5.a.xxxix-turning-twisting-coiling Section

Turning (Rotating), Twisting (Winding) and Coiling (Spiralling)

Written by Nick Gudge (last updated Jan 2013)

(This article began as an earlier article “Coiling, Winding and Twisting – Opening and Closing” and evolved into something broader. If you are looking for a simpler version I suggest reading this earlier version.)

These six words are commonly used in describing taijiquan, usually with little or no definition. This is a problem because these words all have multiple meanings in common usage yet they describe critical elements of taijiquan. The purpose of this piece is to provide some insight into the importance of these processes in taijiquan, along with definitions and some clarity of description.

Although they can easily be confused, turning, twisting and coiling are not the same thing in taijiquan. In most respects turning (or rotating) can be considered a precursor to twisting (or winding), which itself can be considered a precursor to coiling (or spiralling). These terms are commonly used interchangeable, particularly by teacher’s whose first language is not English. This leads to confusion and a lessening of understanding rather than an increase in understanding.

For the purpose of this article I have chosen very specific definitions of these three terms. (For completeness Oxford English dictionary definitions can be found at the end of this article.) To begin, try a brief experiment. Take a piece of cloth e.g. a handkerchief or a dish-cloth. Hold the two ends while keeping the cloth under a little tension. Try these three motions:

  1. Turn the two ends in the same direction (like rolling a rolling pin):  the cloth turns.
  2. Turn the two ends in opposite directions a little: the cloth twists or winds.
  3. Turn the two ends in opposite directions as much as you can: the cloth coils i.e. a twist appears in it and the two ends get closer together.

Let me be clear so there is as little confusion as possible. ‘Coiling’ is the predominant action in taijiquan. I would even suggest that coiling is the only action of these three that exists in taijiquan. However this probably does not help understanding so I propose to set this suggestion aside initially.


Turning is the simplest process so it is probably the best place to begin. Turning is a rotation in a single plane. It should be noted that in taijiquan, ‘only turning’ does not occurs. However turning is the action that we use to produce twisting and coiling. Turning produces twisting and coiling because one foot or both feet remain frequently stationary. Examples of turning by itself would be an ice skater or ballerina doing a pirouette or a gymnast doing a cartwheel or somersault.


Twisting can be described as changing the orientation of a point on a line relative to another point. In practical terms twisting is when with two points on a line, one point is held stationary and the other rotated or where they are rotated in the same plane in opposite directions. In taijiquan this produces the effect where one joint may be turning in a particular direction, e.g. rotating clockwise, the adjacent joints will be rotating ‘relatively’ in the opposite direction i.e. anti-clockwise. (Note that it might be that both joints are rotating in the same direction but at different speeds so there is a ‘relative’ difference.) This imparts a twisting along the bone, which can be used to store (or release) strength.

This can be most easily recognised by observing the motion relative to the midpoint of the line, in the body this would be the waist. If I stand on my right leg where my right knee and navel are in the same direction as a starting point, then turn my waist left, my right knee will usually no longer be facing in the same direction as my navel. It will appear to the right of my navel. So even though my right knee may have actually moved to the left, ‘relative to my waist’ it is to the right of its starting place. We can achieve an equivalent effect by leaving the waist where it is and turning the right foot/toes to the right.

To see the effect of turning producing twisting I recommend another simple experiment. Place your right palm on a vertical wall, fingers pointing up. Keep the arm straight and lean you weight on it a little so the hand will remain in place when you begin to turn the elbow. Begin to turn the elbow in so the inside of the elbow is facing up and then out so the inside of the elbow is facing more down. Do this a few times until you have an easy motion. Try not to let your body move, especially your palm and your shoulder. Notice what happens to the tissues in the upper and lower arm. They become twisted. The elbow gets no closer to the shoulder or the wrist and the wrist appears to get no closer to the shoulder so we can say that no ‘coiling’ as I have defined it has occurred. (For accuracy sake note that because there are two bones in the forearm that the twisting here causes coiling to occurs between the wrist joints and the elbow joints.) However, it is easy to see how turning the elbow causes twisting in the tissues along the long bones which stores energy. When the elbow is let go from either extremity of turn it is ‘naturally’ pulled back to its mid-position.


