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Tai Chi with Ian Sinclair - Episode 5 - A rotation of a different colour.

Tai Chi with Ian Sinclair - Episode 5

A rotation of a different colour.

One important element of tai chi is the way that the pelvis moves relative to the hips and legs. This unique rotation of the hips is made possible by the relaxation of the waist and the engagement of the thighs and lower abs. It is important to remember that the rotation of the pelvis is unlike the rotation of the waist.

The waist rotates around the spine, or a central axis in front of the spine. The pelvis, on the other hand, revolves around the hip joint. So, while the waist is like a wheel, the pelvis is like a door. This distinction is very important for balance. It will also be very important in later lessons when we discuss the generation of power, the conservation, of momentum, and the perfection of root.


Tai Chi with Ian Sinclair - Episode 4 - Hip, Legs, and Oh! What a Waist!

Tai Chi with Ian Sinclair - Episode 4

Hip, Legs, and Oh! What a Waist!

In the last lesson that i spoke about the importance of relaxing the waist in order to engage the abdominal muscles and the muscles of the lower back in order to allow for proper rotation.

When you relax the waist and property align the spine, it allows you to twist the waist and to expand and contract the lower belly. It enables you to engage the rectus abdominus muscles and the transferse abdominus. The muscles are important for stabilizing the waist and for generating internal power

One of the things that is really important about relaxing the waist and opening up the lower back is that it also allows us to relax the hips, the knees, the ankles, and the feet. It also helps to pressure off the neck, the shoulders and the upper back.

Of course, this is all very important for agility and mobility.

Let’s talk specifically about how it affects the the hips and the legs.

When you stand with the waist relaxed you are able to take the stress off of the hips. When the waist is tense, the pelvis is braced on the hips. That puts a torquing pressure on the knees and ankles, causing the feet to pronate or supinate.

When you open up the lower back and turn your feet parallel, about shoulder distance or hip distance apart, you can take a lot of tension out of the tailbone area, relaxing the buttock and hip muscles. This is important for mobility because it allows you to turn the pelvis without tilting the pelvis.
This way, you can learn to keep the femur in line with the foot, and move the pelvis around the hip joint.
This point is going to be very important later when we talk about balance and internal power.

All of this relaxing requires that you put a lot of weight in the thighs. When you take the stress off the back, waist, hips and other joint, this tension goes into the quadriceps.

Relaxing the waist will allow your movements to become light and agile, and simultaneously more balanced, rooted and powerful.

Relaxing the waist also strengthens the abdominal muscles. This may seem ironic, but when you think about how the tension in the lower back deactivates the lower abdominal muscles, then it makes sense that releasing the lower back will allow you to engage the lower abs. In the tai chi form, the lower abs are involved in every part of every movement.

A traditional tai chi routine, for instance, are a 20-40 minute thigh and abdominal workout.


Tai Chi with Ian Sinclair - Episode 3 - "A Waist is a Terrible Thing to Mind"

The waist is a very complex and important region. It is the vital core which affects every action we take.

In Tai Chi tradition, It is said that if there is a problem, one should look to the waist for the source of the problem. This is because the lower core of the torso is the centre of power and the centre of intelligence for the body.

All movement should centre around the waist, and all power is generated and directed through it. Even power that is generated by the legs and directed by the hips is dependant on the waist to transfer that power and conserve momentum.

In most people, however, the waist is normally immobilized by tension in the lower back. The internal and external abdominal obliques hardly ever slide past each other. The lower abdominal muscles never contract unless one is doing leg raises. Even the rotatores muscles of the lumbar region don't rotate.

When I ask a beginner to stand upright and rotate their waist, they will usually turn their hips, twist their knees, and torque their ankles, pronating and supinating their feet. In an attempt to prevent the twisting of the hips and legs, I will have them sit in a chair and try again to twist the waist.

A few people will have some success. However, those who succeed in achieving some sort of dorsal rotation will do so without using their transverse abdominus, Rotatores lumbarum, or mutifidi. Many won't even engage obliques or the rectus abdominus.

Remarkably, most will recruit almost every other muscle in the torso. They will involve the Latissimus dorsi, the seratus muscles (anterior and posterior, superior and inferior). They will contract levatories costarum (rib lifters) and intercostal muscles. They may engage the multifidi and the rotatores brevi and rotatores longi, but only the parts that connect to the thoracic vertebra. I've even seen students trying to turn the waist by using the spinal erectors (Spinialis Thoracis)

A tense lower back means an inactive core. The lower abdominal muscles are unable to contract because the opposing lower back muscles are constantly contracted. This tension compresses the lower spine and makes it difficult or impossible to rotate it.

