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Tai Chi, Fascia and Whole-Body Movement

(Fascia image courtesy of EndovivoProductions)

We are pleased to share another blog post written by Sam Moor, teacher of Chen Tai Chi. A key outcome of Sam’s research into fascia and its role in human movement is an appreciation of the value of a ‘contemporary and scientific approach to anatomy and movement’.

As I mentioned before, my partner is a specialist in conservation and ecology which is great because I am always keen to learn more about wildlife and nature. In particular I am consistently fascinated at how all of Earth’s inhabitants, from the tiniest of bacteria to the biggest of mammals, are inextricably linked through one vast ecological web. When running nature workshops for children my partner often illustrates this by building a working model of an ecological web using many bits of twine. All of the children assist with the construction; each tentatively holds their own a piece of string which represents some aspect of, or creature from, the natural world. All the threads are then tied together to form a delicate web and thus the many facets of our ecology are visibly connected and the constant but gentle pressure of the integrated structure is felt by each individual. Pull on a thread in one particular place and the rest of the web will move to compensate, the change in pressure felt by all. Sever a thread and the integrity of the entire structure is compromised; the web collapses. Each separate part affects the whole. Indeed the model illustrates that there are not really any separate parts. It is just our limited perception, experience and understanding that creates such divisions. It is the same with the human body:

“Fascia forms a continuous tensional network throughout the human body, covering and connecting every single organ, every muscle, and even every nerve fibre.” (1)

Research into the role of fascia as an effective means of understanding the physical reality of the body is still a recent thing but is rapidly gaining much credence in the realms of musculoskeletal and movement therapies and sports science. For practitioners and teachers of Internal Martial Arts it is really worth looking at and acquiring an idea of the basics, which I will briefly outline here, for there are some stunning similarities between them and perhaps you will be able to observe some correlations in your own training.(2) The fact that the human body moves and functions as a single unit, so well illustrated by research into fascia, forms the core principle of Tai Chi and vastly contributes to its efficacy in improving health and optimising all bodily functions. To have this as the key premise for how one trains makes more sense than many other approaches for when a system is integrated it will be optimal, adaptive and harmonious in its functioning (3): “From one principle come ten thousand movements” (4)

So what is fascia? Fascia is primarily made up of densely packed collagen fibres that comprise an integrated system of sheets, chords and bags that permeate the human body in its entirety. This three dimensional fascial web is jam packed with mechanoreceptors and essentially forms a ‘global’ sensory organ which richly communicates where we are in space, what are bodies are doing and how they are doing it. Fascia is elastic in nature and exhibits this quality even more so when in good condition facilitating connected and fluid movement. It responds to the continuous force of gravity around which it organises bodily structure and function; if you can imagine wearing an elasticated wet-suit that permeates your body entirely, adapted and yet ever adaptive to how you most commonly use your body then this may give you some idea of this incredible stuff. To extend out a limb results in a corresponding stretch across the whole fascial ‘body-suit’ priming the body to recoil in one elastic and fluid motion. Whether we run, jump, walk or do Tai Chi a large part of the energy of that movement comes from the elastic recoil and spring-like properties of fascia. Similarly, the Tai Chi classics state that: “When storing energy it is like a drawing a bow, when releasing energy it is like shooting an arrow.” (5)

Incredibly, it has been discovered that the fascia of humans has a similar kinetic storage capacity to that of Kangaroos! (6) Fascia has long been ignored until recent years being seen only as a kind of unimportant bulking agent of the body. However, anyone deeply engaged with any kind of movement practise who has developed the above-average level of body-awareness necessary to do so is likely to agree that the usually favoured isolated muscle presentation as the be all and end all of movement anatomy leaves much to be desired. While some may find it intellectually pleasing to categorise and separate the human body, its actions and functions into disparate bits, it in fact operates and is organised as a unit of function; an integrated whole. (7) The human being grows organically from a single egg and so from conception to expiration this single unit operates inextricably. (8) Separating movement into discrete functions fails to provide an accurate or useful picture of the seamless integration and responsiveness seen in and experienced by a living body. Fortunately, fascia is here to fill the gap:

