By: Robert Tangora
The Internal Structure of Cloud Hands
A Gateway to Advanced T'ai Chi Practice
by Robert Tangora
(Blue Snake Books, 2012, 142 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Most Category III Tai Chi books try to break down and closely examine the dynamics of body movement, energy flow, and other aspects of Tai Chi by looking at the broader picture. These are the astronomers, gazing with telescopes into the macro structure of the universe. And then there are the rare ones, like The Internal Structure of Cloud Hands by Robert Tangora, that are just the opposite. In these, the authors gaze with microscopes into the finer and more hidden details of the art.
The focus in this book, obviously, is very sharp. In fact, it could be said to be almost infinitely fine because the actual subject is what is commonly called Central Equilibrium, which the author usually refers to by its Chinese term: “zhong ding.” He also delves into what he terms cross-body power and left/right alignment or joint power to help explicate zhong ding power. He accomplishes this by concentrating on a single movement from the Tai Chi form. From the introduction:
Of the thirteen postures in the T’ai Chi Classics, Cloud Hands is the stepping method of zhong ding. This stepping method is the fundamental stepping method in t’ai chi ch’uan because it embodies the internal process of stepping, turning, and weight shifting regardless of the direction of the step…. Thus, Cloud Hands is a paradigm for the internal symmetry in t’ai chi ch’uan through the hidden relationship between the stepping method, the changes of nei chin, and cross-body power.
I'll deal with the problem with this statement before moving on to praise. Tangora refers to Cloud Hands as one of the Thirteen Postures of the Tai Chi Classics, conflating it with Central Equilibrium, but this is manifestly not so. The Thirteen Postures are: Five Steps (Central Equilibrium, Step Left, Step Right, Step Forward, Step Backward), four principal energies (Ward Off, Rollback, Press, Push), and four ancillary energies (Shoulder Strike, Elbow Strike, Split, and Pull/Pluck), and I don't see Cloud Hands among them. Although there are a few nearly pure expressions of the four principal energies within the form—including Central Equilibrium, most Tai Chi movements combine multiples of these thirteen "postures." In my parsing, Cloud Hands employs three: Rollback, Ward Off, and Step Left (or Right if you're doing a lefthand form). Some readers might think I'm nitpicking here, but just as it's important not to slur your movements while performing the Tai Chi form, it's also important not to slur your ideas when discussing Tai Chi—or anything else.
Aside from this one gaffe, this book is top-notch. Most of the text throughout is an extended discussion, explanation, and expansion of the concepts referred to in the quote above. Along the way, Tangora presents a number of practical exercises—primarily chi kungs—to empower one’s awareness of zhong ding and to energize movements surrounding it. There are plenty of diagrams and photos to illustrate the exercises and other important points. The purpose, Tangora stresses, is to refine one’s awareness of zhong ding in such a way that the “radius” of one’s central equilibrium shrinks to, ideally, an infinitesimally small axis. The smaller the axis of rotation, the more effective your Tai Chi will be, regardless of your purpose in practicing.
Related subjects that are covered include a discussion of the proper functioning of the waist and legs, bouncing to initiate the vertical component of cross-body power, and the basic zhong ding stepping method. Next is a chapter on left and right alignments in cloud hands, which includes the concept of opening and closing the body or various body parts and how the jin changes during cloud hands and with the weight shifts
Harmonizing cross-body power and left/right alignment power is the subject of the next chapter, which focuses on twisting and spiraling, including reeling silk energy. Opening and closing the lower body and stepping are briefly covered next, leading into an informative chapter on Tai Chi’s bow energy.
Rooting is discussed in the next chapter, and following that, is a chapter on rolling the chi energy ball. I’ve found that this is one of the quickest ways to get beginners to feel chi energy. After that are chapters on zhong ding energy, spinal alignment, and how energy spirals through the Cloud Hands movements. A chapter on song—that special Tai Chi term that denotes relaxation, sinking, and so much more—includes practical observations on how to motivate internal energy movement with the mind.
This leads naturally into a chapter on the internal separation of yin and yang, and that into a chapter on harmonizing the three components of internal power in Cloud Hands. Storing and projecting internal power, methods for training internal power, mental control over zhong ding, and the four major jin (Ward Off, Roll Back, Press, and Push) occupy the final three chapters.
This is a shortish book, but it’s packed with important information. The target audience is the intermediate and advanced student rather than the beginner. This isn’t to say that beginners can’t gain something useful from it, but in my experience, beginners, who are still struggling to perform the form correctly, are not ready to appreciate some of the more refined aspects of Tai Chi. Not until, that is, they’ve settled into the basic movement patterns and can then turn their awareness to the inner workings of the body as it goes through the postures.
Tangora suggests that practitioners of other movement, healing, and martial arts also can benefit from what he has to say in this book. I think he’s right, but I have to say that he is not as polished or conversational a writer as some of the other authors of excellent books on Tai Chi. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get his point across. He does, and the information is helpful as well as solid.
In addition, I really appreciate the way he focuses on one aspect of Tai Chi, and uses that to open up the entire art. Tai Chi is like that. The longer you practice, the more the intellectual aspects increase along with the physical and energetic. The Internal Structure of Cloud Hands exhibits depth, subtlety, and insight, and it does so in a way that few Tai Chi books have, to date. Perhaps Tangora has helped generate a new sort of Tai Chi book: the intense-focus type as opposed to the broad survey or thorough mapping. If so, I’m looking forward to more of this sort of thing from him—and from others.