Featured Article – Taiji As a Shared Bodily Experience

[Featured Article]

Taiji As a Shared Bodily Experience

Mauro Carboni


What is it that different people have in common, though with different stories and different ways to walk the path of life, that leads them to meet and share a common project in a school of Taiji? Among the emerging variables some of them, as time goes by, tend to take a real meaningfulness in common discussions, as recognizable characteristics of a path of transformation and growth centered on the value of the person. 

The first pair of keywords is search and curiosity. With the first pair we mean an attitude that leads to ceaselessly consider the learning experience as border or limit (from a personal, physical, mental, relational, contextual point of view), and at the same time to the discovery of an unlimited potential of development, since the study of internal work (Nei Gong) opens new horizons for learning. 

These experiential approaches should be also understood both as teaching projects and educational interactions oriented towards a constructivist dimension. This introduces a new pair of keywords: diversity and adaptability. The first one is a resource, such as value added for everybody, an experience that we can understand only through the practice of Taiji, when we practice together. We cannot understand ourselves if we don’t recognize how important is listening to the other. It is precisely from the meet with alterity, within the different qualities of our role (antagonist or partner) that it is really possible to discover and enhance our internal diversity, the several properties of our approach to knowledge. (Wall, 2005).

As a result the second keyword (adaptability) is here understood as specific teaching mode, real strong point of Taiji, a guarantee of accessibility to experiences of learning, instrument of acceptance and inclusion into the study group. This defines a discipline and a learning context based on empathy, where being in contact with others and sharing internal energy property becomes a mediation.

A Process of Continuous Transformation and Change.

The constituent dynamics of internal work calls into question another important couple of keywords:  symmetry and complementary  It is not by chance that the meaning of the word Taiji is Supreme Polarity, because the idea of Yin/Yang should not be understood as an opposite and irreducible categorization, and because the two terms is the reason of the other. It is an implicit and related existence, a bipolar symbolism which tells of life and of man as a process of continuous transformation and change. Practicing Taiji means being within the Tao, while looking for a path of understanding and peace.

 “The Tao of Heaven:
Does not contend and yet excels in winning
Does not speak and yet excels in responding
Is not summoned and yet comes on its own
Is unhurried and yet excels in planning”

(Tao Te Ching, LXXIII)

Who practices Taiji keeps the attention in a constant state of activation, respecting the  internal variations focused on the Zhong Ding (inner central axis). This happens through a multiplicity of postural adjustments in terms of opposition up/down, left/right, front/back, through the improving  of the skills related to lateralization, to the segmental control and the global balance. This internal work urges the integration of the two hemispheres and produces a significant cortical activation, particularly in the areas involved in creativity, in communicative skills, in interpersonal and social level (Masgutowa and Akhmatova, 2004). 

shutterstock_10612849In this perspective, one of the aspects that distinguish the educational and training courses of Taiji and Nei Gong is precisely to bring every single person to “find a State of inner silence.” Suspending any logical rational attitude is like a prelude that prepares to develop a proactive dimension (Sun, 2004: 31-32). Creating those conditions of silence offers us the possibility to listen in an oriented and widespread mode. A dynamic state of sensory and emotional reception, conceptual oxymoron and paradox of experience. It’s something that, with the progress of the practice, comes to resemble what the Taoist philosophy of the martial internal arts defines as a condition or State of “Wu Ji” 

Listening, Awareness and Intentionality.

We are talking about perceiving ourselves as indistinct units within a holistic dimension. A state of consciousness that emerges as a creative intentional act, as processes activated by meditation practices lead the person to assume a particular attitude towards life and in different situations.

Among these we list some peculiar attitudes: to act consciously as active part and sentient observer in the perception or participation to an event or experience; to avoid impulsive responses through the control of emotional reactivity; in such a way as not to prevent the attainment and maintenance of a state of inner balance. Assuming a non-judgmental attitude also means not to be prisoners of needs or expectations. It means to be able to wait without assessing or judging effects before causes; to be able to describe the inner world in words by activating mental processes involving a bilateral integration of two hemispheres; to live what is happening as an observer, getting to know oneself through an unconventional approach (Baer et al., 2006).

The promotion and dissemination of these positive changes take place through processes of internal attunement and generates a stream of energy (flexible, adaptive and coherent) and a flow of information throughout the brain capable of catalyzing the fundamental processes of integration of mind, energy and body in a system frame. This coherent stream promotes an emerging sense of self, vital and resilient, and by means of this condition of awareness, the sense of Oneself expands and dissolves the modular repetition or rather the “prison” of causal thinking (action/response) (Siegel, 2009: 146-150). 

Image courtesy of digitalart FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of digitalart FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Wu Ji, therefore, is not only a primeval state of the origin from which everything started, but even a multidimensional state (Posadzki et al. 2010: 74-75) to go to and come back from, enriched and changed, every time identical and processed. A dimension of the “feel” in which the introspective attention and the proprioception are always connected with the kinesthetic perceptions, just like the recognition of the inner condition is a potential state of our being and acts in a continuous and circular relation with the external perception.

