Tai Chi, or Taijiquan in Chinese, is an outstanding gem of traditional Chinese culture that is valuable in promoting health, developing combat and self-defence skills, and improving concentration and overall well-being. Tai chi, sometimes written as t’ai chi, is a self-defense and calisthenics technique developed in China centuries ago as a maturation of several similar but separate exercises. The more formal name of this technique is tai chi chuan, which translates loosely to “supreme ultimate boxing.”
Tai chi chuan, (Chinese: “supreme ultimate fist”) Pinyin taijiquan, Wade-Giles romanization t’ai chi ch’uan, also called tai chi, or Chinese boxing, ancient and distinctive Chinese form of exercise or attack and defense that is popular throughout the world. As exercise, tai chi chuan is designed to provide relaxation in the process of body-conditioning exercise and is drawn from the principles of taiji, notably including the harmonizing of the yin and yang, respectively the passive and active principles. It employs flowing, rhythmic, deliberate movements, with carefully prescribed stances and positions, but in practice no two masters teach the system exactly alike. As a mode of attack and defense, tai chi chuan resembles kung fu and is properly considered a martial art. It may be used with or without weapons.
Freehand exercise to promote health was practiced in China as early as the 3rd century, and, by the 5th century, monks at the Buddhist monastery of Shao Lin were performing exercises emulating the five creatures: bear, bird, deer, monkey, and tiger. The snake was added later, and, by the early Ming dynasty (1368), the yin and yang principles had been added to harmonize the whole. An assimilation of these developments, the art of tai chi chuan was codified and named in the early Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12).
There have been many schools of tai chi chuan, and five are popular and distinctive. Depending on school and master, the number of prescribed exercise forms varies from 24 to 108 or more. The forms are named for the image created by their execution, such as “White stork displays its wings” and “Fall back and twist like monkey.” All start from one of three stances, weight forward, weight on rear foot, and horse riding, or oblique.
The benefits of Tai Chi are well recognized by practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) who are frequently Tai Chi instructors themselves and recommend the art as the physiotherapy of TCM.
Anyone regardless of age or level of fitness can practice and benefit from Tai Chi. Loose, comfortable clothing and flat shoes should be worn to classes.
There are many different forms of Tai Chi with the main styles being Chen, Yang, Sun, Wu, Woo and Dong Yue. While each style has its own characteristics, the principles remain the same. The Yang style is the one you have probably seen being practiced in the park. It is the style responsible for the spread in popularity of Tai Chi for health and relaxation.
Just What Is Tai Chi?
There is much more to tai chi than one can see, and virtually no one can describe such a complex art in one simple sentence. Yes, it’s aesthetically pleasing, easy and enjoyable to practice. It can be a meditation and an integral exercise for all parts of the body and the mind. It brings tranquility and helps you think more clearly. Tai chi can be many things for different people; regular practice will bring better health and wellness.
The flowing movements of tai chi contain much inner strength, like water flowing in a river, beneath the tranquil surface there is a current with immense power—the power for healing and wellness. With consistent practice, people will be able to feel the internal energy (qi 氣), convert it to internal force (jing 勁) and use it to generate more internal energy. This process would greatly enhance tai chi development, leading to a more balanced mental state; at the same time your fitness, agility and balance will improve. The unique feature of tai chi is that it is internal. Internal means building the inner strength from inside out, therefore you can continue to develop at any age.
Numerous studies have shown tai chi improves muscular strength, flexibility, fitness, improve immunity, relieve pain and improve quality of life. Muscle strength is important for supporting and protecting joints and is essential for normal physical function. Flexibility exercises enable people to move more easily, and facilitate circulation of body fluid and blood, which enhance healing. Fitness is important for overall functioning of the heart, lungs, and muscles. In addition to these components, tai chi movements emphasize weight transference to improve balance and prevent falls.
