Tai Chi Tipping Point: Will Tai Chi Go Viral?

by | Dec 25, 2009 | Bruce's Picks, Tai Chi | 50 comments

Everybody who has been involved in tai chi in the West for the past 10-15 years has known that tai chi is probably going to reach a tipping point were it really reaches the masses; where tai chi really becomes known to the public rather than being some strange exercise that hippies practice.

The simple fact still remains most of the public know little of the tremendous benefits of tai chi, how tai chi works or how to learn tai chi. Lets connect Malcolm Gladwell, Swami Vichinanda,Jane Fonda and Bruce Lee with the Tai Chi Tipping Point…

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Points: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, he describes the “three rules of epidemics” to determine the conditions for something to go viral. What needs to happen for tai chi to meet these three rules and spread like crazy? And can we learn anything from the popularity of yoga in relation to tai chi?

Tai Chi Compared to Yoga

Yoga had been around in the West for over 115 years where, in contrast, tai chi has been around for less than half that time or about 40 years.

A little known fact is that the West’s awareness of yoga is generally considered to have been brought over by Swami Vichinanada  in 1893 at the Parliament of World’s Religions. Yoga’s growth path was unremarkable for most of those years, until about 1980. So what caused yoga to take off in the 1980’s?

Well one reason is that some celebrities started promoting it. One of the foremost was Jane Fonda, who is also considered to have founded the aerobics movement. She is a Hollywood star and clearly one of the sex symbols of her generation. So when she started practicing and promoting yoga many women got on board or more literally on the mat.

It is no great surprise that Yoga exploded in part because of Hollywood publicity as many trends are created there.

The Three Rules of Epidemics

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell says that there are Three Rules of Epidemics.  Here is a short summary of the three rules:

  1. “The Law of the Few”—Gladwell states: “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” He goes on to talk about three types of people. Connectors link people up together. These people have massive social networks. Mavens are people who connect us with new information. Finally there are Salespeople who are good at persuading us to try or buy.
  2. The Stickiness Factor—Stickiness is related to how a message is remembered and passed on. How much does something become the “topic of the day”?
  3. The Power of Context—Context is an important area taking into consideration the environment and conditions that would need to be present for a trend to go viral, such as demographics and value systems.

If we look the promotion of Yoga by Jane Fonda, we could say that she is a connector, a maven and a saleswoman all in one.  In the early 1980’s one of the big new inventions was the VCR, which dramatically helped the trend to become “sticky.” Finally, the population demographics of the baby boomer generation fit the slot where yoga and aerobics would be appealing. So we could say that yoga definitely meet all of Gladwell’s rules.

Who Does Tai Chi in China?

If we look at tai chi in China, 50 percent of all people who practice tai chi are over the age of 50. Tai chi is known for incredibly regenerating people’s bodies—making them healthy—and being one of the best longevity anti-aging programs.

Tai chi is the only non-impact exercise in the world that has a dramatic track record for reversing the aging process. Nothing else has the track record of tai chi. But still, up until the 1960’s when tai chi came to the United States, tai chi was an odd “thing” out there.

Some think tai chi is just a martial art, which is just not the truth. Others will say tai chi is a dance, and of course that is not the truth either.

What can be said in the current times is that most people associate tai chi with being somewhat good for your health. It is also becoming more well-known that tai chi is also good for all kinds of illnesses, including diabetes, arthritis and fall prevention.

However, what has been missing in the tai chi tipping point equation in terms of context in the West is very simple: The baby boomer generation population in America and Europe is only now starting to reach an age where tai chi has real appeal. When you are in your 20’s and 30’s the idea of a low-impact exercise for longevity just doesn’t have the same attraction as it does for a person as they age . When you’re young, you more typically climb mountains, run long distances and do other higher-impact sports.

The baby boomer population has finished running their marathons, buying houses, tried and given up psychedelics, and gone through the householder stage . They are now just entering a completely new phase whereby health, extending their life and releasing stress is of utmost importance. They want to see their grandkids grow up.

Enter Tai Chi

To some extent, whatever the baby boomer generation decides to do, the entire society follows because they constitute something like 30-40 percent of the population. As a result a lot of money follows the boomers along with marketing and paradigm shifts.

The tai chi community has been saying for about 10 years, maybe even 15 years, “Well, ya know the baby boomers are about 40, 45, and 50.” Well right now we are in the slot because the first wave is coming when they start hitting 60.

Baby boomers will finally be confronted with their own mortality. The earlier vanities of youth will flip into the cold hard realities of getting older. This is when many may jump on board with tai chi. As I have said elsewhere, tai chi really is the foremost preventative healthcare solution on the planet. Here is the demographics in the US from the year 2000.

