In recent years, computers have helped artists and scientists alike to better understand the notion of fractals. These are natural or artificial designs that possess the special quality of containing the same organization and design at any level from the most micro to the most macro. If the great pyramids of Giza were fractals for instance, (they’re not) then if you took a bulldozer to it the resultant pieces would all be pyramidal. If you smashed those pieces with a hammer, the smaller pieces that resulted would look like small pyramids. When you bent down to examine rubble at the base of the pyramid you would see the same signature pyramidal shape you had seen when approaching from afar. If you pounded the rubble with a hammer until it was dust, then examined the dust under a microscope, you would find that dust was comprised of individual particles, each of which possessed the same geometric, mathematical, and energetic qualities—in miniature of course—as the giant pyramid before you.

Our universe is full of fractals. It could be said that on the grandest scale galaxies express the overall order of the universe, and are in turn fractally represented on a smaller scale by solar systems. Planets fractally represent the solar systems to which they belong, and their mineral skeleton—riverine blood vessels, atmospheric skin, breathy weather and mountainous muscles—are in turn fractally expressed by the creatures that live on the earth.

The martial art we call tai chi ch’uan, a physical and energetic embodiment of the Taoist philosophy of Lao Tze, is a fractal too. Philosophical Taoism has a very specific design. It attempts to both explain and mimic nature, to capture natural qualities such as balance, harmony, and perpetual change. Tai chi expresses these same Taoist principles by urging us to come into harmony with our opponent’s force, to open and close our body when we do certain movements, to have an empty and full hand or leg—which is to say one that bears weight or focus and one that does not while all the while we are in the process of moving and shifting and changing.

Remember, a fractal must retain its same architecture from its largest scale down to its minutest bits. Thus the macro view of tai chi as an art and a martial style reveals a certain Taoist architecture, but so do all of tai chi’s components. So we should find in each and every part of the system, each and every component, the same exact design as we see in the whole thing. And indeed we do. Every element of tai chi (the open-hand and weapons forms, meditation techniques, the warm-up exercises, proper stretching, push hands and even free sparring) all express the same overall design as the Taoist philosophy on which the system is based.

Drilling a bit deeper, we find that even the postures that that are linked to comprise the tai chi forms are themselves organized according to the same overall design. They too display tai chi’s fractal nature, embodying the same principles of weight and weightlessness, spiraling, relaxation and intention as does the form that contains them, and the system that contains the forms. Going ever smaller and deeper, we should find that even the parts of the body and the individual motions that guide them—a hand coming up and across the face, say, or a foot turning sole inward with a forward or backward step—should contain the architecture of the overall movement of which they are a part. The ankle should turn in a spiral, the forearm should be twisting, even the fingers and toes, if we’re doing everything as correctly as we should, will express tai chi’s unique Taoist architecture and underpinnings.

This fractal quality is what gives tai chi its power. It is what makes the simple profound. Because the art asks us to express universal principles in every movement, the art is demanding. At the same time, precisely because we create the grand from the small, the art pays off in spades.