This is another one of those opaque concepts that needs to be explored, or updated, or ignored. Understanding it might be out of the question.
There is an important dictum in taijiquan literature that declares that one should have “the 5 elements in the feet and the eight trigrams in the hands.” This has been called the master key of tai chi. It is a principle by which many define the art and the criteria upon which tai chi is judged. The concept of the five elements in the feet and the eight trigrams in the hands can be applied to just about any martial art, not just tai chi. And if any martial artist applies these principles to their style, it is suggested that their art would become tai chi.
But here is the problem. The expression, “five elements in the feet and eight trigrams in the hands” is, of course, meaningless to most people and is misunderstood by nearly everyone else.
That is one of the problems with the esoteric terminology. It was not written for people to understand. It could probably be better thought of as a code or a test. Ask some people what it means and they will spend hours talking about and demonstrating profound understanding, or they will quote by wrote what others have written. There are many people can write a description of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, without actually understanding it or its implications.
The five elements in the feet are about relative position, about change, about interaction, about the mind body and intent, and about transmutation among other things. They involve first person, second person, and third person perspectives.
Let’s get the confusing stuff out of the way first, so we can start talking about things that make sense.
The five elements refers to and ancient idea that everything in the world is made up of common fundamental constituent parts. Nowadays, school children learn about the periodic table of the elements. You know, H, He, Li, Be, B, C, N, O, Florida, Ne, Na, Mg, Al, Sympathy, Pathos, Sulfur, Cl, Argon, Kotoasium, Calcium, Scandinavian, Titan, Vulcan, Cromagnon, Mn, Irony, Police, Zn, Gallium, Germans, Pirate, Selena, Bromance, Superman, Rubicon, Strongman, Atrium, Fake diamond, Matrix guy, Ecstasy, Techno, Bader-Ginsberg, Rhoda, Palladium, Silver, Cadmium, Indium, Person, Woman, Man, Camera, TV, and so on.
In the time of Aristotle, folks learned about Air, Earth, Fire, and Water, as philosophical elements. Later, medieval scientists would use experiment and observation to classify materials according to their constituent elements.
In ancient China, the five elements were metal, water, wood, fire, and earth. These represented relative states of being, or permutation, or changes. (Nobody really knows what they mean, and the meanings change with each context where they applied. And boy oh boy, do these five elements get applied in a lot of different contexts. The elements can be used as metaphors, mnemonics, analogies, comparisons, and even as a… um… “What is another word for “thesaurus.”
The elements can relate to planets, colours, day of the week, cardinal directions, seasons, mental states, emotions, internal organs, senses, anatomy, different body fluids, different fingers, flavours, smells, ages, animals, time of day, time of year, relative direction, the direction of your relatives, and much much more.
The basic five-element theory states that different phenomena in the universe can have qualities corresponding to one of the five elements, and that these five elements interact with each other in constructive and restrictive ways.
There is a constructive cycle:
Wood feeds fire.
Fire nourishes earth.
Earth gives birth to metal.
Metal gathers water.
Water nourishes wood.
There is a destructive cycle:
Wood restrains earth.
Earth restrains water.
Water quenches fire.
Fire conquers metal.
Metal splits wood.
There is also a regulating cycle, an overwhelming cycle and an insulting cycle.
If you combine the overwhelming cycle and the restraint cycle, you get a game that is much like “Rock Paper Scissors, Lizard, Spock.
In martial arts, the five elements can correspond to emotional states, types of tactics, strategic principles, states of consciousness, and so on.
In some contexts the elements describe types of striking.
Metal correlates with splitting actions
Water with drilling
Wood with crushing
Fire with smashing
Earth with sheering.
In Traditional Chinese medicine, the five elements are used to explain the relationships between the 6 different organs systems. Yeah, I know…5 elements = 6 systems. Just blame it on daoism or confucianism and move on.
