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Understanding T'ai Chi Movement Directions

Typically, in classical T’ai Chi practice, you find that the movement is oriented in two ways: by compass (north, south, east, west) or by clockface (12 o’clock, 6 o’clock, and so on). That takes some thinking compared to traditional Western exercise where you just face front, wherever front is, then turn right or turn left.

There are different schools of thought as to which method is better. Here are the two methods:

  • By clockface: When you use the face of a clock, your front — wherever that may be — becomes 12 o’clock. (Okay, in most cases the front becomes 12 o’clock. However, some call the rear true 12 o’clock.) For you, if your front is 12, then your right is 3, to the rear is 6, and to your left is 9.

  • By compass: When you use a compass, you may hear an instructor say, “Face north,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean true polar north. North may just be a representation of wherever the front happens to be. The other way of figuring out which way is which is to simply call the positions front, back, right, and left. Unfortunately, with T’ai Chi’s minute shifts, that can be very inexact. Does 2 o’clock (or northeast) become front-right? The following diagram shows how all this fits together.

    Following the T’ai Chi map and compass for forms.
    Following the T’ai Chi map and compass for forms.
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