Aside from the health benefits, tai chi runs deep and strong. It’s easy to learn and becomes a way of life for many practitioners. Yet, because of its depth, no one ever knows it all, and thereby lies the fascination and the never-ending challenge of the art. There will be times, no matter how brief, when a practitioner will enter a mental stage of tranquillity, moving to a different world, time, and space, a world where there is no schedule, no hustle and bustle. Yet the person still feels very much a part of the world. In a non-religious sense, it’s a spiritual experience. Such an experience is so satisfying that it is beyond words. Being part of the world, being in harmony with the world and nature, thus is the paradox of tai chi, health and beyond.
The History of Tai Chi
Though its exact history is unknown, Tai Chi is widely believed to have been developed in the 12th or 13th century in China. Originally created as a self-defense discipline that simultaneously promotes inner peace, it is thought to be closely tied to Qigong, ancient Chinese martial art that has roots in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Fast forward to today, it remains one of the most popular martial arts styles in China. Usually performed in groups, in the morning in parks and open spaces, over the past decades, its practice has steadily increased outside of its country of origin – including in western countries such as the U.S.
The Philosophy Behind Tai Chi
The core philosophy of Tai Chi is deeply rooted in Taoist philosophy: keeping the balance of the Yin and Yang, the opposing elements that make up the universe that need to be kept in harmony. Yin is believed to have the qualities of water such as stillness, inward and downward directions and is feminine in character.
In contrast, Yang tends to be masculine and has qualities of fire, such as heat and includes upward and downward movements. In Taoism, it is believed that in order for one to be healthy, their Yin and Yang need to be in balance – this can be achieved through the practice of Tai Chi.
Types of Tai Chi
he oldest and considered to be the ‘parent’ of the five Tai Chi styles. It alternates between fast and slow movements combined together with some jumping and stomping.
Developed in the 1600s, Chen is the oldest (and therefore the original) form of tai chi. According to Taichi.ca, it was developed by the Chen family in the Chen Village, and is characterized by a combination of slow and then quick movements, including jumping, kicking, and striking.
Chen also utilizes a movement called “silk reeling,” which is essentially a spiral-esque, flowing movement that starts at the feet and moves into the hands and is the foundation of Chen-style tai chi.
Yang is often considered the most popular form of Tai Chi and is the most widely practiced across the globe today. It was founded by Yang Lu-Ch’an in the mid-1800s and builds off the original Chen style.
The most popular style out of the bunch, the Yang style is widely practiced around the globe. If you happen to stumble upon a group of Tai Chi practitioners in your neighborhood park, chances are, they are performing Yang Style movements. It is developed by Yang Luchan that emphasizes slow, even, gentle, and large movements.
The difference is that it focuses more on improving flexibility via grand, sweeping movements that are executed in a slow and graceful motion. Because it doesn’t use the quick fast movements of Chen, it’s considered more accessible and ideal for all ages and fitness levels, which is likely why it’s so popular.
Dubbed as the ‘The 2nd Wu style’, it is the second most popular style practiced today. The defining differences of this style are in its hand form, pushing hands and weapons training.
Also one of the most popular versions of Tai Chi, the Wu version was developed by Wu Ch’uan-yu who was actually trained under Yang. What sets it apart from other forms of Tai Chi is that it focuses on extending the body by leaning forward and backward versus standing in a centered position. In that sense, it very much focuses on improving balance.
The Sun form of Tai Chi was developed by Sun Lutang, a Confucian and Taoist scholar who was also an expert in several different forms of Chinese martial arts.
This style focuses on smooth, flowing movements that exclude the more rigorous physical movements found in the other four styles, such as crouching and leaping. Due to its extra gentleness, it is most suitable to be used for physical therapy.
This version involves more footwork compared to the others, which is paired with soft and silk-reeling hand movements. When you see it performed from beginning to end, it very much resembles a beautiful choreographed dance.
Also referred to as ‘The 1st Wu style’, it is the result of the combination of Yang and Chen styles. The movements are done in smaller frames with slow, smooth movements and a high posture.
Hao is considered the least popular of all five forms of Tai Chi, largely because it is quite nuanced and requires a more advanced skill level. This form places a strong emphasis on “controlling the movement of qi (internal force)” and isn’t recommended for those who are new to the art.
Who Should Practice Tai Chi?