Coiling requires the line between two points to have breadth or thickness or for the rotation to occur in more than one plane. When a line has breadth and remains of constant length and rotation of two points on that line are in opposite directions relative to each other, it causes the ends of the line to approach each other. It is easier perhaps to consider the line itself as say a length of string or rubber. As we twist the two ends in opposite directions of rotation they are drawn closer together. Coiling can be described as spiralling when a point rotates and moves in a direction outside its plane of rotation. In mathematical terms a line becomes curved when it becomes coiled.

When coiling actions are applied to the body they become more complicated as the body is largely structured around bones which do not in themselves twist or coil.  However, the tissues that surround the bones, can be coiled or tensioned, storing energy like a wound piece of elastic, (particularly the sinews and ligaments but also the muscles and probably the fascia.) The process is made more confusing because the rotations are rarely simple with the bones themselves both turn along their length axis and commonly along other axes also as well as rotations along the tissues. We will return to this shortly.

The close relationship between these terms is easy to see as are the possibilities for confusion. It is not possible to twist without turning. It is not possible to coil without twisting. In a practical sense it is not possible to twist without coiling. However the coiling can be very slight so the expansion or contraction can appear non-existent even though it is there. For this reason high level teachers talk about twisting as the predominant action in taijiquan. In using these terms, it is important to be clear what process and effect is being emphasised.

In relation to these topics, I offer the following six contentions:

  1. that taijiquan is a method of training the body to develop ‘whole body coiling’ primarily as a mechanism to develop or store power and to deliver power.
  2. to get maximal effect (power) it is critical that each adjacent joint of the ‘long bones’ rotate in opposite directions relatively to provide twisting and so utilise more of the bodies tissues to provide power. These long bones principally compose the upper and lower arms and legs. This is also true of sections of the spine, i.e. groups of vertebrae.
  3. the release of any stored power is derived from reversing the directions of rotation used to store the power, (coupled with the extension or contraction of any parts of the body that appropriately add to the power without causing an imbalance in the body.)
  4. to allow transmission of this coiling power to its delivery point it is essential that no part of the coiling elements of the body lock or stiffen or it will significantly impact the transmission of this strength (as well as inhibiting peng jing, the fundamental skill of taijiquan.) Locking of the body is commonly translated as ‘double weighting.’
  5. in general the greater the degree of turning the easier it is to understand the process and the more coiling power it produces. However the greater the degree of turning the more likely it is that the twisting will produce stiffness across a joint that cannot be controlled or has not been sufficiently conditioned to maintain that degree of stiffness.
  6. through considerable understanding and practice it becomes possible to reduce the appearance of turning and movement and still produce immense power. It is also possible to move parts of the body e.g. the knees and elbows, where they appear either not to have peng or to have become stiff even though this is not so. These requires significant skill.

Of these contentions, the second is probably the one that most people may disagree with. The key word is ‘relatively’. If the two adjacent joints, e.g. wrist and elbow or hip and knee, do not rotate against each other i.e. in relative opposite directions, then coiling will not produce power. Please note that I am not talking about the control or use of this power, (which in taijiquan requires the dan tien,) but about the production of it. In taijiquan power is produced across the body (see contention one.) Maximising that power means not only maximising the production of power in the most powerful parts, (i.e. the lower torso and upper leg,) but also utilising as many power producing parts as possible (i.e. the whole body.)

There are many stages to arrive at this understanding. Loosening the joints and gaining control over the muscles of the body allows turning to be grasped. Rotating the hands and feet (or more commonly rotating the leg without the foot moving) allows twisting to be grasped. Adding expanding and contracting into the process allows the idea of coiling to be grasped.

Some of these stages may be contradictory in nature e.g. ‘wind the elbow in as much as possible’ and ‘don’t over wind the elbow’ etc. These contradictions largely arise as a result of two errors: an exaggeration in the teaching process to convey clearer understanding on one element at the cost of another element and an acceptance of a particular imbalance in exchange for the particular benefit it derives. Two schools of thought are: 1. to practice through some exaggerated process individual elements that are difficult to grasp and then incorporate them in a more moderated fashion; and 2. to minimise drift away from the exact process required and hence to practice the ‘whole’ motion, correcting whatever element is most incorrect. In my experience all teachers use a combination of both methods.

As an example let us consider the thighs. What I contend is that to maximise power storing, when the right knee turns in (to the left), the right hip turns out (to the right.) This process is apparent in more advanced development of postures like Cover Hand Punch but is specifically avoided in early development of this posture as power is not the pre-eminent consideration. Initially focus must be on loosening the hips. Making the hips work very hard is counter productive to loosening them. Conversely having loose hips allows them to work vary hard.

