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Making Practical Use of Expansion

This is the companion article to “Expansion Underlies Everything” in which we discussed what expansion means and why it is so important. In this article we discuss how we use expansion whether for health or martial arts or for push hands. Tai chi without expansion is only a dance; peng-jin and expansion breathe life into the tai chi postures. It is what gives power and effectiveness to every movement. This is true for every tai chi style. Sadly, not many students know or understand the importance of expansion, so the aim of this article is to raise the awareness of the importance of expansion.

Opening Posture

Every tai chi form starts with an opening posture that separates Wu-ji (emptiness) into yin and yang. This is done by separating the trunk into yin (upper body) and yang (lower body). The arms begin to rise but they do not move unless your body moves them. When you expand from the inside, you connect your arms to your trunk. This expansion fills your arms with energy so that they can float and yet still be powerful enough to ward off someone holding them. If you are just raising your arms without expanding, your arms have no energy flow or power. Imagine someone holding your wrists and preventing you from moving. If you are just raising your arms without any expansion, it will be very difficult to move them. But, when you expand, your arms connect to your legs as they fill with energy, and your entire body moves your arms.

Eggs Under the Armpits

The tai chi classics tell us to “Sink the chest and round or lift the back” which is another way of telling us to expand. The chest hollows or sinks (yin) and the back gets wider (yang). When students are told to keep an egg under each armpit it is because it is another way of saying sink the chest to expand the back. Have you ever heard anyone say, “take the eggs away from under your armpits”? No, the eggs are always there. But if you shrink, you squash the eggs. Expansion is in every posture ALL THE TIME.


Students with good teachers have learned that every posture must have peng-jin. If it does not, then the postures are lifeless and ineffective. Peng energy can be interpreted in many ways, but it all leads to peng-jin being an expanding force. Peng-jin is never a contractive force. Why, then, is expansion and peng-jin so important? The answer is that it is the energetic and physical force that connects all the parts of the body into a cohesive and powerful unit. A balloon, for example, when it is limp, no matter where you push it, only the part that was pushed moves. But, when the balloon is full and expanded, no matter where you touch it, the entire balloon reacts. Similarly, when your body is expanded, a push on your arm is felt throughout your whole body so that you can react. To feel the difference between expanding and contracting, stand without expanding with your arm at your side and have someone push on your arm. Can you just stand there and ward them off? Try it while expanding your body. Can you connect their push to your back; to your legs; to your feet, so you can handle it? That is what expansion does for you.

Health & Martial Arts

If your interest is in the health aspects of tai chi, expanding opens the energy channels or meridians. To feel this, try it while expanding and try it while shrinking and see which allows you to feel more energy. In push hands or combat, when someone is pushing you, if you are expanded, it will channel their force to go through you and into the ground. But if you are not expanded, their force will stop at your shoulder, or worse, at your center line and you will be upended or hurt. When you are striking and you are expanded, you use your whole body to generate force. But, if you are contracting, you only using your arm or leg which does not have the same power.

Expansion and Push Hands

When you look at the tai chi symbol of Yin/Yang it is round with no sharp angles. Although we usually represent it as a 2 dimensional drawing, it is in effect a ball that is always rotating as yang changes into yin and yin into yang. The size of the ball can be large or small, but it is always expanded and rotating. When you press on it, it does not deflate; one side yields to your force as the other side turns towards you to push you away. This is how our bodies should react in push hands.

In push hands we talk about “ting-jin” – listening energy. When you are expanded, your entire body “hears” what the opponent is doing. A touch on the arm is felt throughout the entire body. But, if you are not expanded, you only feel and react in your arms, which is why most push hands is just flailing arm movements and not real tai chi. The song of push hands in the tai chi classics says, “Attract to emptiness and discharge”. Emptiness in this context means the opponent has no peng-jin or no expansion, and that’s where you want to attack. But, when your opponent senses fullness (peng-jin or expansion) in you, it feels like there is nowhere to attack. There is no weak point that they can penetrate. When you contract or shrink, your opponent feels like there is an emptiness that they can use to allows them to connect to your center and makes you vulnerable. To put it simply, expansion dissipates the incoming force by sending it to your feet and keeping it away from your center, whereas contracting or shrinking allows that force to penetrate and connect to your center.

Noodles anyone?

I have watched many people do push hands, and there is a tendency for many players to “noodle”. “Noodling” is moving like a wet noodle while bending and twisting to avoid being pushed. This will work against lesser skilled players, but a good player will expand into your center and follow you and control your movements. People “noodle” because all they are doing is yielding, trying to evade their opponent’s push. They have no body unity; the arms go one way, the upper body another, and the lower body still another. There is no expansion at all, only shrinking in a desperate hope of escape. Unskilled players are either all yang or all yin. When pushed, they become all yang and stiffen up and resist and try to muscle their way out. Others try to “Noodle” their way out by being all yin. To successfully play at push hands, you must have both yin and yang; you must expand. Your body must move as a unified structure so as one part yields, the other advances.


Rooting is done from the start of the form to its end. Most people think of rooting as simply sinking downward, or worse, pushing downward. Rooting, however, is produced through expansion. There is no rooting without lifting the head and expanding the spine. If you just sink down, you’re not rooting; you’re simply shrinking. The lifting of the head is what allows you to root.


Expansion is critical to the correct practice of tai chi and push hands. It unifies the body to allow energy and power to flow through the body. It is a vital part of correct alignment, and it is the embodiment of yin and yang. Without expansion, the body loses its resilience and power. The adage, “one ounce can deflect 4,000 pounds” can only be understood in terms of expansion. Yielding one side allows the force to come in, but it is not enough. It needs the other side to guide the 4,000 ounces away from you. Expansion allows you to move as a rotating unit where one side yields and the other advances.

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