In a sense, we could say that maybe it is really this primary distinction between internal and external listening that leads us towards a change into a fundamental state, the Tao. In other words, we can improve the sensorial and phenomenological perception of the real world through a gradual awareness of our ability to discriminate.

Generativity and Transformation inside the Form.

It’s possible to consider the flow of Qi in terms of connectivity (neural, biological, physiological, emotional, cognitive, relational). From here you can derive a multiplicity of meanings, equally valid and not exhaustive: holistic communication, global (and/or segmental) energy connection, information network, continuous mediation channel between doing and being, interactive access between subject and environment. The keystone of this training and “cognitive” approach resides in the Nei Gong, as “inner work” that takes on the properties of a sensitization in the teaching. Everything takes place in a general frame of a method in which narrative and descriptive aspects converge in a single direction with the analysis of functional aspects, combining metaphors and symbols together on explanations concerning the biomechanics and physiology of movement. 

This means to enable processes and procedures, highlighting the link between cognitive and reflexive dimension with sensory perceptual skills, and motor skills. Finally it means to be able to define a map of learning in ways that can be widely shared and personally assimilated.

Still today the practice and teaching of Taiji and internal martial arts takes place through oral transmission of knowledge, for this reason the formative supervision of a grandmaster is essential. During the practice of Taiji, we’re dealing not just with a sequence of imitations or mirror images concerning individual gestures, movements or positions, but frames or patterns of visuospatial processing and of visual and motor processing come into play. In these representations everybody discovers his/her own movement, but only some of these movements have to do with cognitive memories, as emotional and affective connotations, as well as some aspects of imagination and of evocative capability in its symbolic components are rather involved. lungs and heart

In this sense the disclosure of technical contents and of theoretical and philosophical aspects should be the consequence of a direct communication mode. A particular form of interaction where the exemplification of a gesture, the reflection about the quality of a single movement or in relation to the quality of the potential of application, can find its own development without necessity of any further intermediary between master and students.

This does not diminish the importance of common practice, collective and shared, according to a consolidated form of peer tutoring, where more experienced students are undoubtedly a point of reference in the group for training, but where, at the same time, the fact of living an amount of interdependence is clearly the occasion to offer to everybody the chance to be the core of discovery and reflection.

Imagery, Visualization and Intention.

The role of the teacher in this environment of cooperative learning is crucial, both in terms of corrections and individual aid, and in terms of synthesis and of revision of the collective martial practices that constitute the focus of the experience.

The Master in this case makes the difference and stands out for his/her ability to preserve the intention, the shape, the intensity, the kind of energy, the attention to the dynamics of interaction, with a detached and non-judgmental vision concerning the qualities and the difficulties of each student. 

In this way, the use of metaphorical and narrative ideas represents an effective mediator of didactics within Taiji in order to activate the internal resources through the imagination of the person and thus to facilitate and personalize the learning. The adoption of multi-sensory evocation processes and of synaesthesia allows to understand the quality of movements and the energy of certain postures and gestures in a range of shared meanings.

In the practice of Taiji, the connection between imagery, visualization and intention, is especially intense since the gestural and martial experience assumes an interface among different cognitive domains, as well as it allows to establish a close relationship among the aspects related to sensorimotor perceptions, with the control of emerging emotional dynamics and with the sensations of transformation that everyone can live in one’s own corporeality (Wayne & Kaptchuk, 2008).

In this respect, in various areas of research, a plurality of converging experimental outcomes emerge, where a direct influence between imagery and personal expectations is made explicit, with corresponding changes in physiological levels (Kaptchuk, 2002, Mulder et al., 2004; Gentili et al., 2006).  Surveys in the field of neuroscience have been long verifying the experimental consistency of the  relationship between imagery, simulated movements and the activation of the corresponding brain areas  (Decety et al., 1993; Rizzolatti, Fogassi, Gallese, 2001; Jeannerod, 2001; Gallese, 2001, Calvo-Merino et al., 2006; Gallese & Sinigaglia, 2010).

All this seems to confirm once more the lesson that comes from the experience of the ancient traditions of Taiji, that is the mind, meant as intention, mediates and steers the energy, the Qi. It is this network of internal energy that with effectiveness and wisdom rides, the body, the movements and the same person in his actions.

The flexibility and reversibility are inseparable aspects of the mind and body. The movement is a metaphor of life and what the practice of Taiji produces on us in terms of physical and gestural awareness and in terms of energy, produces similar consequences in other areas of our experience, knowledge and relationship (Strauch, 1986).

Contact and Rhythmicity. brain works

The forms of motor activation, as well gestural and bodily activation in general, in fact constitute an essential element of different educational approaches that involve a configuration in terms of help relationship. These are recognizable in the attention towards the rhythmic dynamics of the spatial-temporal setting, as well as for a particular sensitivity in considering the proxemics and motor qualities in relation to the manifestations of postural and gestural tonicity.

