Relative and carried movement

In the article ‘Active and passive movement’, the main focus was on the lower body – hips and legs. This article will deal similar principles but with more relevance to upper body, particularly the arms and hands. These will be referred to as ‘relative movement‘ and ‘carried movement‘.

When we begin our opening Qigong exercises in a standing posture, there is no movement in the lower body after we have relaxed the hips and ‘sunk’ down. From then on (unless we’re doing Zhang Zhuang static stances) all movement comes through the shoulder muscles to move the arms. They are changing position relative to the body – relative movement. (For example, ‘Lifting Water’, ‘Parting Clouds’, ‘Lotus’ etc.)

However, when we start to actively engage the hips and shift weight from leg to leg to make the body turn, some of the apparent movement of the arms becomes carried movement. For a moment, the arms cease to move relative to the body and any movement (within surrounding space) from one side to the other is directed by the turning of the body through the hips.

A good example of these principles in both Shibashi Qigong and Tai Chi form is ‘Hands Like Clouds’:

One arm rises to a position similar to Ward Off, whilst the other lowers and remains below. Both then remain still. This is the relative movement part of the posture/exercise. When both arms are still, the body turns to the other side, making the movement of the arms in surrounding space carried movement – i.e., for a moment, they are not changing position relative to the body. The actions are then repeated, alternating relative and carried movements separately.

In most of the Tai Chi form, and more complex whole-body Qigong and Chan Si Gong (Silk Reeling) exercises, movements are a combination of overlapping or simultaneous relative and carried movements. Another way of looking at these principles is to see that relative movements tend to be vertical (up/down) whereas carried movements tend to be lateral (sideways).

A common error is the misunderstanding in observation and then misinterpretation of carried movement. A student will often add in extra lateral movements as relative movements that shouldn’t be there – e.g., moving the arms sideways across the centre line of the body, or extending an arm outwards as if ‘reaching’, increasing tension in the shoulder muscles instead of relaxing them. (Remember the Chinese saying…. “More is less and less is more”). Analysing posture movements in terms of relative and carried movements can help overcome these common errors.

Similar comparison can be made with the principles of active and passive movement described in the other article. Relative movement can also be seen as active, and carried movement as passive.

The combinations of these movements are what create the ‘optical illusions’ we misunderstand and misinterpret when learning Tai Chi and Qigong. Breaking down the components separately, bit by bit, can help understanding and learning of some of the apparent complexities. Once this is done, movements can be seen as much simpler than they appeared at first.


  • Relative = arms changing relative to body
  • Relative movement vertical
  • Carried = body turning, arms following
  • Carried movement lateral
  • Whole-body Tai Chi/Qigong – combination of relative and carried
  • No lateral compensatory movement

Gareth Davy  American College of Sports Medicine: Health/Fitness Specialist

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