Notes on Anatomy and Physiology: Learning with the Hand and Elbow

Taoist Tai Chi™ internal arts of health introduce a way of moving that is novel for all students. Because the focus is on balance in all its dimensions, we develop over time a newfound sense of comfort and ease as we practice the 108 moves of the set. It feels as if we are learning to move the way a fish swims or a frog jumps – as a coherent whole.

In order to experience this manner of moving in the world, instruction in class often focuses on the upper limbs. We are asked, for example, to open tiger’s mouth, turn the wrist, send out the hands from the body, or drop elbow. Why is it that these particular uses of this part of our anatomy create balance in the overall structure of the body? What is it about the structure of the upper limbs that grants them such an important impact on everything else?

To answer these questions, we will look initially at what is referred to as the elbow-forearm complex and, later on, investigate the lines of attachment that run between the upper limb and the trunk, pelvis and lower limbs.

First, though, it would be useful to become familiar with a few of the anatomical terms used to describe the body and its movements.

The anatomical position employed in western medicine is depicted in the drawing below:

Fig 1 The standard anatomic position used in western medicine. Biel, page 29

Something lying closer to the head is described as superior or cranial; something closer to the feet is referred to as inferior or caudal. A posterior structure lies toward the back and an anterior one towards the front.

Fig 2 A lateral view of the chest and spine. Biel, page 31

Distal refers to as structure further away from the trunk and proximal describes something closer. Lateral indicates a part further away from the midline of the body and medial a part that is closer.

Fig 3 An anterior view of the legs and feet. Biel, page 32

With someone standing in the anatomical position, one can imagine three principal planes running through the body: the sagittal plane which divides the body into left and right halves, the frontal plane which splits the body into front and back portions, and the horizontal plane which separates the body into upper and lower sections. Thinking of these planes helps us describe the movements we make. Movements which may occur in any or all of these planes.

Fig 4 The three principal planes of the body. Person is standing in the anatomical position. Neumann, page 5

Now, extension is movement that straightens or opens a joint; in the anatomical position, most joints are extended. Flexion, on the other hand, is movement that bends a joint, bringing the bones closer together. Most joints are flexed in the fetal position. Both flexion and extension occur in the sagittal plane.

Abduction carries a limb away from the midline whereas adduction brings a limb towards the middle. Both involve the frontal plane. These terms are used only for the limbs.

Internal (medial) rotation turns a limb in toward the midline; external (lateral) rotation turns it away form the centre. These movements take place in the horizontal plane. For example, with the quiet opening of the hands at the back of the tor yu, each upper arm (humerus) rotates externally, away from the midline, while the elbows remain in place and pointing downward.

Fig 5 Various movements of the humerus at the shoulder joint: flexion/extension=green curved arrows, abduction/adduction=purple curved arrows, internal/external rotation=blue curved arrows. Neumann, page 6

Finally, recall that the upper limbs form part of the appendicular skeleton which is composed of the arms and legs, shoulder girdle (scapulae and clavicles) and pelvic girdle (hip bones).

Fig 6 A posterior view of the skeleton with the appendicular skeleton highlighted. Biel, page 41

The axial skeleton, the other major segment of our skeletal system, represents the skeleton’s centre and consists of the skull, spine, sacrum, ribs and sternum. As we examine the links between the upper limbs and the rest of the body, we will see just how entwined these two sections of the skeleton really are. But that’s a topic for another day.

Fig 7 An anterior view of the skeleton, this time with the axial skeleton highlighted. Biel, page 40

1. Trail Guide to the Body, How to locate muscles, bones and more, 3rd Edition, 2005, Andrew R. Biel, Books of Discovery, ISBN: 0-9658534-5-4

2. Kinesiology of the Musculoskeletal System, Foundations for Rehabilitation, 2nd Edition, 2010, Donald A. Neumann, Mosby Elsevier, ISBN 978-0-323-03989-5

Bruce McFarlane, MD

© Taoist Tai Chi Society of Canada, 2010


Filed under Anatomy and Physiology, Health Watch

8 responses to “Notes on Anatomy and Physiology: Learning with the Hand and Elbow

  1. Joan Warren Carlson

    Thank you for another helpful post.

