5.a.xvi.-winding-opening-and-closing Section

Coiling, Winding and Twisting – Opening and Closing

by Nick Gudge - 2010 (Last updated August 2012)

When winding, twisting or coiling something, the opposite ends of the coiled object must move relatively in opposite directions of rotation. Imagine twisting a piece of rubber in your hands. When one hand lets go the twisting force drives the object in a rotational manner. In this description the twisting is approximately equal ‘closing’ and letting go is equivalent to ‘opening.’

There is a directional element involved. Coiling in one direction (let us say clockwise) is considered closing if done with the right hand and opening if done with the left hand. There are many elements that cause confusion, some simple, some complex. The placement of the observer for instance is a simple element of confusion. Imagine a see-through clock so only the hands are observed. The hands appear to move clockwise to an observer on one side of the clock and they appear to move counter-clock wise to an observer on the other side of the clock.

An opening motion can be upward or downward, forwards or backwards. Equally so with a closing motion.

When one part of the body opens, another part always closes. For example when the chest opens the back (on the opposite side of the spine from the chest) closes. At a more sophisticated level the opening will be external and the closing internal and vice versa. For this to occur the body must be in balance which implies a high level of skill.

Even the phrase taiji can be seen as a reference to the continual ‘opening’ and ‘closing that all parts of the body make. All parts of the body contribute and participate. 

The looseness (song) that is an essential requirement of taijiquan is to ensure that the winding or coiling of the body is 'whole body' in nature and not inhibited in transmission through the body by stiffness. When someone is winding or coiling  their body, if there is stiffness then the winding will not propagate easily (or at all) past that stiffness.

The body is made up of many parts. The winding in the body is also made up of many parts. Winding or coiling occurs along bones and initially it is easier to think that eachpart of the body containing a long bone can coiled, like the piece of rubber in the opening paragraph, with one end being rotated one way and the other rotated the other way.

Coiling motion in taijiquan employs a curious relationship between the long bones and the joints that connect them together. When the shoulder is rotated the upper arm moves, when the elbow is rotated the lower arm moves, when the wrist is rotated the hand moves and so on. Coiling can be described as happening along the bones and across the joints. (Seen in this way, the lengthening, strengthening and conditioning of the sinews and ligaments can be seen as a fundamental consequence of taijiquan practice.) So one half of the joint (let us say the upper half of the elbow)  is rotating clockwise, and the other half is rotating anticlockwise (or vice versa.) The joint itself does not move, nor should it stiffen.

The requirement in taijiquan is that the joints must not stiffen regardless of the degree of coiling transmitted across them. In many respects this can be considered a type of conditioning requirement where the joints are able to maintain more and more torque passing through them without significantly effecting the joint. Initially the movement in the body will appear very large. (When the idea is fully understood in the body the joint movement from the foot to the part of the body being used will be minimised to maintain balance. The joint will rotate in space using a small circle.) The movement of the joint is a consequence of an expansion or contraction not coiling. Usually this expansion and contraction occurs simultaneous with the coiling. (See my article ‘Silk Reeling Motion’ for more details.)

Initially the skill of coiling is acquired through silk reeling exercises and the foundation form, utilising only the load bearing of the arm itself. Then very light pressure push hands. Later on short weapons are used. Then longer, heavier weapons and rooted push hands can be employed.

In the earliest stages of learning taijiquan the limbs tend to move as one until. Later on, as understanding increases they operate as two or more parts. In this situation in coarse terms the practitioner might practice the shoulder winding in (closing) while the elbow is winding out (opening) relatively speaking. This type of action creates and maintains a type of stretching which is a part of peng jing. Opening and closing may be thought of as a specific type of motion that allows the maintenance of peng jing while the body moves.

There are many ways to practice opening and closing. They vary according to the skill and understanding of the person. Practicing one way may be appropriate for one person and inappropriate for another. There are many possible steps and stages as well as routes through these stages. As a consequence of this, learning from different teachers who use different teaching routes and methods inevitably make it more difficult for the student to make progress.


Nick Gudge is a student of Wang Hai Jun and teaches Chen style taijiquan (tai chi) classes in Limerick.