A beginner’s guide to silk reeling

How to learn and improve a cornerstone of your Tai Chi practice

Silk reeling, also known as Chansujin, is the principle method of movement in Chen Tai Chi. Silk reeling exercises involve simple continuous rounded and spiral movements utilising the whole body. The continuous movements loosen the joints, develop relaxation, improve efficiency of movement, and help generate whole body power. The practice of silk reeling has strict physical requirements in its execution.

Silk reeling is more than a set of exercises. The body methods learned in silk reeling exercises have to be incorporated in to all aspects of Tai Chi practice. When training hand and weapon forms you are silk reeling the whole time!

Silk reeling practice

The idea of silk reeling exercises is to take a movement from the form and modify it slightly so it can be repeated continuously, allowing really detailed and precise practice of the Tai Chi body method. The mechanics and requirements of silk reeling are hard to understand at a beginner level and take continued practice to grasp. In our system we use the wave hands exercise (also called cloud hands) to begin teaching and layering these principles, and eventually begin to incorporate them into the form and other aspects of Tai Chi training.

So whats silk reeling about?

Simply put, its about learning how to move your body in a coordinated and efficient way in-accordance to the principles of Chen Tai Chi Chuan.

The body has to move as one unit, with the torso and limbs twisting, twining, spiralling and rotating. The hips control the legs, the chest controls the arms, and the centre (“dantien” in Chinese) controls the hips and chest. The dantien is quite simply the centre of the body, and consists of the abdominal muscles attaching to the hips and lower spine.

The end goal is for all movement to originate from your dantien. However, this is something that will take time to achieve with consistent practice and layered guidance from a teacher who really knows what they are doing!

So where do I begin?

Regardless of the line of Tai Chi, generally all schools start with the single wave hand movement. Here’s a free lesson in the basic single hand silk reeling exercise from our Tai Chi Foundation course.

Tips and advice for practising effectively

Here’s a few tips to get you started. It can be difficult remembering to do all of these: try mixing in one or two at a time.

  • Keep your head up chin slightly tucked in.
  • Don’t drop your head when your arms move downwards: use your peripheral vision to focus on the arms when they are lowered.
  • Your tongue should be gently placed on the top palate of your mouth.
  • Keep your body upright, with the spine naturally straight and the chest relaxed — try not to hold to much tension in your chest.
  • When your arm is in the lower phase of the movement don’t lean or bend forwards — keep the body upright at all times.
  • When moving your arms, try to keep your shoulders relaxed, trying not to raise them.
  • In the phase of the movement when your arm arcs away from your body try not to lift your elbows too high. One method to stop this is to make sure you keep your elbow lower then the hand.
  • When shifting weight side-to-side, remember to always keep your knees slightly bent — don’t straighten the empty leg.
  • Your breath should be natural and quiet and coordinated with your movement. When your hand goes across the body breathe in through your nose — as the hand goes away from your body breathe out through your nose.

The stages of learning silk reeling

There are many stages to go through to really learn silk reeling. Here’s a few to get you started.

The first stage is to learn and become familiar with the movements. When familiar with the basic coordination of the movements you can begin to relax your body and mind, and have greater control over your breath.

Once this stage is reached, you can start to layer the different body mechanics in to your practice. How this is done depends on the teacher and school, but personally I like to start correcting the shape and movement of the arms. A curve in the arms has to remain through all movements and this principle has to be taken into the form practice. This is most evident in Lazily Tying Coat, Single Whip, and Diagonal Posture.

In the video below I explain and demonstrate the concept of keeping a curve in the arms in silk reeling and form practice.

I then like to introduce the basic method of how to shift your weight correctly. This involves what we call the figure-of-eight movement. In Chen Tai Chi when we shift weight side-to-side, we shift on a backwards arc: not directly side-to-side. As you shift to one side, you rotate from your waist. In the next clip I explain how to shift your weight correctly in Chen Tai Chi using this figure-of-eight method.

Once you’re able to maintain an arc in the arms and shift your weight correctly, I like to correct the coordination between the arms and weight shifting in the wave hands silk reeling exercise. The next video shows how to do that.

Once these basics are understood, more complex methods can be introduced. The mechanics and requirements of silk reeling are quite complex and physically demanding, and take continued practice to understand.

It’s important to remember silk reeling isn’t just a set of exercises — it’s the principle method of movement in all of Chen Tai Chi. It’s very important to understand that it has many strict body requirements, and the training has to be layered, regular and constant. The methods will take bitter training for it to be grasped completely by the body and mind.

When you are doing the form you are silk reeling — so learning silk reeling properly will take your form to the next level. If you enjoyed this article, check out our complete Silk Reeling unit in our Tai Chi Foundation Course for all the detail we can’t fit into a blog post!

If you’re in Manchester on the 2nd and 3rd of September 2017, we’re teaching this material and more at our anniversary party. Come down and say hi!

Thanks for reading, and be sure to let us know what you think in the comments.