Tensegrity and Taijiquan (Tai Chi Ch'uan)

No matter what school, style, or lineage of taijiquan you may encounter, it is likely that over the course of studying this internal martial art … you will at some point be forced to totally reconsider the way you think your body works.

Tensegrity Structure AnimatedTensegrity Structure :: Human Body

The above spinning image (left) is an example of a structure being held together by the force of tensegrity or tensional integrity. In other words, the rigid green “beams” are never touching, but are suspended in their shape by the interconnected flexible red “strings.” The structure in the black and white image (right) is a symbolically simplified model of our skeleton & muscles to display that the human body, too, is a tensegrity structure!

Before I go into great detail exploring the unfortunately obscure concept of tensegrity (which is indispensable to understanding the “tai chi body”), allow me to introduce a brief — but very important — passage from the Tai Chi Literary Classics:

Up or down,
front or back,
left or right, are all the same.

These are all yi (mind/intention) and not external.

If there is up, there is down;
if there is forward, then there is backward;
if there is left, then there is right.

If the yi wants to move up,
it contains at the same time
the downward idea.

-The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan
Translated & Edited by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo

This seemingly cryptic passage, supposedly contributed by taijiquan’s mythical forebear Zhang Sanfeng, is in some sense our object of discussion for today’s post, as we carefully consider the body’s bones & connective tissues for what they really are: a tensegrity structure.

What is “Tensegrity”?

Tensegrity, tensional integrity or floating compression, is a structural principle based on the use of isolated components in compression inside a net of continuous tension, in such a way that the compressed members (usually bars or struts) do not touch each other and the prestressed tensioned members (usually cables or tendons) delineate the system spatially.

-Wikipedia’s entry for “Tensegrity”

This term was originally coined by the uber-genius Buckminster Fuller. Fuller, a renowned & influential systems theorist, architect, engineer, author, designer, inventor, and futurist, discovered this idea by studying forces of nature like gravity, hydraulics, and electro-magnetism (with a special inspiration from the wire wheel) …

After watching that brief video, hopefully you have a more practical understanding of Tensegrity, and what we mean when describing any system of unconnected compression members & interconnected tension members (like a Bucky Ball — aka a geodesic dome — or a suspension bridge). Still, perhaps many will be confused as to exactly how the human body itself is indeed governed by the same principles as any of these other more familiar tensegrity structures.

The Human Body as a Tensegrity Structure

Before we can even consider the human body as a tensegrity structure, many readers may first benefit from a bit of a refresher on the basic human anatomy — specifically the bones, muscles, and connective tissues.

The Skeleton (aka The Bones)

Deep inside all of us, forming the fundamental structure upon which our body is built, there is the skeleton. When viewing the body as a tensegrity structure, the skeleton & the bones represent the compression members (the rigid sticks — that are never actually touching one another!).

Familiar to everyone, the skeleton is made up of 206 bones that form the underlying framework giving the human body its shape & solid structure. Without the skeleton, we would essentially be a sack of goo, unable to perform basic physical functions … or even to survive.

Of special note, you will see in this anatomical chart that the skeleton is portrayed as being suspended from the head-top (as you’d also see in any standard skeleton model found in many science classes). If it was “tai chi accurate,” I would prefer the skeleton to be suspended from a position on the skull slightly further back — at acu-point GV20 or bǎi huì (百汇). However, this does still share one of the most important points from the Tai Chi Classics, namely: that the body is not a stack of bones, resting like a tower one atop another.

The Muscles and Connective Tissues

To begin to examine the tension (or suspension) members of the human body as a tensegrity structure, we must inevitably come to the more complex system of the muscles and connective tissues:

As anyone can clearly see by comparing the muscle image vs. the skeleton image, the muscular anatomy of the human body is significantly more complicated than that of the skeleton.

In this image (when enlarged), you may recognize some of the major “antagonistic” muscle groups like the biceps & triceps (upper-arms) or the quadriceps & hamstrings (upper legs). These familiar “push-pull” muscle structures are most often thought of as the body’s main power sources for movement and strength. Traditionally, most physiologists and athletes focus their attention on the complementary functions of expansion & contraction in these (and other) major muscle groups.

