There are many different ways to answer the question, "What is tai chi?" Tai chi (also taiji) was developed in China as a very effective martial art. When refered to as a marital art it is called tai chi chuan (translated as 'grand ultimate fist').
Most people both in China and the West practice tai chi not for combat but rather as a potent health exercise.
Distinct styles were developed within specific families in China as a means of protection and each style was named after their founders: Wu, Chen, Yang, Hao, etc. The three most popular styles are the Chen, Yang and Wu.
Each style has a series of distinct choreographed movements called forms with short ones lasting only for a few minutes and the longest ones up to an hour. Each style has many variations.
Over 200 million people practice tai chi daily. In China tai chi is the national health exercise. Today millions of people in the West now practice tai chi for practical benefits: to reduce stress, improve health and longevity, and maintain vitality and stamina.
You do not have to be a martial arts master to gain tai chi's benefits. Nor do you have to be classically fit, athletic or intelligent.
Unlike many exercise systems or sports, one valuable aspect of tai chi/taiji is that it can be done by anyone who can stand up; and it has specific adaptations for people confined to wheelchairs.
You can practice tai chi/taiji if you are fat or thin, healthy or just out of bed after major surgery, young, middle-aged or very old.
In China it is interesting to note that half of all participants take up tai chi between the ages of 50 and 80 when the need to overcome the potential negative effects of aging cannot be denied. Others practice to enhance their physical and intellectual capabilities.
Competition athletes use tai chi to improve their reflexes and reduce the time it takes to heal from sports injuries.
Tai chi helps middle-aged people to cope with the ever-increasing responsibilities of life, reduce stress and get a competitive edge in business. Still others use tai chi\ to develop inner discipline, open their heart and mind, and unleash their spiritual potential.
Like anything that has really stood the test of time there is a lot more to tai chi than first impressions. Tai chi contains important parts of the accumulated wisdom of the ancient world, and can help everyone overcome the ever-present difficulties of the human condition and engage with life positively.
Like all qigong (or chi gung, chi kung) programs, tai chi relaxes and regulates the central nervous system, releasing physical and emotional stress, and promoting mental and emotional well-being. Tai chi tones the muscles while releasing knots and tension in them.
During each workout the movements of tai chi exercise every muscle, ligament, tendon and joint of the body.
The continuous movements cause every lymph node and internal organ to be massaged, and all the body's internal pumps to be energized. Most Western medical studies focus on tai chi's health and relaxation benefits.
Tai chi energizes the whole body and gives you more chi, the energy that makes you feel alive, well and vital.
It gives you a great physical sense of how chi gets embodied into your movement and enables you to experience and work with energy in a very subtle, complex manner.
Often when first learning a tai chi form you must spend many days, weeks and months simply learning the external movements. At some point once you have learned the external movements so that you don't have to 'think' about doing them, you can then start to focus more on sensing the chi flows.
Next once you have the external movements and are starting to feel and sense the internal chi, new possibilities open up to use tai chi for meditation.
Tai chi has been called moving meditation.Most often in the West we think of meditation is something that is to be done while sitting in a chair or cross-legged in a chair. However, moving meditations are very useful because if you can learn to meditate while moving then you can bring meditation into every movement that you do in life.
Practicing tai chi in a meditative way with relaxed focus is only a shadow of the deepest spiritual aspects of Taoist moving meditation.
Taoism has a rare meditation tradition that was taught to Bruce Frantzis by his Taoist teacher Liu Hung Chieh. He taught him how to incorporate the Taoist meditation practices into tai chi thus making tai chi a spiritual practice.
Most people will simply focus on tai chi's health benefits, possibily learning the internal components that make it even more useful, however tai chi used as meditation has the capability for those who are willing and ready to take you into the core of your being and what in Taoism is called the center of the Tao or what in Buddhism is called 'emptiness'.
I recently returned from a three week instructor training in a chi gung practice called “Gods Playing in the Clouds”. This intensive was held at Menlo College near San Francisco and I’d like to share some details about my experience.