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Episode 9: The Eight Trigrams in the Hands

“The 8 trigrams in the hands” is a vitally important concept in martial arts…especially in tai chi. But it comes with some philosophy and some physics. Don’t expect to understand it all right away, and don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense at first.

Introducing the eight trigrams


As much as I do endeavour to eschew obfuscation, I know that there are some of you who might believe that you understand what you think I say much of the time. But I strongly suspect that there are many of you who do not realize that sometimes what you hear is not always what I mean. In fact, if you truly do understand what I talk about in these lessons, then it is quite possible that you are not really listening. But I will aver that if you follow along with these lessons, and apply yourself, you will come to a new and deeper understanding. Whether or not it is the same understanding that I am trying to impart is another thing altogether.

But don’t worry about that.  You should not place too much importance on the teacher anyway. Especially a teacher like me, and especially in this format. In a video like this one, I am teaching from where I am at. In private lessons, I try to guide the student from where they are at. With a video like this, you will each see it from your own unique perspective, whether you are looking up, down, backwards, or sideways. 

And what I teach may be factual. But facts need context. In the words of Joan Didion, “The unexamined fact is like a rattlesnake.” 

To stretch the simile, metaphorically speaking, I would point out that to examine a rattlesnake too closely requires a particular set of skills, and that context is also important.  

And with that, I will begin with today’s lesson. 

In the recent video, I talked about the way that the legs control the six degrees of freedom, heave, surge, sway, pitch, yaw, and roll.  The legs are like the engines that move the body and generate the power that is directed by the waist and expressed through the arms. 

It is important to remember that the arms only express this power. They do not generate it. In fact, any attempt by the arms to generate such movement or power can result in the collapse of the structure and compromise the synergy of a properly aligned body. 

When the arms get involved in generating power, a few things happen.  

  • Tiny muscles interfere with the work of large muscle groups, making the technique only as strong as the weakest muscle. The small muscles try to add power. But instead they end up acting like shock absorbers, negating the power of the legs. They interfere with the efficient transfer of momentum. 
  • the work of class one levers or class two levers gets replaced by class 3 levers, which makes everything more difficult and less effective. 
  • the singular vector of force and momentum gets divided by lateral effort of the arms. Power is less focused. 
  • the sensing ability of the nervous system and the fascia is inhibited by the muscle tension and poor alignment. 
  • the structure of the body is weakened, and it loses the synergy that one can achieve with a relaxed body and a calm mind. 

The result is that you work harder, accomplish less, lose awareness, and put yourself in a bad position. You end up pushing yourself around instead of the opponent. 

 It is just not the macho role that the legs have, and it is not the control that the waist has. The arms are responsible for subtle and profound changes, and for determining the shape that power takes. 

The arms can affect the way in which the power is expressed. If the legs are like the motor that powers the ship then the arms are like sails, or the rudder, the hull, or the keel of the ship. 

If the legs are like the engine or jets that power an airplane, then the arms are like the flaps, ailerons, rudder, fuselage, or wings of an airplane.

The arms are an extension of the body, as the wings are extensions of the airplane, and the sails are extensions of the ship. Some of the shapes respond automatically to internal and external forces, like the way that the hull, keel, fuselage, or wings do. But other shapes can be consciously manipulated, like the sails, ailerons, and rudders.  

By understanding the shapes, and manipulating them, we can do more than simply apply force to a target. We can change the way our body and mind respond, both consciously and automatically, to external and internal forces. We can transform the the effect of the opponent’s offensive and defensive tactics. 

When the opponent throws a punch or tries to push or pull or throw, or lock us up, we don’t only have the 6 degrees of freedom to work with, determining how we move ourselves. We can change the effect that the opponent’s movements have on us. Further than that, we can change the way that their own movements affect them. 

This is where the 8 trigrams come in. 

What are the 8 trigrams? 

The eight trigrams are an extrapolation on the idea of yin and yang. 

(Yin and yang express the dualistic nature of the universe. For something to exist, there must be something to compare it to. It means that everything that is observed is relatively either one thing or not that thing. Either me or not me, up or down, hot or cold, tall or short, masculine or feminine, heavy or light. But these things are relative and depend on the position of the observer. I talked about this in a previous episode. 

Yin and yang could be represented as 0s and 1s. But one of the ancient methods is to use solid lines and broken lines.

A solid line represents yang, and a broken line represents yin. 

To make sense of these in basic terms, the ancients grouped them in twos and threes.  

  • Two solid lines represents Very yang. 
  • A solid line over a broken line represents less yang. 
  • Two broken lines represents very yin
  • A broken line over a solid line represents less yin

But since a fthing can have more than one characteristic, each of which can be seen as either yin or yang. For instance, the weather could be cold and dry and sunny. 

Cold is yin relative to hot

Dry is yin relative to wet

Sunny is yang relative to cloudy.

Or the weather could be hot and wet and windy.  

A person could be tall and strong and feminine…. I suppose a person could also be hot and wet and windy. 