    What I particularly enjoy about this one is that you lead us through the review of descriptive anatomical terms into the experience of the hand movement in tor yu, focusing our attention gently on part of the skeletal system, and on the relationship between hand-arm-shoulder girdle. I can’t help but sit here and do it instead of thinking about it. Smooth.

    Happily anticipating the next installment!

  2. Nice article. Interestingly, the Classical Chinese anatomical position differs from the Western version in that the arms are medially rotated, so that the palms are by the thighs. This made for lots of confusion and laughter learning anatomy from Chinese professors using Western textbooks! Another version has the arms held vertically above the head, fingers pointing to the sky with the palms forward- this version is used to describe the distibution and polarity of the main meridians in the arms and legs. This position is also used as a qigong posture in some schools, and appears in the Taoist tai chi sequence during “Appear to close entrance”.

  3. Dana Roberts

    Just keep going!

    These articles are great and it’s good to see you’re back at it after your break, Dr. Bruce.

    Thanks for what you do.


  4. Daniela Matos

    I know the standard anatomic position because I have a Shiatsu massage course and we lern the anatomic basesand also MTC (Medicine Traditional Chinese).
    What I want to ask to you is why can’t we talk about this subject in classes of Tai Chi Taoist?
    Thank you
    Daniela Matos (Portugal)

  5. Hi Daniela

    Someone very wise once said to me “the less time we spend talking, the more time there is to do tai chi”. If we allow the tai chi to do the talking, people can get their own understanding more directly from self analysis. Although there is always room to talk about the health-improving aspects of Taoist Tai Chi, and the ways that it helps the body and mind, it is only right that we stick to the things that Mr Moy taught, both out of respect, and so as not to confuse other students. I remember Mr Moy saying things like “do it this way, as it helps to improve the circulation”, and not being any more specific than that, although in the Chinese view of the body “circulation” can refer to the movement of blood, fluids and qi all at once. It seemed to make things nice and simple, which was helpful at the time.

  6. Tony Rybczynski

    Fascinating stuff. But Tai Chi is not just physiological. We all know that.

    And so does Dr Peters of Harvard Medical School who is a Tai Chi advocate (no particular form) and is researching the benefits of Tai Chi. He points out, I believe very correctly, that Tai Chi has so many dimensions (in addition to physiological) that it’s very hard to do clinical research. For example, Tai Chi is also a mind game (concentration, the role of imagery) and a a social activity (ritual, social interactions- I would include volunteerism).

    That’s what makes Tai Chi so rich in benefits.

    • joke

      Hi, so happy to have found here all these papers of dr Bruce. And the comments. These thoughts of mine came out:
      Experiencing taoïst tai chi and thinking of the how’s and what’s behind it, could be seen as (2) different ways of looking at one body(of knowledge).
      Tony, about the part of mind and social aspects: it is amazing how in these last decennia in psychological research, using MRI, evidence is found: how inner reactions to movements, actions of the mind, emotions, experiences, are effecting neural/physical substrates. Likewise evidence might be given to the connections we experience between taoïst tai chi and the benefits in body and mind. It looks as different sciences, worlds are beginning to come together: bridges, in the end to help each other. making me silent.
      And at the same time, it probably stays that Experiencing gives us an other, deeper knowing beyond the bounderies of the mind. [‘important things happen betwéén the lines (of the stories)’].
      Joke (netherlands)

  7. an articulated-lorry…….. leading a convoy……all full of thank-you’s……for what you are all doing for us all…..
    difficult stuff!!!!!…….but…… learning the 108 moves……and helping out…..and assisisting….. instructing beginers…….all which was ‘difficult’……..and what i do now……is often more difficult……..I smile more……these days…..and smile even more….. when a student asks me to explain sch complexities abt the body…………and i can direct them to this site….and they smile also…….great that such corners exist… this bigger set…….that doing taoist tai chi……brings you into…..and how it helps people like myself and those we are introducing this form to…..Brrmmm!!!!!!……Brrmmm!!!!!!!…..another lorry on its way….from the north-west of ireland….sligo beginers…….from the coast-line of america ….with good eyesight….you’ll see us doing what you all do…..and like you all….smiling……and smiling all the more for all this dialogue…….in a nutshell……way to go!!!!!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s