You can see from the graph the bulge that represents the boomers (note this chart is 10 years old). We’ve now reached the point where the first edge of baby boomers has tweaked over the 60-years-old bracket. The largest segment is just reaching 50, which just happens to be the same age in China when most people start practicing tai chi.

What makes Tai Chi sticky?

So what could create “The Stickiness Factor”? You’d have to be living in a cave not to recognize that for the past 15 years the level of general stress in America and Europe is escalating to the point where even medical associations are saying that it is the greatest cause of disease.

Tai chi is the one exercise that actually focuses on relaxing your nerves; yoga doesn’t even really do that. With the exception of yin or Taoist yoga, most yoga is not taught with releasing the nerves as a primary focus.

Tai chi (and also qigong of which tai chi is a subdivision) systematically trains your nervous system to relax. Tai chi is about relaxation. Relaxation is the opposite of stress and stress is a fancy word for tension. Tai chi is an antidote for tension.

Tai chi’s main selling point is not that you are going to look good, but that you’re actually and truly going to feel better. And it’s not a psychological thing about “everybody loves me.” When you wake up with aches and the pains and stress that kills you, you don’t feel good.

People get hooked on tai chi when they hit the “aha” moment where they realize they have a fewer pains and also can relax the nagging thoughts and stressful events that overwhelm the system.

It can be said that a large number of people who start and continue practicing tai chi get REAL results or they wouldn’t bother with it. Tai chi works. It addresses the biggest issue of our times directly—relaxation to counter the stress. It also doesn’t take five years of practice five hours a day to feel results. You generally feel results rather quickly, especially if you are training with a qualified tai chi teacher.

I might also mention another important aspect that makes tai chi sticky. In most cases tai chi is practiced in groups. This in itself is “sticky” because people like to get together, socialize and practice together. I have seen time and time again long-term bonds and friendships form in tai chi groups. As more and more tai chi groups form, the entire tai chi movement will build.

For tai chi to take off, it will need to be a grassroots trend. I have witnessed it happening in both China and America.

The unblocking move is that people have to realize that they can do tai chi in gym clothes. You don’t have to wear some fancy silk outfit. As tai chi makes it way into gyms and parks the momentum will pick up and it will spread quickly. The last point here is that tai chi does not generally require a massive investments – most tai chi classes are affordable and compared to the cost of healthcare tai chi is a great bargain.

Learning from the Kung Fu Boom

So we have covered “The Stickiness Factor” and also “The Power of Context”- both are in line to have tai chi go viral. But the last piece is Gladwell’s “The Law of the Few” rule which basically answers the question, “Who is going to promote tai chi and bring it to the masses?”

If we go back to the yoga movement what drove the popularity was NOT a bunch of fancy new yoga studios, nor its century-long history. It was the simple fact that famous people promoted it via the media and Hollywood – lots of videos and DVDs were sold. Hollywood integrated it into their culture and sent it directly into your living room.

We can also look to another fitness mega-trend that went over the tipping point in the 1970’s when martial arts, especially kung fu, boomed. Two things in the media and Hollywood ignited the kung fu boom.

The first was the TV series Kung Fu with David Caradine (who wasn’t even a martial artist, but that even didn’t matter). It was the fantasy, the illusion that got people interested. Half of the stuff that he was saying, which people thought was the Shaolin or the Buddhist, was actually straight out of  Tao Te Ching. It came from Taoism.

Interesting the one thing all Taoists have in common is tai chi. The ideas were powerful and they still are today.

The second factor was Bruce Lee coming onto the scene. He did the big movies with the hyper emotions of youth—anger, angst, and all the explosion of those ideas. The kung fu and karate trend exploded everywhere.

So the missing piece is to have a celebrity, TV series or large movie in America that features tai chi in a big way. The tai chi craze will not be the same kind of an emotional explosion as the martial arts trend—one driven by youth. Nor will it be about looking good or stretching.

It’s going to be a different kind trend. It will be more like, “I’ve got to do something about all this stress that is destroying my life from the inside out.” “I want to live longer to see my grandkids grow up and not be in pain.”

Everybody knows this stress and tension exists internally. On a day to day level most know they are hurting, they can’t sleep and their nerves are on the edge. Most people in our culture simply don’t have a way of relaxing in the moment.

The Tai Chi Tipping Point Slot

Real tipping points are usually caused by a real need. We’re in the tai chi tipping point slot now. The only thing that’s missing is the TV show and/or a movie with some celebrity endorsement.

So now it’s a question of the first media channel recognizing the power of tai chi and who will become the poster child for the tai chi mega-trend.

What celebrity out there is willing and ready to take this forward? Who do you think would be the best person to promote tai chi? When do you think this will happen?

All of it is interesting and shall be fun to see unfold . . . I welcome your comments below.

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