However, this typically accepted & oft described “push-pull” muscle interaction is NOT the primary mobilizing force for taijiquan (nor does it represent the tension / suspension member of the body’s tensegrity structure!). That all important role of holding everything together is left {mostly} up to the body’s connective tissues, displayed as the white sections on the muscle chart, and together, collectively known as the fascia.

What is the “Fascia”?

While many people are familiar with the tendons & ligaments, most are obliviously unaware of the vital role played by the more broad & ubiquitous family of the body’s connective tissues … once collectively known as the “sinews” … but now referred to as the fascia (or fasciae).

A fascia is a structure of connective tissue that surrounds muscles, groups of muscles, blood vessels, and nerves, binding some structures together, while permitting others to slide smoothly over each other. Various kinds of fascia consists of distinct layers, depending on their functions and their anatomical location: a superficial fascia, a deep fascia, and a subserous (or visceral) fascia. [The fascial system] extends uninterrupted from the [top of the] head to the tip of the toes.

Like ligaments [...] and tendons, fasciae are dense regular connective tissues, containing closely packed bundles of collagen fibers oriented in a wavy pattern parallel to the direction of pull. Fasciae are consequently flexible structures able to resist great unidirectional tension forces until the wavy pattern of fibers has been straightened out by the pulling force.

-Wikipedia’s entry for “Fascia”
[emphasis added]

Understanding the structural role & general idea behind the fascia is one thing … but actually seeing the connective tissues in isolation or in action is entirely another. The total fascial connective system of the body includes dozens of layers from the outside in … including:

  • Underlying the skin,
  • Connecting muscles to bones and muscles to muscles,
  • Wrapping a layer around major muscle groups and individual muscle filaments
  • Wrapping & protecting the organs (in groups and individually),
  • And even wrapping & lubricating between other layers and / or lines of fascia!

One of the forerunners exploring the fascia & its profound interconnectedness is Tom Myers, founder & discoverer of Anatomy Trains (his name for the human body’s myofascial meridians). Below, as long as you aren’t too squeamish, you can watch Tom & students dissecting a genuine human cadaver to see the real fascial connective systems of the body.

Exploring the Fascia: Dissecting a Real Human Cadaver to Isolate Fascial Meridians

Fascial Tensegrity in the Taijiquan Classics

While Western anatomy & physiology studies are just beginning to understand the fascial tensegrity structure as a practical, well-mapped territory … it seems to me that many ancient Chinese martial artists & internal medicine doctors had already reached our same modern conclusions (intuitively) many generations ago.

Considering that the fasciae represent the body’s only connective system that “extends uninterrupted from the [top of the] head to the tip of the toes” … it becomes instantly clear that the fascial connective tissue must be vitally important for taijiquan, especially when we consider entries from the Classics such as:

In motion
all parts of the body must be
and strung together … without the slightest break.


Let the postrues be without
breaks or holes,
hollows or projections,
or discontinuities and continuities of form.

As well as:

Store up the jin (internal strength)
like drawing a bow.

Mobilize the jin
like pulling silk from a cocoon.

Release the jin
like releasing the arrow.

From these three passages (and many others I left out), it is clear that taijiquan’s body mechanics must be relying heavily on some sort of interconnected, springy & flexible, yet powerful & explosive system inside the body. It seems obvious to me that these taijiquan masters of old must have had some intuitive understanding of the body as a fascial tensegrity structure.

By suspending the body from the head-top, and allowing all the bones to effortless “float” in between the connective tissues that support them, a tai chi practitioner can begin to support enormous forces to and from all of “the eight directions,” as well as to issue energy “like releasing the arrow.”

To come full circle, I’d like to end with a few short video clips of taijiquan masters who powerfully embody this highly refined physical aspect of the ancient Taoist martial art …

Sam Tam Taijiquan Fajin (aka “Fajing”)

Notice how Master Sam Tam’s body remains so relaxed, fluid, springy, and — of course — moving as one interconnected piece. You can practically feel the tensegrity “bow strings” through the video!