This flaw is so ubiquitous in humans that when I was looking for what I would consider a good graphic depiction of waist movement, I couldn't find one.

Most anatomy text books seem to accept a tense and immobile waist as a normal condition of human posture. A look at anatomy diagrams will show that the neutral position seems to be one in which the lumbar vertebrae are hyper-extended. Animations show flexion, extension or lateral flexion pivoting on the upper lumbar vertebrae. The is particularly blatant in flexion of the rectus abdominus, in which the lower abs don't flex at all when the subject is in a standing position.

See in this animation how the lower abdominal muscles are inactive during flexion. This is because the tension in muscles of the lower back is antagonistic towards the contraction of the lower abs. Proper tai chi movement has the lower abs constantly engaged and active. This is made possible because the lower spine is loose, and the muscles of the lower back are not constantly braced against each other.

In this animation, the multifidi are able to rotate the spine. However, the typical tension in the lumbar region greatly restricts the waist.

Diagrams of the rotatores often don't even show those in lumbar region. It is believed by some that they don't actual serve to rotate the spine, but rather as proprioceptive transducers to aid in balance.
Notice that in the animation, below, the Rotatores Lumbarum are not even depicted!

In tai chi, this flaw in alignment, so widely accepted elsewhere, is sometimes called "being double weighted." This is a term which can refer to the bracing or counter-levering of one part of the body against another. The correct position is one in which every part of the body balances precisely over the one below it in such a way that no static tension is created. The parts of the body are like a string of pearls balanced on end. The movement is easy and unhindered like the movement of a scale.

The power and mobility of the waist, as well as stability, is dependant on the ability of muscles to contract when necessary. Muscles cannot contract if they are never relaxed. So the question we are here to answer is, "How does one relax the waist?"

In order to take the tension away from the lower back, it must be put somewhere. Now it was once said that by simply contracting the lower rectus abdominus to execute a pelvic tilt, one could relieve the pressure in the back, and reduce back pain. But moving the tension to the other side of the waist does not improve mobility. It also does not alleviate the knee, neck, and shoulder tension that is causes by a tense waist.

What we seek to do is relax the the waist and allow it to remain relaxed. This means putting the tension somewhere other than the waist. This is where we recruit the help of another greatly misunderstood and mis-used muscle group, the quadriceps.

Until the student learns to release the tension in the back, and move the weight bearing responsibility to the quadriceps, the waist will be immobilized by back tension, and the muscles of the lumbar region, including the lower abdominal muscles, will be unable to function proper. The release of the back is necessary for developing balancing, agility, power, speed, relaxation, sensitivity, and much more.

Next lesson:
Liberating the Dantien and the Core - Stronger Thighs for Stronger Abs.


The Secret of Tai Chi Internal Power.

The Secret of Tai Chi Internal Power.

- by Ian Sinclair
April 18, 2012

To most of the millions of people around the world who practise tai chi, it is as an exercise for relaxation, health, and fitness. Only a small percentage of tai chi players have a real interest in the martial, mental, and spiritual discipline required to achieve the deep and profound skills of the founders of the art. This has led to a general watering down of the art itself, until most teachers have little if any understanding of the art as it was.

Now, watering down is not always a bad thing. After all, water is quite good for us. There are many who benefit from tai chi practice specifically because it has been simplified over the years. Many of those who practise tai chi on a daily basis would not be involved in the art at all if they were required to train like their predecessors.

The benefits of tai chi are so great and broad, that even mediocre teachers can have a lasting positive effect on their students, and even mediocre students can experience life prolonging effects.

Even a mere echo of the original music can be a joy to the ear.

The danger, of course, is that the mysterious and profound skills of the famous masters may be lost. Or worse, the stories of their extraordinary abilities, in the absence of current examples, may be attributed entirely to hyperbole, mythology, or marketing by ambitious teachers.

Hyperbole and mythology are certainly a part of most traditions, and tai chi is no exception. However, to label all of the stories as fiction would be a terrible mistake. There are still masters alive today who can demonstrate much of the seemingly magical skills mentioned in the old stories. I have personally experienced, first hand, the incredible power and subtle methods of some of these masters, both men and women, who have blessed me with demonstrations of what the human body and mind are capable.