“…that the complexity of human movement and stability can be derived by summing up the action of these individual muscles is a naive and reductionist conviction.” (9)

The general consensus has been to think of only one or two muscles participating in any given movement but no matter how common this misconception may be the reality is that any movement is essentially a whole-body movement. For movement is not simply the mere coordinated bending of separate hinges but instead expansion, repositioning and contraction of the tensegrity of the body as a whole via the fascial web. (10) So the Tai Chi classics are certainly on to something when they tell us that if one part moves, the whole body responds. (11) At school we learn to intellectually divide the body into the skeletal, muscular, nervous and circulatory systems etc but the only tissue that can facilitate the integrated responsiveness humans possess is fascia.(12) This ‘living matrix’ is in fact the most abundant component of human matter and forms the bulk of the human body and as such is probably worth paying some attention to. The overall form of the body, as well as the architecture, mechanical and functional properties of all its parts, are largely determined by the configuration and properties of fascia. (13) For example, we have long assumed that the skeletal system holds the body up and that our muscles hang off the skeleton and that specific muscles move the bones in isolation. In reality however, bones float in a three dimensional mass of soft-tissues, their positions determined by the tensional balance or tensegrity of the entire fascial web and thus it is this web that actually comprises our body structure. It is mainly due to our lack of body awareness and superficial intellectual understanding of movement that we do not experience the body in this way. A body that exhibited tensegrity in an optimal way would be tensionally balanced in all directions under the reliable and constant pressure of gravity. The Tai Chi classics point to this when they say that in our training we should seek “No hollows and no protuberances. No deficiencies, no excess” (14)

This concept of Tensegrity also known as Biotensegrity (15) is a phrase coined by the designer R. Buckminster Fuller. Tensegrity structures, such as the human body, distribute forces and movement throughout the system via the spring-like fascial web rather than being dealt with locally as they are in lever systems:

“The word ‘tensegrity’ is an invention: a contraction of ‘tensional integrity’. Tensegrity describes a structural-relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviours of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviours. Tensegrity provides the ability to yield increasingly without ultimately breaking or coming asunder” – R. Buckminster Fuller (16)

The classics suggest that through Tai Chi training our bodies can be so well tuned in this way that even a fly alighting should set the whole body in motion. (17) Tensegrity reverses the centuries-old concept that the skeleton is a frame upon which soft-tissue is draped and replaces it with an integrated fascial fabric with floating compression elements enmeshed within the interstices of tensional elements. (18) One feature of this fascial body structure is that it never stops adapting to how we use it most; the body has a great capacity for structural change at any age so we always can keep learning and improving. (19)

Tai Chi to me is the science of human movement and being. Through the process of our training we seek to discover and develop ‘global’ or whole–body awareness, connection and movement that is balanced, organised and integrated through the centre of the body. Learning about fascia can help us achieve this, but of course just having an intellectual understanding will not suffice. First to actually discover a direct sense of this whole-body connection and movement and then to augment what occurs naturally is our ongoing aim. Even in the warm-ups and basic exercises that beginners often find so tedious should we look for the simplicity of whole-body integration. Basic movements like warming up specific joints directly relate to the whole, we can find out how by acutely focusing the mind on the physical job in hand firmly cementing the inextricable link between mind and body:

“The skin is no more separated from the brain than a surface of a lake is separate from its depths; the two are different locations in a continuous medium…The brain is a single functional unit, from cortex to fingertips to toes. To touch the surface is to stir the depths.” (20)

A good way that we can discover and develop these principles is whilst training something very simple such as maintaining a standing posture as in Zhanzhuang. The absence of deliberate movement focuses the mind and heightens the senses allowing us to discover and relax the restricted and unfelt areas of our body structure and thus improve our direct sense and functioning of the whole fascial net. With regular practice we can perceive more and start to experience the body as a balanced and connected unit. As we progress to simple movements we see if we can perceive and achieve the same level of integration; do we feel the elasticity that fascia imparts to our movement? From here we progress to training more complicated movements, a form for example, and it is much more difficult to allow the same principles to come to fruition. It is an ongoing process and any deviations that we might discover can be resolved by taking a step back to the preceding basics and ironing out what seem to be current discrepancies:

