Tensegrity, the Substantial, and the Insubstantial

When teaching taiji I find I come across two very different body structures in students, and both present their own problems to an efficient study of the art. But first a little background:

Some years back I undertook (but never finished) training as a Physical Therapist. I also trained as, and was certified in Maryland, as a LMT (Licensed Massage Therapist), and had a practice for many years. There are three main genres of body work (and a plethora of sub-disciplines), but in general training as a LMT involves first learning what is generally called “Swedish Massage” (which is generally what you look for when you go on vacation.) Only in the most general sense can it lay claim to being therapeutic.

Next in the study comes the various forms of “Deep Tissue”, which is more interesting, places a greater strain on the therapist’s hands and posture, and is the gateway modality into, to coin a phrase, “the slings and arrows of outrageous muscles aches and pains.” By and large deep tissue modalities, muscle release, and the like, deal with localized structures within the body. For athletes and those who use and abuse their bodies, such modalities are very important.

Finally, there come all the various developments of Ida Rolf’s work, of which there are many. “Rolfing”, Myofascial Release”, and the sort are all trademarked modalities, but these and their ilk all deal with working with connective tissue (myofascial) either directly or indirectly. It is no accident that various cognates of “connective” are implied in these modalities, since it is the interconnectedness of the body that is considered of central interest.

You can research massage modalities at your leisure, but the last above mentioned, myofascial work, gave rise to a very interesting theory of the structure of the human body, namely that it is a tensegrity structure. Tensegrity, simply defined, is the characteristic property of a stable three-dimensional structure consisting of members under tension that are contiguous and members under compression that are not.


A very common, albeit outdated, view of the human body is that the bones hold us up, and in particular that the spine is a series of building blocks stacked one upon the other. One can build a structure this way. Think of the Washington Monument, which is essentially course upon course of stone stacked upon each other. All the members are under compression, and essentially none are under tension. Again, it is very common to look upon good posture as the attempt to approach this sort of upright verticality in which all members are aligned and under compression. While this might sound plausible, the human spine, even when standing erect, is not vertically aligned, and has two lordotic, and two kyphotic curves.

Consider the concept of a suspension bridge in which the vertical structures are under compression, but the suspension cables are under tension and “transmit” the load to those members, the vertical structures, which are under tension.

This is the barest of introductions, and again, you can research tensegrity at your leisure. The website below is a good place to start, although there are many, many others:


The obvious problem with the building block model is that it explains so little of what the spine actually does. Not only do we try to stand, we sit, bend, twist, and a host of other actions which are off the vertical. And yet a healthy spine stays integral. It does so by being much more like a tensegrity structure, wherein the connective tissue transmits the load to those members designed to withstand compression.

Moreover, since this page is about the practice of taiji, I would posit that the taiji classics treat the spine as a tensegrity structure. The image of the head being “suspended from above”, and a host of similar images, may be useful, but they are certainly not anatomically descriptive. What such images are useful for is to adjust the posture to make the most of it’s tensegrity. Although much more complex, when Lu Shengli talks speaks in his Combat Principles of Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua about the feeling of energy going up the renmai channel along the back, and down the dumai channel in the front, he is speaking of an image which helps maximize the body’s tensegrity structure. Of course, taiji is an internal martial art, and hence the internal components are important and primary, but one might hypothesize that the three external integrations all presuppose the tensegrity structure of the body. To use the example alluded to above, while there is no Archimedean point by which one can support the crown of the head, in tensegrity fashion, the connective tissue influencing, and influenced by, the spine, can give the feeling of being so suspended.

Personally, the concept of a smooth transition between the substantial and the insubstantial implies the notion of a tensegrity in which tension and compression are in equal balance. When the classics mention the notion of being “centered and balanced” I posit that, at least in part, this is what they were describing.

Given that the body is a tensegrity structure, that tensegrity can be compromised on the one hand by those who use too much muscle, and on the other hand by those who use, or possess, too little.

Taking the former first: In his Masters and Methods, Robert Smith mentions that once, while studying Bagua (an internal martial art) from Paul Kuo in Taiwan, the latter noticed him doing an external strength building exercise in which involved tossing a concrete block into the air and catching it using only the finger tips. Kuo sternly admonished Smith that not only would such an activity impede his study of the internal, but that if he persisted in such practices it would be better to find another teacher.

When I first read that some decades ago I thought it rather harsh. In retrospect I think what Kuo meant, at least in part, is that any training that isolates part of the body, and treats that part as simply a series of levers and pulleys (muscular tension) impedes the interconnectedness of the body and destroys the mandate that one’s posture be always centered and balanced.

Of course staying alive forces us to make all sorts of choices. A carpenter, a farmer, a mason, to give just a few examples, are often going to have use a part of their body out of balance with all the rest. Adjustments can be made of course, and while, say, a carpenter can minimize the stress that using a hammer places on his joints, one’s natural responses, including that of simply walking, often places us out of balance, and not centered. As one of my students mentioned in the last class, “We don’t spend most of our life being centered. It’s difficult to start doing so all of a sudden” Indeed it is.

But whether muscular tension comes from the exigencies of one’s profession, or the conditioned success of a natural athletic response to life, the result is often that there is too much emphasis placed on compression side of the tensegrity equation, and not enough on the tension (not muscular tension is meant here.) side. Such an approach makes the avoidance of “double weighting” very difficult.

But while that porridge may be too hot, there are those that, by dint of birthright, or temperament, have too little muscle to give any heat to the mix at all. While it is a very imperfect analogy, there has to be enough muscular innervation to give some tensile strength to the structure. Whereas the former group uses too much muscle, the latter group uses too little.

While each group faces what the taiji classics call a “sickness” in their practice, the remedies are going to be quite different. The former type of student needs to learn, point by point (and here we are speaking of a specific decision procedure) how to relax. The latter group needs to develop enough of a sense of innervation (an awareness of their muscularity) to be able to be create a structure which can transition from the substantial to the insubstantial.

Put differently, the first group is pretty unaware of the insubstantial, while the latter group knows not the substantial.

Hence, when one is teaching, it is important to develop a remedy appropriate to each. To do so is in no wise easy and for me at least the task is very much a work in progress.