I remember reading “Moving Zen” by C.W. Nicol, in which the author describes meeting the master, Wang Shujin. The master was sending high ranking karateka across a room with a simple one-handed push that looked “ gentle as the waking movements of a child.” I heard many similar stories about tai chi masters, but did not experience such power until after I had been pursuing the art myself for more than ten years.

Incredibly, the first reaction to being propelled across a room by an old woman half my size was disbelief. The impact with the wall was barely enough proof of what had happened. My skepticism was compounded by the fact that I had felt no pressure or force that I thought would have been necessary to transfer such momentum into my body. The push, such as it was, did not knock the wind out of my body, yet I was propelled so quickly that my feet were several inches above the floor when I hit the wall.

Even with this direct experience, and others like it over the years, I could not quite understand how it was done, or how to duplicate it. I could almost forgive myself for suspecting that my teachers were hiding something from me, but this theory was put to rest when I heard my teacher say the words, “I think you can do it however you like.”

I had heard these words before, in response to my technical questions about the correct way to practise. It wasn’t until I heard him say it to another student that I was able to read the subtext in his response. He was saying, “It doesn’t matter how you do it because you don’t practise enough for it to make any difference.”

I was stunned, and humbled. He had said these words to me countless times over the years, but I had not interpreted them correctly. Even when I figured it out, I was unable to devote enough time to the correct practice.

It is not that tai chi requires more devotion than other sports. The fact is that one can achieve high levels of skill quite quickly if one practises correctly. The problem with tai chi is that students seldom believe in the importance of the solo routines. Athletes are accustomed to feeling a sense of accomplishment with the tearing of muscles in a weight room, or from the exhaustion of a 10 km run, or from an hour of grappling with an opponent. Few will be convinced that relaxing the waist, hips, and shoulders for 20 minutes can have as much benefit as lifting free weights for the same length of time.

Achieving the type of internal power that made tai chi famous requires more than building muscle. It requires the gradual and dynamic restructuring of the body. It requires forging a relationship between thought, emotion, posture, movement, and gravity. It requires the cultivation of natural instinct, and the liberation from the typical emotional responses that flesh is heir to.

Tai chi power requires that we teach the body a whole new way of thinking, and that we teach the mind that it cannot achieve ease through brute force.

In the development of my personal understanding of the nature of tai chi power, I have tried to follow the instructions of many of the world’s greatest masters. I have devoted myself to full-time teaching and training. I have attended seminars, conferences and tournaments. I have had my butt kicked by students and masters of all levels as I tried various strategies, techniques and methods. I have made friends with proponents of almost every martial art I have ever heard of, and crossed hands with them as often as possible.

I have also spent a fair amount of time reviewing classical Newtonian physics, and trying to make sense of quantum string theory, working to reconcile them with the mathematical and semantic artistry of Laozi, Zhuangzi, Zeno, and Zarathustra.

Every few months I have another breakthrough in my understanding and in my ability. This is usually followed by a revelatory whuppin’ by one of my own students.

What it comes down to, after more than three decades of research, is that my teacher was correct. I don’t practice enough. However, I now have a new understanding of the mechanics and psychology of tai chi power. I can now describe to myself and others how it works. More importantly, I can also rationalize to my intellect and to my emotional mind that they should let me practise more.
- Ian Sinclair


The Centre is the Thing in the Middle (From the original series)

Tai Chi Basics: Lesson 4

~ The Centre is the Thing in the Middle

The key to high level martial skill is in the understanding of yin and yang, and the nature of qi.

Tai chi teachers and students will easily acknowledge the importance of being "centred". But how many of them really understand what that means.
In tai chi, the word centre does not mean the same thing that it does when we talk about donuts. It is not a space or a creamy filling.

The centre is the thing in the middle. Sure, that makes so much sense that it is a bit of a joke. But what is it in the middle of?

The centre of gravity is not necessarily the geographical centre of an object, nor is it the exact geographical centre of the human body. In tai chi the word centre refers also to the mental and emotional centre, as well as the centre of the person's position in the universe. One must relate the centre to so many different frames of reference that it might be impossible to define. That is, unless we can find a common denominator for all of those different frames of reference - a unified field, if you will.