There are many varied methods of gaining an understanding of these three processes through training and conditioning the body. There is not one unique method. Most methods are simultaneously incorporating other import elements of taijiquan which tends to make the coiling element less obvious. Each teacher has their own method. Some teachers are more effective in conveying understanding and inspiring practice than others.

The difficulties with all methods is the inability of the student to grasp the scope of what is being taught and to practice the specifics that will allow most efficient progress to be made. Usually student practice what they want to, or what they think they should, not what they teacher suggests they practice. In my opinion, practicing turning is the starting point and turning requires loosening the body. When turning is easily executed then the idea of twisting becomes more evident. When twisting is grasped and the process accomplished easily then coiling becomes self-evident.

When winding, twisting or coiling something, the opposite ends of the coiled object must move 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. Aside from the language itself, 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 should 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 twisting 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. Twisting occurs along bones and initially it is easier to think that the muscular structures along each long bone (muscles, fascia, sinews and ligaments) can be twisted, like the piece of rubber described in a paragraph above, 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 might not move, and should certainly not 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 may be 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.

Other Observations:

I have frequently heard the proposal that twisting along the long bones, (i.e. where the joint at the end of one long bones moves in one direction of rotation and the joint at the other end moves in the opposite direction of rotation,) is the ‘natural motion’ of the body. By ‘natural’ these proponents suggest that this is how the sinews and ligaments predominantly or optimally exist in the body. Lacking surgical experience I do not feel competent to contradict this proposal. Nevertheless I suspect that it is more a factor of ‘control of the waist’, ‘transmission of strength through the whole body’ and ‘maintenance of a broad range of motion’ than something intrinsic to human anatomy. Human anatomy provides for a wide range of different types of motion and conditioning and practice will improve the degree of power these types of motion will deliver.


For completeness sake I have provided a brief look at definitions below. (For simplicities sake I have used the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary for definitions.) I find it curious that the use of the words I think are most effective are those used by engineering science.

Turn:   This has seven major definitions in use, each of which have multiple variations providing more than fifty variations in definition. In taijiquan the same word is used in several ways. I recommend the following simple usage for clarity: 1. to cause to move around on an axis or about a centre. In taijiquan it can be used interchangeably with the word ‘rotate.’ I prefer the use of the word ‘turn’ to avoid confusion.

Rotate: This has three major definitions in use, two which are used commonly in taijiquan: 1. to turn around on or as if on an axis and 2. to cause to turn around an axis or center point. In taijiquan it can be used interchangeably with the word ‘turn’.  For this reason I usually just use the word ‘turn’.

Twist:  This has four major definitions in use, each of which have multiple variations providing more than thirty variations in definition. Again unfortunately in taijiquan the same word is used in several ways. It is commonly misused as an alternative to the words, turn, rotate or coil. While this is not an incorrect use of the word it does not provided clarity of explanation. The sole definition I suggest provides greatest clarity in taijiquan is: to alter in shape, by turning the ends in opposite directions, so that parts previously in the same straight line and plane are located in a spiral. It is differentiated from the words ‘rotate’ and ‘turn’ as two directions of rotation are required.

Wind:  (pronounced as ‘why-nd’) This has seventeen major definitions in use, each of which have multiple variations providing more than twenty five variations in definition. Again unfortunately in taijiquan several of these definitions are applicable which does not provided clarity of explanation. The sole definition I suggest provides greatest clarity in taijiquan is: to put into a curve or twisted form. I prefer the word twist in most circumstances.

Spiral: This has four major definitions in use, each of which have multiple variations providing nine minor variations in definition. The single use that I propose provides clarity to taijiquan is: a plane curve generated by a point moving around a fixed point while constantly receding from or approaching it. In taijiquan it can be used interchangeably with the word ‘coil’ which I prefer.

Coil:    This has six major definitions in use, each of which have multiple variations providing sixteen minor variations in definition. The single use that I propose provides clarity to taijiquan is: to gather or retract in a circular way. In taijiquan it can be used interchangeably with the word ‘spiral’ although I prefer the use of the word ‘coil’.

It is easy to see how and why some of these words are used interchangeably and how using different words can make writing less boring or more interesting to read. However in taijiquan I think it rarely if ever provides clarity and more commonly provides confusion.


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