The Automotive Applications of Tai Chi Chuan

Over the past few months, I have made a careful survey of Seattle’s Tai Chi skills.  I have toured the community centers, local parks, and martial arts studios.  Watched many classes, spoken to dedicated and passionate instructors.  After reviewing these groups, I can tell you exactly where to find the best Tai Chi in Seattle.

Go to the northeast end of downtown at rush hour.  Or try just south of Montlake cut.  You can also head west from Green Lake.  Yes, if you really want to see the best Tai Chi applications in town, just find any steep hill with a stoplight.

For any readers living on the flat Midwestern plains, I’ll give a quick lesson on two-footed driving in Seattle. To start safely on a hill, keep your left foot on the brake pedal, while gently increasing pressure on the gas. Once the car has started pulling forward, release the brake.

Very simple, with an automatic transmission. Any teenager can learn this with a few hours of repetition, feedback, and refinement.

Indeed, all over the city, you’ll find experienced drivers using this technique to navigate stop-and-go traffic, in darkness and rain, without accident.  It’s unremarkable, really…unless, as a martial arts enthusiast, you consider one terrifying alternative…

Imagine that same teenage driver next to you. Imagine that, rather than applying this standard pedal technique, they are instead relying upon those common “principles of Tai Chi.

Are you afraid? If not, you should be. Picture yourself idling on a steep hill, trapped behind a driver who believes that, in order to move forwards, one must first move backwards!

Can you imagine that driver slowly releasing their brake, then pausing for a deep relaxing breath, before reaching for their gas pedal?  Get your insurance card ready, because that crazy person is going to hit you.

These are not really Taiji principles, of course.  They are a pervasive “Tai Chi” fantasy, supported by the misinterpretation of opaque and ancient text.

Fortunately, in the real world today, almost nobody operates a car in such a foolish manner.  We know that our gas and brake pedals are distinct mechanical linkages (or electronic sensors), rather than abstract cosmic opposites.  We know  that we need to adjust our timing and pressure on the pedals, in order to match the incline of the hill and the proximity of other cars.

Other details are less obvious, but still relevant.  The depth of our brake pads and tire tread, the octane rating of our gasoline, the effects of recent weather, and so on.  All of these details color our interaction with the pedals; consequently, with other cars and their drivers.  Truly, everything matters, even the floor mats.

We cannot learn to drive by reading classical poetry.  The task is complex, and our language is limited.  Most of our useful learning is done on the road.  Similarly, the real principles of Tai Chi Chuan reveal themselves in conscious directed practice.  The old masters’ text must reconcile with our lived experience, and vice versa; otherwise, the art is truly dead and gone.

Our human bodies are far more complex, and more important to us than any automobile.  I believe that Taijiquan is a great vehicle for understanding ourselves, our posture and movement, and the relationships we create thusly.  But we cannot stop our self-examination at the level of pan-Asian bromides and vague invocations of “relax and turn the waist.”

We should not, in the pursuit of distant and esoteric ideals, overlook the near and plain lessons in our lives; such as, how to drive safely on a wet Seattle road.  Because if we do that, it will forever remain easier to find Tai Chi applications outside of class than inside it.

Chris Marshall is an eminent martial arts writer, and the instructor at Shoreline Tai Chi.  He currently teaches in the Seattle area.


  1. Great article! Though I think there is one flaw: to get from brake to gas you need to remove your foot from the brake to (=take it back) before you can put it onto the gas and go forward! But that is just nitpicking.

    I totally agree that it is necesary to live and practice Taijiquan to keep it alive!

  2. GM Fu Zhongwen said it was basic logic that one doesn’t step back in order to step forward. So even the grandmasters of old knew what they were talking about.

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