Moreover, such forms of motor activation are distinguished by an educational management of the qualitative selection of sensory stimuli and of materials used, and correspond fully to the characteristics of Taiji. These aspects draw attention to the possibility of creating a relational, cognitive and perceptual climate, traceable to the concept of “fusional dimension,” which evokes deep feelings and memories related to the prenatal life, related to the initial sensations that the fetus develops during the growth of neurological apparatus. 

Among the elements that give these sensations to living in the real practice of Taiji we find the various forms of contact and proxemics interaction, the caloric sensations and the perceptions of breath. There are also the biological rhythms of the body that are mutually tuned to each other, creating a fusional condition, i.e. a profound and almost perfect harmony of psycho-tonic tensions between the two bodies (Lapierre, 2002). In analogy with this concept, several researches have focused their interest on the interaction between physiological effects of internal work and the modes and techniques of breathing (Qi Gong).

The experimental tests show changes and significant outcomes on both neurophysiological level  (EEG, EMG) that is in the corresponding interactions between temperature, heart rate, respiratory, and, in the broad sense, on the metabolic activity and the endocrine system (Lee et al. 2005; Xu, 1994). Similarly, the tests highlight a rhythmic modulation of brain at level of theta waves as an indicator of a particular state of concentration and of meditation (Pan et al., 1994). In particular, the practice of Taiji produces a release of endorphins during the state of wakefulness, to which a mental activity of evocative type can correspond, together with a decrease in the level of anxiety, moderating the perceived pain.

The Construction of a Lived Knowledge.

The practice of Taiji and Neigong cannot limit itself inside a rigorous training program, in which we can find executive and technical requirements or applications, having only the purpose of a mastery of martial arts.

In fact, we are describing the creation of an environment characterized by dialogue and dialectic that moves towards the construction of knowledge, especially in terms of exchange and reciprocity (another couple of determinants keywords), that are essential qualities in a motor act intending  to have educational and even more transformative values. So, if  ‘exploration,’ ‘exchange,’ ‘discovery,’ are semantic connections that allow you to better understand the reality of the integration processes, it’s the same dynamics of communicative acts to require the diversity as essential resource, as a “nurturing” semantics and symbolism.

Ultimately it is the same plurality of competences to unavoidably send back to a multiplicity of  experiential perspectives and conceptual paradigms, and to have certain paths of bodily mediation in Taiji develop as forms of search in progress. This implies an opening towards other martial disciplines, cultures and philosophies of corporeality, meant as a path of knowledge and transformation, starting with the most similar ones to continue on towards those that seem more different.

Not by chance, today, the relationship between person and environment, between subject and context, is a focal point of research and of reflection in the field of neuroscience, where you move from an idea of a modular mind to a concept of emerging mind, as result of a simultaneous activation of cognitive subsets that are in resonance. In fact, according to the opinion of Varela and colleagues, the “cognition depends upon the kinds of experience that come from having a body with various sensorimotor capacities (…). By using the term action we mean to emphasize once again that sensory and motor processes, perception and action, are fundamentally inseparable in lived cognition” (Varela, Thompson, Rosch, 1991: 173).


We have presented the practice of Taiji as a mediator in the help relationship, where the listening is a fundamental dimension of every educative act, in which is essential the attention to the communication as plurality of codes, as meaningful network of mutuality. Starting from here it is possible to arrange educational contexts and situations in which the internal martial art becomes the formative space that facilitates the emergence of an autonomous and creative bodily expression.

Inside the Taiji practice we can find common gestures that involve natural movements. Actions such as: to grasp, let go, raise, keep, walk, push, throw, move, rotate, slide, rotate, jump, avoid. A widespread and diversified action that integrates with the various forms of occupation of space and time, of the environment and of relations.

A fortiori the construction of knowledge and competences, in the context of Taiji, cannot be limited to consider movement solely in terms of bodily functions, since, as educative project and in terms of responsibility and reflexivity, has a broader effect on the quality of life of people.



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Mauro Carboni

Mauro Carboni

Mauro Carboni is Researcher of Special Pedagogy and Educational Research at the University of Rome “Foro Italico”,  Assistant Professor of Didactics and Special Pedagogy at the Course Degree in Sport and Exercise Sciences; Professor of Special Pedagogy  at Course Degree in Preventive and Adapted Physical Activity  (master-level degree),  Professor at  International Doctorate in Culture, Disability and Inclusion: Education and Training. Is one of the founding members of the Italian Society of Special Pedagogy (S.I.Pe.S).  His research interests include the  processes of inclusion and the educative integration through analogic mediators (gesture, music and image) connected with the  empathy as essential factor of  relationship, notably through a methodological analysis of learning environments.  He studied Taiji and Nei Gong with the Master Guo Ming Xu and attended workshops with many other Chinese masters. He is a pupil of Master Flavio Daniele at Nei Dan School of Martial Arts where he earned the title of Taiji Instructor (Yang style).  E-mail address : mauro.carboni@uniroma4.it.  Affiliation:  University of Rome “Foro Italico” – Department of Educational Sciences for the Motor Activities and Sports



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