Tai Chi that Isn't Tai Chi but Is Tai Chi

Doppler Style Tai Chi

by Christopher Dow


Tai Chi Chuanists generally define their art within the microcosm of their body—or perhaps within a dynamic of their body’s interaction with other bodies. But Tai Chi also closely adheres to broader natural laws. As I’ve shown elsewhere on this site, it’s not much of a stretch to find Tai Chi analogies within universal laws and phenomena. In this essay, we’ll look for Tai Chi principles in what is commonly known as the red shift, although there also is a corresponding blue shift. Together, these two make up the yin and yang of the Doppler Effect.


The Doppler Effect is a phenomena of any energy that propagates through waveforms and produces a spectrum of intensities and frequencies, such as the electromagnetic spectrum or sound. The Doppler Effect is a product of the difference in the relative motion of the observer and the object that produces the waveform. Although, mysteriously, the speed of light is a constant no matter what an observer’s velocity is, waves of light—and other associated energies and particles such as heat, radio waves, microwaves, and so forth—by their very nature, can be both stretched and compressed. They are compressed along the wave's front and stretched along the wave’s wake. (Figure 1)


This elasticity of light waves becomes obvious in the character of light emanating from a star as it is measured by a distant observer. If the star is moving away from the observer, the light will be stretched toward the red and infra-red end of the spectrum, which has a longer wavelength. If the star is moving toward the observer, the light will be compressed toward the blue and ultraviolet end of the spectrum, which has a shorter wavelength. Cosmologists have used measurements of the red shifts of various galaxies to determine that most of them are moving away from the Milky Way, meaning that the universe is expanding. However, there are a few galaxies that are moving toward us for one reason or another, and the light coming from these is compressed, shifting it toward the blue end of the spectrum.


The same phenomenon occurs with any energy that manifests in a waveform, such as sound, which produces the Doppler Effect in a way that is familiar to everybody. As a car approaches a listener, the sound of the engine rapidly rises in pitch, then, as the object passes and moves away from the listener, the engine sound suddenly drops in pitch. Both the increase and the decrease have nothing to do with the actual level of the sound—the volume—which has remained constant, but only with the degree to which the sound wave has been compressed as the car approaches the listener and then stretched as it moves away.



Waveforms can propagate in straight lines or circles. (Click on either image to see the animations.)

Of importance to Tai Chi Chuanists, the Doppler effect is an obvious expression of how a wave of energy can be either compressed or extended. And chi, being an electromagnetic energy that manifests as a waveform, is subject to the possibility of compression and stretching, too. Tai Chi folks call these manifestations fa jing, which can assume the role of yin or yang, depending on its particular mode of expression.


Yang fa jings are compressions of chi. In terms of elasticity, they either bounce or surge outward or squeeze inward. They usually have an element of focus—you’re moving energy outward, with one degree or another of force, often homing in on a point, or squeezing something smaller or concentrating on a relatively small area of the body, even if for the briefest of instants. Interestingly, the compression of the surging chi of fa jing is often accomplished by sending a large wave down a narrowing channel, such as from the torso into an arm, all the way to the hand and fingertips.


This is tantamount to the magnified effect produced by a wave of water washing into an ever-narrowing bay. The low, coastal areas of the country Bangladesh are hit by an enormous number of tropical cyclones and tsunamis for just this reason. They are situated at the focal apex of any tropical storm or wave activity occurring in and around the Bay of Bengal, and woe to those people who find it necessary to inhabit such a region. They are constantly being washed out of their homes—and all too frequently, out of the ken of humankind. Ironically, though, in a sort of otherworldly response to the constant battering of all this yang energy, much of the inland terrain is slowly rising lowlands, which helps dissipate the yang force through gradual, uplifting (curving) redirection.


And this brings us to yin fa jing  which is a stretching of a chi wave. Just as the curving uplift of Bangladesh’s lowlands gradually dissipates the force of cyclones and tsunamis, yin fa jing draws incoming energy into emptiness and diffusion. Or, alternately, instead of the explosion of yang fa jing, yin fa jing is an implosion that pulls or draws irresistibly toward its center. It is gravity, while yang fa jing is the opposite: momentum. And as we all know, stretching—or drawing a single object in opposite directions—produces a negative tension—in some instances an elastic storage of energy, as in a rubber band, in others a sucking sensation, as with a the undertow of a wave. Both are yin, but the former holds yang within the yin, while the latter is solely yin.


In a very real sense, the physical and energetic results of compression and expansion give substance to the statement from the Tai Chi Classics: When I attack, my opponent feels that he cannot retreat, and when he attacks, he feels that he cannot touch me. This is because the energy involved in compression and expansion flow with the movement and affect the opponent’s own energy field, allowing the Tai Chi exponent a measure of control over it.


Furthermore, compression, being the yang version of elasticity, produces heat. Heat and repeated compression can temper materials like metals, refining them into something at once more useful and beautiful. Think of the Japanese sword maker, reheating, refolding, and hammering the metal of the blade as he forges an object of such incredible refinement that it can come alive in the hands of a master swordsman. Just the same, the heat and compressions of chi-building exercises on the body’s psychophysical system produce refinements of the body, mind, internal energy, and spirit that lend positive qualities and greater control to one’s own life. Remember: It’s spiritual alchemy.


Diffusion, on the other hand, produces cold and distance and isolation. Cosmologists, observing the red shifts of distant galaxies, have determined that the universe is expanding at such a rate that it may actually be flying apart. Eventually, the only lights in the night sky will be those of the stars of the Milky Way and the handful of galaxies of our own galactic cluster—though possibly by that time, our own local cluster will have imploded into a single massive black hole.


And there you have it: the yang and yin of things on a cosmological level, with some stuff flying apart forever into infinity, and the same stuff simultaneously coalescing forever into singularities. In the meantime, for Tai Chi enthusiasts, we’ve seen a couple of more ways in which the principles of nature are mirrored in our art and practice. And I think we’re safe enough for the moment, cosmologically speaking, so I’ll hold off mourning the end of reality and keep on practicing.