Saturday, September 27, 2014

Taiji Silk Reeling Exercise ( Chansigong )

Taiji Silk Reeling Exercise ( Chansigong )

Is It The Ultimate Basic Exercise For All Martial Artists As Well As Chen Taiji’s Best Kept Secret?





Chen Style Taiji has a unique method of teaching basics to beginners by using a drill known as silk reeling. The drill named for its resemblance to the smooth, circular and spiraling movements of the silk worm larva wrapping itself up in to its cocoon as well as the equally smooth method often associated with an individual unraveling the cocoon for the extraction of the silk thread (used in the production of silk). However the continued practice of this basic drill evolves into a much more sophisticated exercise. It evolves into a means for uncovering deeper and more refined layers of understanding pertaining to advanced body movement and breath control. Even the most accomplished practitioner will benefit from this silk reeling.  



Over the past 45 years or so I have spent  more than a substantial amount of time dedicating myself to a few specific arts (a decade plus for most and over two decades with Taiji ). I have also invested shorter, but equally intense durations in a multitude of other arts searching for additional points of view and bare essentials. I am a firm believer in building from the ground up and never under estimate the value of what I first learn at the early stages of training (and how I can build on that solid platform).  I have applied this philosophy in other pieces of my personal wellness program such as meditation, nutrition, strength and endurance training as well as life itself.  As much as I do love the traditions associated with martial arts, I have made that a secondary aspect of my practice. I have tried not to become blinded by those traditions at the cost of practicality. I do remain aware of the fact that they do hold their place and are essential in fully understanding any particular martial discipline regarding where the art came from, how and why it evolved the way in which it did.  Two important things to remember: All martial arts evolve over time and for good reasons. One being the need to adapt to new environments secondly no two individuals are exactly the same.  Once the practitioner comprehends these points through diligent practice they too can evolve as a martial artist. Harmoniously blending principles together when possible (even if from different arts) to attain a higher level of proficiency has been done throughout martial art history and continues to do so. 

Martial arts are not about cloning forms from master to student. Success is based on the proper transmission of principles and how they apply to each individual.

Keep in mind my most comfortable shoes will never fit anyone else exactly the way they fit me and some people won’t even be able to get their feet inside to see what they feel like. It would be useless to spend time trying to make them fit if they were either too small or too large. That does not mean every movement or technique the individual learns in conjunction with a specific martial art should be avoided at the first sign of a challenge.  But do remember, for many reasons not every aspect of every art is one-hundred percent suitable for everyone and must sometimes be modified to suit the individual’s needs. The needs for modifications may be based on many factors. To name a few such as environment, age, previous injuries and realistically speaking genetics related to size and strength as well as skeletal structure, muscles, tendons and ligament insertion regarding the skeletal system etc…. That being said many martial art principles do remain universal, but the applications of those principles may require some adjustments.


What does this have to do with the title of this article and “Silk Reeling”?  Simply put, silk reeling is by far the most basic yet important training method I have ever engaged in. It is applicable to every martial art I have ever practiced as well as any movement your body performs (or breath you take) under both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances. It also possesses equal significance associated to an individual’s health and longevity.  I have already mentioned the importance of basics, but one must realize that even previously reliable basics may become counterproductive or even corrosive to our body and our health if not adjusted properly to conditions such as aging, injuries etc…. What was correct and natural for me yesterday, may not be correct and natural for me tomorrow or today for that matter. From the highly athletic to the extreme elderly silk reeling requires but a minor modification if any and can be done in a standing or seated position.   If any exercise can stand (or sit) the test of time both through the history of a martial art and the history of an individual’s life, Silk Reeling is it.


What is silk reeling?

It is Chen Taji’s method of tempering the body for the most efficient and productive movement possible. This exercise ordinarily follows standing pole  (zhang zhaung) practice.  Based on Yin and Yang it uses spiraling and circular body motion, related to ligament, tendons, muscle, skeletal structure as well as all joints of the body (in a simultaneous or sequential fashion). Proper alignment and center awareness with minimal amount of tension throughout the body and mind are essential.

Secondly but equally important is the breath coordinated with all movement as related to the Traditional Chinese Medicine theory of Jingluo (qi circulating  throughout the body ).  

Thirdly it prepares the student on movements easily transferable to the Taiji forms. Forms which consist of both slow and fast as well as empty hand, weapons and two man push hands practice. All the above which lead to self defense applications and free style fighting such as Sanda.


However silk reeling can also be practiced as a standalone exercise for any martial artist (not only Taiji players) or individual of any age and any condition seeking to improve overall health.  Therein lies the beauty and uniqueness of silk reeling.    


