"What is firmly established cannot be uprooted
The Compass and the Square.
I was thinking recently about how over the years my form has changed, but it struck me that the constant within the change remains this: my personal belief in the practice and embedding of the theories and “classical” principles of Tai Chi Chuan, theories and principles that have their roots in, and stem from the I-Ching, Tao Te Ching and Sun Tzu’s art of war.
I began to think also of the importance of the linear, the square and the circle in the learning and teaching of Tai Chi Chuan and how it ensures a strong and stable foundation upon which to practice.
My teacher brought my attention to the square and the circle when I first began my Tai Chi Chuan practice. In fact, it was central to his teaching methodology and was meticulous in ensuring we moved correctly in accordance with it. Following is my attempt to give an overview and share a small insight of the linear, square and circle as it relates to our practice and teaching methodology.
What is meant by the square and the circle?
Stuart Alve Olson, I think, outlines the learning process quite well, when he informs us that in beginning to learn our Tai Chi Chuan we do so firstly through learning:
In my teaching process I also equate the linear with skeletal alignment of the body; the square with the muscular relaxation of the body, and the circular with the suspension of, or the complete opening of, all the joints throughout the body and of course, the rotational expression of Tai Chi Chuan. These are all consistent, I feel, with the orderly teaching methodology as outlined above.
“A good craftsman teaches in accordance to the compass and the square – who dare goes against the chalk-line?” – Cheng Man-Ching
The linear, from which the square is constructed, consists of the most fundamental principles of Tai Chi Chuan. These principles are introduced and imparted to the student as we make our way through the transitional movements and postures of the form.
We learn the square in a linear fashion, step-by-step in a 1-2-3 manner. We lay the foot down straight following the knee as we step directly and clearly to our cardinal and diagonal directions when transitioning, so that after a time, we gradually gain clarity about the individual postures, positions, directions and the functional aspects of Tai Chi Chuan, and most importantly distinguishing clearly the substantial and insubstantial (yin/yang) along with proper skeletal alignment and muscular relaxation and sinking.
The linear and the square aspects of the Tai Chi Chuan form, dependent upon consistency of practice, can, on average, take about a year to impart, or perhaps a little more, then we should allow another two years (or more) for corrections. Essentially spending our first five or six years in laying a healthy foundation prior to even beginning our circular exploration.
One could say that the linear and the square cover all the technical and regulative aspects of our practice from the beginning (or birth) of movement, through to our transitions into a singular posture within the form.
It has been said that the square is essential for development.
Underpinning and central to the idea of the square and relative to all aspects of Tai Chi Chuan practice, are the five actions of: advance, retreat, look-left, gaze right and central equilibrium.
Given the above, we can perhaps begin, on a fundamental level, to understand the saying that "the square never leaves the circle and the circle never leaves the square". A circular process of developing and refining regulated continuously through the square.
“We practice our art in a circular manner so the devil of hardness can no longer corner us”.(jbh)
We study and practice the linear and the square in our form for some years. That is to say: we step out, shift the weight, turn the waist, our directions become clearly defined, as does the substantial and insubstantial. We then begin to enter into the circular expression of Tai Chi Chuan. Of course, this area of practice is, like a circle, never-ending.
In relation to Tai Chi Chuan, it has been said that the circle is for refinement, for intensity and for the accumulation of one's chi. or, as Sifu Roman Czerniawsky has eloquently stated: “the rounding out of our form is an ongoing process of softening into the square”.
Though not exhaustive, the circle is about feeling one's way through the form, rotating as one unit in a fluid,unbroken,unhurried, upright, aware, balanced and calm manner, rotating smoothly like a well-oiled wheel, not, in a flighty fashion I might add, but in an internally aware and highly sensitive well-grounded and connected manner, having absorbs and aligned the principles internally.
Having consciously practiced the linear and the square they are then expressed externally in a circular manner. The square is yin and the circle is yang, making up an interdependent and interconnected whole.
It is good, to give consideration be it in our learning or teaching phase to the linear, the square and the circle, as each aspect can be likened to the ABC of Tai Chi and are vitally important to our continual learning, study, refinement, practice and transmission of this wondrous art of Tai Chi Chuan, this gentle art of “letting go” gracefully.
John B Hartley, 2014-
Editing assistance: Steve Duncombe
John Hartley, Founder and Principal Instructor of Inner Health School of Taijiquan, Adelaide