scope of this conversation but done properly it’s very beneficial for health.

But when my instructors of old said move with “Equal and Opposite force” for some reason I never thought widen the pelvis. Yet our structure does allow for the SI joints to flex, commonly seen in childbirth. When the mothers SI open to allow delivery and the pelvic girdle snaps back and all is well.

That’s equal and opposite in all directions, likely at all times. Which will take work to get my neurology to fire all of those parts going in the correct directions at the correct times. The phrase Gong-Fu (Kung-Fu). Often translated and “Hard work, well done.” Tai Chi will take Gong-Fu.

How can I actually move if I have equal and opposite in all directions? That’s another article but it’s another poor translation of a concept of balance in movement. If you put all your thrust forward how could you stop? If you do not put enough thrust forward how do you go? Isn’t translating concepts fun?!?

Short answer is you are not linear, you are also not quite circular. You are more twisted like the inside of a tree. By expressing equally you can expand or contract. In the sailboat diagram all of those lines and letters represent equal incoming forces and the resultant outgoing force is forward, VB.

Other things from the experience are harder to describe as much of it happened at the same time or in a fast sequence or on demand. He could move his tissue like a wave up/down/sideways. He would feel like he had zero tension in him, the next moment I felt a train coming toward me. The felt force was massive and just seemed to be instantly there.

Normally when someone makes force I can feel the muscles prepare, engage, fire, move. But in this case it was zero to freight train. In tai chi you eventually want to be moved by Qi. Qi is like electricity (well it’s like a lot of things), it can move very fast if it has a good pathway. I think the Tendon Changing and opening work, has worked for the instructor. As their force is far greater than muscles could generate on their own, incredibly fast and without lead time. They also much have spent a lot of time developing Qi. Again another article about how that’s done.

Every time I get around a senior instructor of anything I notice a few things. It seems SO DARN EASY. Until I try it. Then it seems some weird magical ability they must have been born with. But neither is true. It is GongFu, hard work well done, an excellent instructor and a diligent student, a lot of time training and a sprinkle of luck.

I am grateful for MK for his teaching.

See you on the mat.

Be Well,
Ward Willison R.Ac.
Kelowna Acupuncture & Other Natural Therapies

*Full disclaimer: This article is not for instruction, only discussion. None of the ideas in this article are fully developed, it’s a blog not a text book. The ideas in this article are all from my teachers. The errors in remembering or explaining them properly are all mine. To fully explain the tendon stretching mechanism in people would take several text books. Even then there would be disagreement. However I have many years of working on this stuff and I practice some form of movement most days and am fortunate to receive instruction from some very talented people. While I am open to discussion on the topic, realize the first question I’d ask is “can you show me?”

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