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Teaching Tai Chi Layer by Layer to Minimize Frustration

Teaching Tai Chi Layer by Layer to Minimize Frustration

Bill Gallagher PT, CMT, CYT

Teaching Tai Chi Form, Layer by Layer

By Bill Gallagher, PT, CMT, CYT

If you have ever observed or studied tai chi chuan (a.k.a. Taijiquan), you have a sense of how overwhelming it can be to learn. If someone with a (relatively) able body and intact intellect can find this discipline so difficult to understand, how could it be taught to a person with pain, poor balance or cognitive impairments? I find that teaching Taijiquan and martial Qigong is facilitated by breaking the details down into layers. Rather than presenting overwhelming detail, it makes sense to gradually add, layer by layer, the elements of posture and movement. Depending on the client’s cognitive and physical issues, it may make sense to focus on only a subset of these elements. Multiple layers may be worked on in one session to avoid frustration and boredom. In the Taijiquan form and its associated Qigong, these elements are coordinated and connected in a complex arrangement. This is not meant to be an exhaustive description of all of the elements of Taijiquan, but rather a simplified explanation for the clinician with minimal knowledge of Taijiquan and Qigong. I have found this method of progression to be ideal for teaching Taijiquan to both other rehabilitation professionals and to clients with pain and physical disability.


Layer one is the diaphragmatic breathing pattern. If not already present, this breathing pattern is taught in supine with the knees bent and feet flat on a bed or plinth. Pelvic floor awareness is encouraged by cueing, to attend and gently increase pelvic floor movement in tandem with the diaphragm. Next, the standing stake posture is used to teach the postural element. While the position of the extremities changes while performing the dynamic Taijiquan form, the client is instructed to maintain these essential alignment and postural corrections. The next layer is the characteristic slow stepping and gradual weight shift. I use the image of “pouring” the weight into the leg that the shift is occurring toward, rather than “dumping” the weight onto that foot. The fourth layer I teach is the coordination of the pelvic rotation, with rotation of the thorax and upper extremity in the transverse plane. This connection is instructed using a Qigong exercise called “Sword Hand” that isolates this coordination.

The point of the fifth layer is to connect layer four (connection of pelvic, thorax and arm movement in transverse plane) with part of the third layer (slow weight shift). The pelvis and thorax rotate toward the leg that the weight is shifted toward. The weight shift is not completed until the rotation is completed, and the rotation is not completed until the weight shift is complete. The hip rotators drive rotation of the pelvis, which in turn drives rotation of the thorax, which in turn drives upper extremity movement in the transverse plane. The sixth and final layer of this scheme is to add the slow stepping, which was practiced in layer three, back into the movement.

Movement Sequence

Knee alignment in the sagital and frontal plane is emphasized, as the movements themselves and the cue to “relax” may encourage foot hyper-pronation and knee valgus if taught incorrectly. This tendency can be exacerbated by shoes (like Chinese rope soled slippers) that provide no arch support. The form is initially taught in a “square” manner, to emphasize the correct sequence of movements. Once the above connections are formed and the basic movement sequencing is understood, the “square” edges are eliminated to give the form its characteristic smoothness and circularity. At any point in the above progression (early on is best), stance testing may be used to enhance rooting. Rooting, a common concept in Chinese internal martial arts, is the ability to connect with the ground in a way that enhances balance and ability to adapt efficiently to self-generated and external perturbations. The instructor, at first very gently and slowly, pushes or leans on the client (who is in one of the Taijiquan or Qigong static postures), to elicit a postural adaptation. The client is cued to “let the force go through the body and into the ground” and to “avoid pushing back.” This stance testing is used to help them acquire this skill, by demonstrating how much more difficulty the client has absorbing this perturbation if the postural alignment is incorrect. “Push hands” is a more advanced exercise that expands this idea of testing the “root” to a dynamic condition. Throughout the layers presented above, the client is taught, using verbal and tactile cues, to minimize unnecessary muscle tension and to maintain mental focus on the body, connection to the ground and gentle but powerful movement. The learner is instructed to “play” with, rather than “work on” each layer and its connection to other layers.

I often examine my clients’ self-deprecating statements regarding their own performance and aptitude (because I understand that everyone feels at least a bit klutzy). Rather than focusing on the achievement of perfection, students of Taijiquan should be encouraged to focus on the process of learning the movement patterns. Independent practice will likely be buoyed by this process-oriented approach as well as by my own enthusiasm for Taijiquan. My enthusiasm for this venerable art stems from the benefits that I have experienced, the clinical benefit that I have observed and the breadth and depth of the evidence base in the scientific literature.


Gallagher, B. (2003). Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong: Physical and mental practice for functional mobility. Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation, 19(3), 172-182.