Huang Style Taijiquan Master in Malaysia — Fajin Tensegrity “Bounce”

Here is another good example of fajin (aka “fajing”) energy by a Huang style taijiquan practitioner in Malaysia. Note especially how the springy connection in the pusher’s body leaves the “pushee” getting easily lifted into the air — without changing the “pushee’s” position while he is being launched. Only a “whole body power” connecting the elastic-like fascial tissue can make this possible.

Note :: I’m not even sure the name of this taijiquan practitioner … so if you know it, please do share the info in the Comments section.

Chen Zhonghua Push Hands Explanations (Whole Body Moves Together!)

This is a great video to end on, because I find Chen Zhonghua’s explanations to be tip-top. Of special interest for this article is the section in the video that begins at ~3:07 … where Master Chen demonstrates how he can use many different parts of his body to neutralize & counter his opponent’s attack. Again, this type of “silk reeling energy” (chan si jin) can only be applied when one has a strong coordination of the body’s interconnected fascial system.


To conclude this article, I’d like to once again draw your attention back to where we began, with this passage from the Tai Chi Classics:

Up or down,
front or back,
left or right, are all the same.

These are all yi (mind/intention) and not external.

If there is up, there is down;
if there is forward, then there is backward;
if there is left, then there is right.

If the yi wants to move up,
it contains at the same time
the downward idea.

-The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan
Translated & Edited by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo

Now, I hope you can see, that for any one part of the body to move in any one direction … another part of the body somewhere else MUST move in the opposite direction to make this possible. Similar to an interconnected system of strings, beams, and pulleys … or to the tuning of a stringed instrument like a harp … every movement in taijiquan represents the intertwining array of compression & suspension members of the body’s connective tissues.

When the body is relaxed & functioning “naturally” … then its interconnectedness is as plain as day. As the right finger points toward the sky, it inevitably puts a slight tug down to the left foot & toes. As the chest sinks down, the back inevitably is plucked up.

And if (and only if) one properly suspends the head-top can all the joints open & relax … allowing “qi” and blood to flow smoothly, unobstructed & harmonious throughout the entire body. I guess that is going a bit too far, and onto a topic we’ll have to save for a different post.

21 comments to Tensegrity and Taijiquan (Tai Chi Ch’uan)

  • Holy Taiji, my friend! Finally, an awesome article on the physical reality of the principles of Taiji Chuan. Great job!

  • Lutz

    I haven’t encountered Tai Chi as Martial Art yet, your posting really made me curious. Thank you for a brilliant explanation of tensegrity as model for human anatomy, and for choosing some amazing videos to demonstrate how this idea about our body as tensegrity transforms into highly efficient movement.

  • Bob Tajima

    Great post! Truly definitive. Thank you.

  • James Rogers

    I have suspected that Taiji was using the facial system for some time. Tensegrity has given me the missing piece when I try to explain this to others.
    This is the first place I have seen the idea effectively followed to it’s logical conclusion. Michael Phillips also touches on this concept with his idea of “a unique kind of power at the extreme end of softness” (I am paraphrasing).
    Well done!

    • @James Rogers :: Keen observation there, as Michael Phillips was the teacher of my first teacher. He is my kung fu grandfather I guess … and I have had the good fortune of studying with him for a few weekends when he came to town for corrections.

      I obviously look with hope to the future for the days when I will be able to study with him more intensively :-D

      • James Rogers

        I wonder has anyone else come across anything dealing with the application of human hydraulic systems and Taiji?

        • @James Rogers :: This is something I too have wondered about for quite some time. I was studying up on physics again to learn more about how hydraulics could apply. As far as I have seen, there is very little research on this topic … so my efforts will be highly speculative, but sometime in the next year or so I will attempt a similar article about hydraulics and taijiquan.

          Here is an interesting article to tide you over (not much to do with conscious power generation … but much info about hydraulic systems in the human body).