When tai chi theory becomes impossibly complex, it serves us well to return to the absolute basics of tai chi theory. For us, that is the understanding of yin and yang. The centre, therefore is between yin and yang. Look at it this way, and you may find that you can make sense of some of the most challenging concept in philosophy and science, such as the nature of our relationship to space/time, and the true nature of qi and energy.


"Don't Use Force, Luke" - Using the mind and not force. (From the original series)

Lesson 1

"Don't Use Force, Luke"

- Using the mind and not force.

On of the most important rules of tai chi the one stating that one should use the mind and not force. This rule is also one of the least observed. One of the reasons for this is that few tai chi students have been taught to believe that it is actually possible.

Another reason is that few tai chi teachers spend the time and effort to give the students an idea of what "using the mind and not force" feels like.
Once the student has experienced the sensation, it becomes possible to seek that feeling in the solo practice of the tai chi forms and standing meditation. This feeling can then be applied to two person exercises such as tuishou and sanshou.

When one finally gets to feel just how relaxed can be while still maintaining proper structure and alignment, a whole new world opens up.


F.A.C.T. Demo : An overview of Internal Martial Arts - Tai Chi, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang (From the original series)

F.A.C.T. Demo

  • (Introduction to the Internal Arts of Tai Chi, Xingyiquan, and Baguazhang at the Fighting Arts Collective of Toronto)
  • Delivered in 2005

I have seldom had more fun than when giving a demo at the Fighting Arts Collective of Toronto.

This is a group of martial artists to whom "martial arts supplies" include: a functional trebuchet, a coffin, a brewmaster, plus armour and weaponry from 10 different centuries. These are not mere weekend warriors playing at being knights. These are serious martial artist with an ancient and comprehensive martial art with a lineage that can be traced back to the 12th century.

And as with all serious martial artists who really know their stuff, they are friendly, good-natured, helpful, and open minded.
How often do you get to hang out with people like that?

Check them out at

Power like a whip (From the Original Series)

Tai Chi Basics: Lesson 2

- Power like a whip

Tai chi teachers and the classic literature often speak of the power of tai chi being "like a whip."
This does not mean, however that the movement is like a bullwhip. Some chinese whips are actually quite rigid, and do not create a wave-like motion when they are used.

The power of a whip comes from its ability to efficiently transfer the momentum of a large mass into a small mass. This creates an acceleration of the smaller mass in accordance with the law of conservation of momentum.

When you hear the crack of a whip, you are hearing a sonic boom. This is created when the momentum from the heavy base of the whip is transferred into the much lighter tip of the whip. Momentum equals mass time velocity (p=mv). So, when the momentum is transferred to the smaller mass, the latter must increase velocity in order to conserve the momentum.

This is what happens in tai chi. The alignment of the tai chi expert conserves momentum in such a way that the mass of the body, and some of the earth is focused in a relatively small target, such as a head or a rib. This causes the target to accelerate at a troubling rate, even though the body of the striker does not move very fast at all.

This can also be called "Using slowness to achieve speed."


Relaxation is not for wimps! (From the original series)

Tai Chi Basics: Lesson 3
~ Relaxation is not for wimps!

Martial artists and athletes from other schools may sometimes look at the relaxed movements of tai chi and assume that because the movements are relaxed, that they are less physically challenging.

That is why it is so entertaining for tai chi teachers to educate athletes such as weight lifters, football (and soccer) players, triathletes, and martial artists from other styles about the true nature of relaxation. These athletes usually feel it the next day, and are quite surprised to find that tai chi can provide such an incredible workout.

When one relaxes thoroughly, the entire body is coordinated in a way that takes all of the normal stress and pressure off of the joints and smaller muscle groups. The pressure is taken off of the bones and disks in the spine as well. This allows the waist to move more easily and allows breathing to be deep, relaxed and efficient.

But when one takes all of that pressure off of the joints and smaller muscle groups, where does it go? It does not just dissipate into the ground. No, it settles into the thighs. When one is perfectly balanced and relaxed, three quarters of the quadriceps take on 99% of the work of holding the body up. And since this type of lactic anaerobic exercise is so rare in modern culture, the eyes of even the most seasoned athletes may go wide in amazement when their thighs being shaking. And those same athletes may feel a need to push themselves in the first class, partly because they are ashamed that something as simple as standing still can be so difficult. The next day, those same athletes may have difficulty walking up and down stairs.
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