In tai chi, a fundamental concept is that the five elements are in the feet, and the eight trigrams….blah, blah, blah,…
A simple interpretation of the “five elements in the feet” is to say that the legs are responsible for attacking, retreating, dodging, entering, and central equilibrium. But it is a daoist art, so it never really means what it means. The people who wrote this stuff could never bothered to make anything comprehensible to people who didn’t already understand it.
They figured, “If I explain it to you in a way that makes sense to you, then you will think that you understand what I am talking about. You will think that you understood what you thought I said. But you won’t realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” So, they write it down in ways that makes no sense at all to sane people. The result is that only crazy people think they get it. Now those crazy people have youtube channels and talk about it to people like you.
The truth is that the “5-elements in the feet” refers to so many subtle principles that there is no point going any further with the classical Chinese explanation.
So let us take some of these principles apart in plain language and see what we come up with.
In taiji, and other martial arts, there are some things that the legs should do, and there are some things that the arms should do. If the arms try to do the job of the legs, you will need to be walking on your hands and have feet with opposable thumbs. So let’s assume that we are standing up…or at least sitting up, since some of this can apply in a chair.
First the five elements in the feet refers to the 6 degrees of freedom being controlled by the legs. I know, 5 elements = 6 degrees, let’s move on.
If you are familiar with flying, or robotics, or video game design, then you will be familiar with the six degrees of freedom, which describe the six ways that an object can move in three-dimensional space.
These six are:
Surge (forward and backward) on the x axis
Heave (up and down) on the z axis
Sway (left and right) on the y axis
Pitch (tilting forward and backward) on the y axis
Yaw (turning left and right) on the z axis
Roll (Tilting side to side) on the x axis
If you try to do any of these movement with the fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, chest, or pelvis, then the structure and power of the entire body will be compromised. If you do these movements with the feet and legs, then the integrity of the body is preserved and the rest of the body can be left to do other things.
If the arms have to pedal the bike, how will you see where you are going? If you have to push the car, how will you steer, or shave or tune the radio?
In the last episode, we talked about reducing the reliance on class 3 levers in favour of class 1 and class 2 levers. This means that the arms don’t move much relative to the torso. Instead, the arms are stabilized in optimal positions while the core, hips and legs do most of the work. There are exceptions to the rule. But we will talk about that another time.
The reality is that in order to eliminate the class three lever syndrome and improve your mechanical advantage, you need to use your legs for the 6 degrees of freedom.
Experienced boxers, and grapplers will understand this idea. You punch with the legs. You apply power with the whole body.
So, we ask, ‘Why don’t we just say that “the legs control the six degrees of freedom” instead of the “five elements are in the legs.” ‘
Well, there is that Dunning-Kruger thing again.
In the martial context, we have to consider the relationships between direction, movement, position, momentum, and intent. I can have the body and/or mind align with a particular direction, and yet move in another. I can be retreating while attacking, and both of these actions are governed by the legs. I can combine six types of movement with different internal alignments to confound the opponent and increase my options.
When we learn a martial art, we start by paying attention to how we move in 3-dimensional space. But there are more than 3 dimensions to be concerned about. For one thing, there is the time factor. And there is also the relationship with the opponent’s body and mind.
We about our position in 3D space. But then there are relationships between different positions. Then there are the way different positions and movements can be combined.
Then we have the relative perspectives. So, after we learn about it from a first person POV, we then explore the 2nd person and 3rd person perspectives.
So, we look at:
- What I am doing as far as the 6 degrees of freedom
- How I am being when I am doing that. (Scotty, did you reset the Heisenberg compensators?)
- What I am doing to the opponent
- What my opponent is doing.
- What my opponent is doing to me
- How my opponent is being when they doing that
All of these things change in a millisecond, and we need to be able to adapt. Of course, just as a pilot does not have to consciously analyze all of these things all the time, a martial artist does not have to be thinking about these things.
They become natural and intuitive.
But understanding the complexity will enable you empower your practice.
That’s all I’m going to say about this stuff right now.
In a future video, I will talk about “the eight trigrams in the hands.”
Until then, remember, if you understand what I have been talking about, you probably were not listening.
The key idea is that the arms do not move. The don’t move relative to the body*
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