          • James Rogers

            It seems to me there is a lot of info on the hydraulic nature of the human heart. The rest of the circulatory system is an extension of this. Water is an incompressible fluid (which is what we mostly are). It seems to be a fairly reasonable extrapolation considering Taiji’s near obsession with relaxation and fluid continuous motion that it is a reasonable explanation for some of the more dramatic examples of it’s power. By which I mean fa jin.

  • Is it okay to insert part of this in my weblog if I submit a reference to this web site?

  • Ajay

    I’m no expert, but this is the best encapsulation of the physics and body mechanics of Taiji combat that I have ever seen. I especially liked Fuller bouncing a structure made of rigid rods and taut strings like a basketball. Phenomenal job.

  • Great post! I recently wrote about fascia and how ‘best’ to train fascia so this is particularly fascinating. I had the opportunity to attend a Thomas Myers workshop last December in Hong Kong which I apply regularly in my physical therapy practice. My taiji has fallen by the wayside the last few months but I think you have helped me get back on! Thanks.

  • Bill McKee

    Thank you for presenting this information so clearly and with such authority – I am making a permanent bookmark so I can revisit and hopefully glean a bit more of your thinking. You have done a great service to the tai chi community.

  • Danny Kim

    There is a very curious thing that might interest you. Through practice there was an interesting discovery made. The body’s energy or qi felt a state of change. The feeling of the body wasn’t stiff but very loose yet very powerful when aligned in a correct manner. Instead of punching through with force harnessing from the stomach to shoulders, the triceps, then forearm to hand, the punches came from feet up. But in order to feel that force, it was required to relax. Relaxing Is the key thing to harnessing that coiling motion. The way you move feel as if you were a big spring. A very sharp energy shoots up and exits through whatever you shoot. Your whole movements feel like you’re a huge coil and can move around very sharply, and the total essence feels very energetic. That might have to do with silk reeling, because there is a similarity of how the coiling motion feels and the silk reeling pictures presented in the Illustrated book of Taichiquan from the Chen family. There could be some fallacy in this thought but if you have any similar experience or thoughts about it that would be very helpful.

    • @Danny Kim … Sounds right to me!

      I agree that relaxation is key, and that the taiji body moves like a large coiling dragon (or like a great river). The qi is “excited” and the spirit is raised.

      From your words, it sounds as though you are feeling these sensations as they described in the “Classics”, and finding your own way to explain them. Excellent!

      Words can only take one so far in these internal arts. Only touch can convey the inner meaning, which is why one must be “orally taught” … in which case, it sounds you must have a good teacher :-D

      Thanks for the comment, and for reading!

  • Kazu

    I believe that tensegrity is a component of so called ‘internal’ martial arts. It has even been discussed in some Japanese arts like aiki jujutsu – http://www.aikiweb.com/forums/showthread.php?p=291842#post291842

    I believe that different schools and different arts have their own methods of developing this tensegrity structure into the body, but that ‘internal martial arts’ have other components as well.

    Thanks for taking the time to organize all this info. Good stuff to think about.

  • [...] Body wisdom, the actual physical movements, mental levels, and also the social realm — because I was gifted with this idea by someone else, and who knows? Maybe I’m not doing it [...]

  • Victor Yen

    The sifu from malaysia is Richard Yap from Kota Kinabalu , Sabah.

  • The taichi practitioner you are looking for is Sifu Richard Yapp of Papar, Sabah, Malaysia. You can contact him directly, email address is richardkyyap@gmail.com

  • Chok Shau Hing

    Refer to the Huang Style Taijiquan Master in Malaysia — Fajin Tensegrity “Bounce”

    I’m the “pushee” a student of my “sufu” the “pusher” Richard Yapp from Papar Town, Sabah,Malaysia

  • Nice article thanks for sharing! As well as the connective tissue that is brought into stretch throughout the body during every cycle of movement, we also use the active stretch phase and corresponding un-stretch phase of the muscles as taught in Huang style taiji – via my teacher Patrick Kelly.

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