The end results from the martial perspective is the development of an extreme sensitivity in reading an opponent as well as a keen sense of awareness as to where the bodies boundaries are.  Additional skills learnt from silk reeling, defensively allows the Taiji player to lead the opponent in to being off centered and in the wrong place while you remain centered in right place. That set of circumstances lends to allowing the Taiji player to capitalize on the opponent’s weaknesses before they can readjust and regain their center of balance and consider defending. In other words the trained opponent is temporarily unable to use their honed skills and becomes vulnerable while the Taiji player possesses the superior position to counterattack.  These counters are a versatile arsenal of strikes with a variety of body parts,  joint-locks, sweeps, take-downs as well as submissions  (all of which are based on the mechanics of silk reeling) to control the attacker.


From the health perspective the body’s immune system is enhanced as well as improved balance, coordination, neurological strength from brain to muscle and physical strength. Perhaps most importance is its ability to relieve stress. Silk reeling utilizes the theory of qi circulation mentioned above. It creates an internal flow of qi and helps promotes overall health.  All above being prerequisites for maintaining quality of life for any ages. 


The silk reeling routine uses a variety of single and two arm circular motions. These circles engage use of the entire body and all of its joints likened to the moving parts of a well designed Swiss watch. Any movement is a sum of all of the body’s parts without the over extending of any. Arm circle combinations cover almost every imaginable combination of clockwise and counter clockwise circles. They are also done

from a variety of positions such as horse, bow and empty stances.  If the practitioner places an overabundance of attention to either Yin or Yang an imbalance will occur.



 (Below 19th Gen Grand Master Zhu Tiancai demonstrating single arm silk reeling)


                         Above - Hand/wrist rotating away from center                      

   Above -  Hand/wrist rotating towards center


The hand/wrist rotating outward is referred to as a Ni circle.

The hand/wrist rotating inward towards center is referred to as a Shun circle

Two other important characteristics of the hand/wrist are a rising wrist and sinking wrist. These four movements are combined and form the visible circular path.

Keep in mind that these movements come from a proper rooted, but relaxed position. By pushing off the ground which drives the turning of the waist and rotation of the dantain transfering the energy upward through the upper body, shoulder, elbow and hand. The process continues (without stopping) reversing the energy flow back to the dantian and repeats itself in a circular, spiraling, relaxed fashion (repetitiously).  



(Above 19th Gen Grand Master Zhu Tiancai with author demonstrating                         
  various two arm silk reeling combinations)



 For those interested in primarily the health aspect they need not practice the countless adaptations of these circles.

 For martial artists in the advanced stages the circle can become small in nature. (Sometimes invisible, but still present.)  They should be performed at different speeds while still keeping the body properly aligned and always maintaining a good awareness of one’s center without over extending in any direction. The transitions related to the stances offer training in foot-work that will later become essential for the martial artist in a free style environment. The Taiji martial artist will learn how to defend every angle from any angle. The circles will vary in size training the practitioner in both defense and offense against all attack styles from strikes, grappling and joint-locks.  Circles although resembling blocks from other styles are designed more for deflection and leading an opponent in to a sense of disarray regarding their balance  as opposed to meeting the direct impact of a strike head on.  Silk reeling eventually graduates in to a two man drill (known as push-hands) where timing and position as well as reading an opponent are practiced.  As in many arts timing and position are key, but perhaps Taiji takes them to an even more articulate level. This training enhances those principles.

 The Taiji practitioners gains experience in relaxing the body’s unused muscle, ligaments and tendons and conservative use of those needed to maintain balance or engage in any specific tasks or movements. This creates quite the challenge for an opponent to employ joint-locks, strikes and throws successfully. It is this same relaxed body that allows the Taiji player to release an extraordinary amount of power in any directions when striking out at an opponent. Strikes are usually short and non-telegraphic in nature but none the less quite explosive. As another means of defense the smaller circles are equally effective at both reversal of joint locks when attempted by the opponent as well as joint locking the opponent for submission or inflicting more intense damage to their joints.   More detailed explanations of Taiji principles are explained in my Demystifying Taiji articles. If you dismiss Taiji training as a strictly senior citizen activity you ought to reinvestigate this art at a traditional training facility.

Having the ability to move your body is not unique. Having the skill to move your body and perform at peak efficiency the way in which it was intended is.  

And that is a product of Silk Reeling.




19th Generation Chen Family Grand Master Zhu Tiancai’s




1   Sink (relax the kua)

2   Shift  (substantial and insubstantial )

3   Rotation (turning of the waist)

4   Coordinate Upper Body Movement

5   Coordinate Breath



If you are interested in learning more about silk reeling and how it can enhance your own martial skills or add better health to your life regardless of your condition contact me.

Steve Contes



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About the author/Steve Contes: A practicing martial artist for over 45 years (presently a full-time Chen Taijiquan  Instructor) and researcher of philosophy and health from around the world, old and new. He also promotes seminars both here in the states as well as in Chen Jiagou (Chen Village) Henan, China with some of the world’s leading authorities on Chen Taijiquan.  Training tours throughout China are also available.


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