“Learning Taijiquan means to educate oneself. It is like slowly advancing from primary school to university. As time passes, more and more knowledge is gained. Without the foundations of primary school and secondary school one will not able to follow the seminars at university.” Chen Xiao Wang (21)

The properties of fascia mirror many aspects of how we approach training in Tai Chi and allows us a more contemporary way of understanding what we do. The important point is that not only do we normally fail to understand that the body functions as an integrated unit on an intellectual level but also on an experiential level; surprisingly low levels of body awareness or body-intelligence are the norm in our society, even in the very active. We tend to rely on our arms and hands and it is here that most of our awareness lies. If we were to think of the archetypal image of strength we would probably see an arm with a bulging bicep in our mind’s eye rather than a body in its entirety well connected, balanced and integrated. Remembering that the body moves as one unit, supported by our understanding of fascia, can help us keep on the right track with our training rather than being distracted by what we consider to be separate parts. My research into fascia has yielded much more interesting and realistic results that relate to my own practice and experience than I have encountered in the field of traditional anatomy or TCM. While I am not an expert on such matters, I just have a grasp of the basics, I have found that the parallels with these findings and principles in Internal Martial Arts are not only striking in their similarity but also fascinating. They have been very useful in my own training and teaching as I feel this contemporary and scientific approach to anatomy and movement nicely backs up what we do in Tai Chi and related arts without having to rely on the traditional obscurities. It’s a very different art but I know of a number of established and well respected Yoga teachers who now use fascia as a basis for teaching their art rather than traditional and more abstract concepts and explanations. (22) I think that this can drastically help clear up misunderstandings and more abstract notions about and apparent in Tai Chi and perhaps allow it to be taken more seriously. By making it more understandable and palatable to modern society increasing numbers of people can enjoy the vast benefits of regular practice.

First published in 2013 Autumn edition of Tai Chi Chuan and Oriental Arts Magazine

Sam Moor teaches Chen Tai Chi full time in Sussex.



1. Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body. 2012, Elsevier.
2. An accessible place to start is ‘Anatomy Trains’ by Thomas Myers, Elsevier.
3. Siegal, D. The Mindful Therapist. Norton. 2010
4. Chen Xiawang Yanshi. Chen Family Taijiquan. 2008.
5. Liao, W. Tai Chi Classiscs. Shambala. 2000
6. Sawicki, G. Exercise Sports Science Review.37. 2009
7. Sills, F. Craniosacral Biodynamics. Volume One. North Atlantic Books. 2001
8. Myers, T. In Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body. 2012, Elsevier.
9. Myer, T. Anatomy Trains. 2001. Elsevier.
10. Levin, S and Martin, D, C. In Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body.
11. Liao, W. Tai Chi Classiscs. Shambala. 2000
12. Schultz, R. and Feitis, R. The Endless Web: Fascial Anatomy and Physical Reality. 1996, North Atlantic Books
13. Oschman, J. Energy Medicine in Therapeutics and Human Performance. 2003, Elsevier.
14. Liao, W. Tai Chi Classiscs. Shambala. 2000
15. Check out: http://www.biotensegrity.com
16. Fuller, B. Synergetics. New York: Macmillan. 1975
17. Liao, W. Tai Chi Classiscs. Shambala. 2000
18. Levin, S & Martin, DC. In Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body. 2012, Elsevier.
19. Schultz, R. and Feitis, R.
20. Juhan, D. Job’s Body: A Handbook for Bodywork. 1987, Station Hill Press, NY.
21. Xiaowang, Chen. The Five Levels of Taijiquan. 2012, Singing Dragon.
22. Check out: http://www.naturalbodies.co.uk