This low impact, ‘soft’ martial arts style is very practical as it requires no equipment and can be done just about anywhere. As it doesn’t put much pressure on bones and joints, it is commonly practiced by the elderly to stay physically active. Since it offers a range of health benefits, it is widely practiced in hospitals and rehabilitation centers by those who are recovering from illness or functional limitations.
That said, Tai Chi is also highly beneficial for people of all ages who are still in good health and seeking to maintain their health and fitness. Additionally, it is recommended for those who wish to learn powerful self-defense moves in a non-strenuous (you are encouraged to learn at your own pace) and safe way (minimal risk of injury).
Lastly, developing internal power before learning external or ‘hard’ martial arts styles such as Kung Fu can also prove to be very useful. Tai Chi can complement existing martial arts practice as it allows you to relax, regenerate and increase focus.
It emphasizes the use of internal energy and slow yet powerful movements that enable those who master it to deflect their attacker effortlessly. Tai Chi movements often ‘fool’ people due to their subtlety, but be warned, when performed correctly, they are certainly lethal enough to neutralize opponents without the need of exerting much energy.
Who Can Benefit Most from Tai Chi?
Anyone can benefit from incorporating tai chi into their life. Specifically, the Yang, Wu, and Sun forms are arguably the most accessible since they utilize slow and steady movements that even beginners can learn.
There are even modern-day alternative versions that you can do sitting in a chair! Also, because Tai Chi involves a mental aspect, it serves as a beautiful way to meditate and find inner peace.
Health Benefits of Tai Chi
The slow and low-impact nature of tai chi make it an ideal form of exercise for the elderly, ill or disabled. However, tai chi is also commonly practiced by people of all ages who are in good health, according to Wayne, who said that studies show that the benefits of tai chi apply to people across a range of demographics, from healthy college students to patients suffering from heart disease.
Most Western scientific studies have focused on the exercise element of tai chi chuan, rather than the practices’ spiritual aspects. And the health benefits are numerous — so great that many hospitals hold tai chi classes for their patients. A 2012 study published in the journal Disability and Health found that tai chi was more effective than traditional physiotherapy at preventing falls among elderly hospital patients who had already sustained injuries as a result of a fall.
The benefits of tai chi for both healthy individuals and those with health conditions include strengthening of cognitive function and memory, improvement of balance and muscular strength, improvement of quality of life and sleep and strengthening of immune health, according to Wayne.
It develops muscle strength – Similar to resistance exercises, when practiced regularly, it can help to develop both lower-body strength and upper-body strength. As muscles are responsible for pumping fluid and blood throughout the body, the stronger they are, the better the functions of our body’s organs and joints become. Muscle developments can also help reduce chronic pain resulting from Osteoarthritis.
It increases physical balance – Findings from a 2012 the National Center for Biotechnology Information study of over 150 individuals over the age of 65 who had already sustained injuries as a result of a fall, illustrated that in comparison to traditional physiotherapy, Tai Chi was more effective in preventing future falls. This is because Tai Chi helps trains balance and proprioception, which has a tendency to deteriorate with age.
It improves flexibility and posture – Though its movements are far less demanding than many poses found in yoga, Tai Chi has been found to help with flexibility and posture of practitioners of all ages – not just the elderly. Being more flexible can assist us to be more active as it improves our range of motions and movements.
It enhances Cardiovascular fitness – In 2011, The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reported that Tai Chi shows promise as a complementary to standard medical care for those who experienced chronic heart failure. Whereas an Emory University study that was done in 1996 on over 100 post-heart attack patients revealed that those who participated in Tai Chi classes had better Cardiovascular fitness and lower blood pressure than those who did not.
Tai Chi can develop:
Improved overall health
Calmness and focus of mind
Suppleness, strength, co-ordination, balance, and agility
Relaxation and freedom from stress
Strengthening of the internal functions of the body, such as the immune system, metabolic functions, and cardiovascular system
Understanding of the body’s processes and self-healing
Harmony with the natural laws of human life
Read more What Is Physical Therapy? An Overview of Physical Therapy