How to feel the essence of tai chi, in practice?

I started to be interested in understanding the essence of tai chi after practicing tai chi quan for some months.

Tai chi quan is a movement sequence (practice) following the principles of tai chi (philosophy). But nowadays we usually use the word tai chi to refer to the physical practice tai chi quan.

Tai chi writes 太極 in Chinese. 太 (pinyin: tài) means “too much”, or “the most”. 極 (jí) means “extreme”. Tai chi literally means extremes, differentiations, or contrast.

The essence of tai chi: from oneness to yin and yang

The essence of tai chi lies in this symbol. I found an interesting interpretation from Keven Hu1. The author is a practitioner of Dao Chinese Medicine.

Accordingly to Hu’s interpretation, the outer circle means the oneness 一 (yī). It means the origin of everything.

A big S divides the oneness into two parts. Yin 陰 (yīn), and yang 陽 (yáng).

In this symbol, yin and yang are presented in the shape of fish. The black fish is a yin fish, and the white fish is a yang fish.

The yin fish has a white eye, a yang eye. This means yin contains yang, so that yin never exists alone. Similarly, the yang fish contains a black eye, or a yin eye. This means that yang contains yin, and there is no yang in solitary.

The head of the yin fish, where yin is the most abundant, is adjacent to the tail of the yang fish. Similarly, the head of the yang fish connects to the tail of the yin fish. This means that when yang reaches its extremity, yin is initiated. That is, when one thing is in its extremity, the opposite arises. The yin and yang fish therefore always depend on each other.

Tai chi is, therefore, always initiated from the oneness. Oneness is also regarded as wu chi 無極. 無 (wú) means “nothing”. 無極 (wújí) literally means “no extremes”.

Therefore, in the world of Daoism, we often hear 無極生太極 (wújí shēng tàijí), meaning wu chi gives birth to tai chi. 生 (shēng) means “to produce”, “to give birth”.

Experiencing physically the essence of tai chi

My recent learning of tai chi quan also teaches me how tai chi emerges from wu chi.

When we practice tai chi quan, there is one preparatory gesture before we start to do the movements. In this gesture, we stand on both feet, while putting the same weight on both feet. At this time, we focus fully inward on the sensations of our body.

This gesture is called guan wu chi 觀無極 (guān wújí). 觀 (guān), “to observe”.

Guan wu chi means to observe the oneness. Here in this gesture, it means to observe the self. At this moment, the body is in its original form without any intention.

When we start the first movement of tai chi quan by shifting the weight of the body to the right foot, tai chi emerges. It is because we create a differentiation in the body.

In the following movements, we continuously shift the weight between the left and right feet. We move forward and backward, we raise the arms and lower them down.

Tai chi quan to me is an infinite journey between yin and yang.

The essence of tai chi, in our daily lives

I also see that tai chi emerges from wu chi whenever we initiate anything in our daily lives. A thought. A desire. A movement.

When we initiate something, we start to push something forward to make it happen. At the same time, it can face the opposite force. In this sense, life always seems to bounce between forward and backward, experiences between hardness and looseness, travels between ups and downs.

Hence, at the status of the oneness, there is no intention. Once we initiate something, yin and yang emerge. The essence of tai chi lies in this symbol, and I realize it through practicing tai chi and applying the philosophy to my daily life.


1. Hu K. The celestial secrets of real traditional chinese medicine. Suncolor, Taipei (Chinese version). 2020.

Writting by Hsiao, editing by Lénaïc.

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