Elements of Bending
Waterbending & T'ai Chi Ch'uan
Waterbending is the ability to control water in all of its forms. Like most benders, waterbenders rely on a combination of a special bending ability, their innate psychokinetic ability as well as body movements to direct the movement of the element. While all waterbenders have mildly different styles of bending – due to regional differences and personal preferences – the basis of waterbending and the movements used in the art are fundamentally the same. Waterbending’s combat style relies on fluid, graceful movements that act in parallel with the environment. They allow energy to flow naturally. Due to this flow, waterbenders allow their defense to also be their offense, and they can quickly shift from one to the other. This is waterbending’s strength: the same set of movements can be used offensively or defensively. Waterbending defense focuses on redirecting or dissipating energy rather than simply deflecting it: they use the energy of their opponent’s attack against them. Of all the bending styles, waterbending relies mostly on the upper body, especially the arms. Very few waterbending movements included the lower body until Pro-bending came along. Waterbending is also shown to be very dependent on the bender’s internal emotional state – heightened emotions can grant additional power but heavily reduce control, and much like young wizards, a highly emotional waterbender may inadvertently cause reactions in their element around them. As such, waterbending requires a certain level of self-discipline.
Waterbending was based on the Chinese martial art of T’ai Chi Ch’uan – specifically the Yang style. The hallmarks of T’ai Chi Ch’uan (commonly referred to as simply “Tai Chi” in English) are slow movements and elegant forms, and the art focuses more on control (of both oneself and one’s opponent) rather than direct harm. Both arts were influenced by ancient healing practices which emphasized the importance of the spiritual life-energy flow within the body, called “chi.” Practitioners of tai chi often focus on their breathing to tune themselves into the energy flow in their bodies, and we can see this reflected in the general calm of waterbenders during most combat situations.
“T’ai Chi Ch’uan” is often translated to mean “supreme ultimate force.” This notion of “supreme ultimate” is typically associated with the Chinese concept of yin-yang, the notion of an innate duality in the universe (e.g. dark/light, forceful/yielding, good/bad, etc.) and the balance this creates. The “force” refers to the direction of this innate energy using body movements. Based on these concepts, many forms in tai chi resemble “push and pull” movements, much like ocean waves – the idea is that these movements create a natural balance. Returning to the concept of chi, these soft, fluid movements allow the chi to flow within the body. If you imagine chi like a river in your body, you could imagine that the river might flow better if you were using relaxed, fluid movements rather than high-impact, jerky movements. Tai chi philosophy focuses on fostering the circulation of chi within the body, and cultivating a calm, tranquil frame of mind. As such, it is expected that one would place immense focus on the precise execution of tai chi exercises when practicing them. This focus helps with self-discipline and tranquility, which allows for a meditative-like state. Proper execution of tai chi movements helps develop balance, bodily and spiritual alignment, as well as fine-scale motor control. Tai chi focuses on rhythmic movements in order to help tune one into their inner life-force, and many techniques focus on generating movement from the body’s center outwards. As a result, many people practice tai chi as a form of meditation and light exercise or stretching, much like the practice of yoga, rather than focus on its use as a form of martial arts. Tai chi can help develop better posture, reduce stress, and ease regular movement.
As a martial arts form, however, tai chi aims to redirect an opponent’s energy, either at them or in a direction where it is no longer harmful. For example, one of the earliest learned exercises in tai chi training is something called “tui shou,” or “push hands.” In this exercise, you focus on gently pushing your opponent’s wrists or hands away from you, sometimes also attempting to grasp their elbow. As your opponent attempts to push towards you, you allow your hand to yield to the side, causing their hand to follow yours as the force of their push loses control without something to push against. The aim of this exercise is to learn how to yield to an attack and redirect it, rather than meeting force with force. You learn to read your opponent and understand their intention so as to better defend against them. You also learn how to find their balance and unsettle it using minimal energy on your part. This teaches the importance of leveraging and redirecting energy. At the highest level, success in push hands looks as though the person is controlling their opponent, despite being very relaxed and moving relatively little. By learning how to read the opponent and understand their intention and energy flow, a master can be two steps ahead both mentally and physically; they will know where to push or pull, by how much, and when. When an opponent resists your pushing or pulling, they will be over-correcting (pushing more than they need to), allowing you to reverse the direction of their attack and throw them off their balance. Some tai chi masters are even able to knock their opponents off their feet, just by using push hands! Effectively, tai chi is largely a matter of understanding your opponent and manipulating their strengths into weaknesses. The most prominent waterbender in the Avatar series, Katara, is shown as being both empathetic and nurturing. These traits may be seen by some as weakness, but in terms of waterbending and its roots, they offer Katara an incredible advantage; she is easily able to read and predict her opponents and redirect their attack (or block it with ease) as a result, just like a master of tai chi would.
Tai chi is an art of both healing, gentleness, and patience, as well as potentially devastating combat prowess and energy manipulation. If you ask me, it was the perfect foundation for waterbending!