The human mind has trouble grasping anything with more than two or three characteristics. So three was the limit of what is relatable. It is sort of like describing a car’s engine as consisting of intake, combustion, and exhaust. If you are a mechanic, you can have a more detailed understanding of the internal combustion engine. But for normal people, that is all the sense we need to make of it. It might also be the starting point for a mechanic in diagnosing mechanical problems. “Is it an intake problem, a combustion problem, or an exhaust problem?” Breaking a concept down to two or three elements…that is what the human consciousness is good at. 

Ultimately, we like to be able to break things down to their simplest terms. 

Two lines can represent 4 combinations. Three lines can express eight combinations. Four lines is too much for the human mind to grasp. Our minds are really only good at grasping three dimensions.  If we could see more than that, we would all be born able to do string theory mathematics, or be able to remember the future, and multiple timelines.

The 8 trigrams is a concept that attempts to define fundamental agents of change in the universe. They are often represented by iconic natural phenomena.  

  • Heaven (the creative)
  • Earth (the Receptive) 
  • Fire, (the clinging)
  • Water, (the abysmal)
  • Thunder, (the arousing)
  • Wind, (the gentle)
  • Lake (the joyous)
  • Mountain (the stillness)

In a human context, they are described as 

  • creativity
  • receptiveness
  • attachment
  • emptiness
  • arousal
  • gentleness
  • joy
  • stillness 

All of these are also human qualities which manifest in martial arts and in daily life. They have correlations in anatomy and physiology, geography and geology, cosmology and astronomy, chronology, psychology, and spirituality.  

To talk about them in terms of martial arts is to see 8 shapes added onto the six degrees of freedom. It is like changing the shape in order to interact with more dimensions than the first three. We can’t move in the other dimensions, but we can change the shape of the body and mind like a sail or a rudder in order to steer through them. 

What this means is that in addition to the power of our legs, we can use various shapes to change the way that the attacker affects us, and manipulate our own course through forces that we cannot actually control directly. 

To recap, the legs control the movement of the body through three-dimensional space. (Well, 4-dimensions actually, since movement involves time.) 

The legs control the movements we call heave (up and down), surge (forward and back), sway (sideways), pitch (tilt frontward and backward), yaw (turn), and roll (tilt sideways). The rest of the body is just along for the ride and the limbs cannot contribute much if anything to these types of movement without compromising the structure and power of the body as a whole. 

Now, that is fine for navigating three dimensions. But what about rest of them. Modern physics talk about 10 dimensions (if you are into string theory), or 11 if you are into M-theory…or 13 if you are hippy. 

A martial art is about navigating the seen and unseen dimensions of our lives. We try to have some self determination as to what sort of reality we experience. We want to be able to choose between a reality where we are being beaten up and one in which there is no conflict.  In some ways we can control that with our legs, moving our bodies to a physical place where a positive outcome is more likely. 

But there are some changes that require us to manipulate forces beyond our normal perception of 4-dimensional space-time. This requires us to change the shape of our body, the shape of our emotions, our personality, our relationship with the world and other people. In a way, I am demonstrating how that works by the way I used first-person plural in the previous sentence.  Some of you may find that annoying. But if you can modify your attitude to be more accepting of my idiosyncrasies, you might be able to navigate this lesson.  

Having the 6-degrees of freedom in the legs is a very active type of control. You choose to move a particular way, and barring any outside interference, like a force working against you or upsetting your balance, the power to move is yours. 

It is like the way a Harrier Jump Jet uses its jets, nozzles, and puffer ducts to move in all directions. 

But there are other processes by which we navigate our lives. We can change the shape of the body, the shape of our mind, our point of view, our knowledge and wisdom. We can use creativity, joy, attachment, passion, gentleness, emptiness, stillness, receptiveness. These will affect the shape of our emotions, our intention, our compassion, our willpower, and our physical and spiritual well-being. 

We can also apply this to the structural dynamics of the body and mind. 

Some of these are more like the ailerons or flaps on a regular plane. Perhaps it is better to think of them like the sails or rudder, or keel of of a ship. You can use them to navigate the world on a daily basis. You can also use them to change the outcome of a fight.  But their effect is dependent upon the changing state of the the world, and on the external forces that you are dealing with. 

When we try to use our arms to have direct active control of a situation, the situation will change. The opponent will adapt, often without even thinking about it. That is why techniques learned in martial art class often don’t work in a real fight. It is like learning how to operate the controls on a boat in an swimming pool. It does not prepare you for wind, waves, and changing currents, and chaotic weather. And that is not even taking into account that the weather isn’t even trying to mess with you the way that an opponent does in a fight.      

In tai chi, the 8 trigrams usually relate to eight concepts, or eight shapes of the body. In some styles, they are represented by 8 archetypal techniques. These are called peng, lu, ji, an, cai, lieh, zhou, and kao, which are usually translated as something like bump, roll, squeeze, push, pluck, rend, elbow, and shoulder…… 

These techniques are not actually the eight shapes, though. They are just expressions of them. It is like saying that a smile is not happiness. It is just one of the things that can happen when a person is happy. 

In the next few videos, I will discuss each of the 8 shapes in more detail. And then, this video will hopefully make a lot more sense.