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 referred to as a martial 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.
Tai Chi in China and the West
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.
Tai Chi Is Great for Health and Relaxation
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 Gives You More Chi
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 For Beginners
In tai chi (taiji), who is the beginner? This is truly a trick question. Even after 20 years of practice, many students genuinely consider themselves beginners, especially after watching a high-level tai chi master at work.
Tai chi’s beginning, intermediate and advanced practices are like a continuum without exact, defining landmarks. Criteria and standards of what constitute beginning, intermediate or advanced methods vary widely between individual teachers and entire schools of tai chi.
Some teachers have a larger, more complete knowledge of the entire tradition than others. Consequently, one group’s idea of what constitutes an advanced technique, by another group’s standards may be considered something only marginally more advanced than the basic level.
Within classes, you can expect to learn:
- Sequences of movements
- Basic body alignments
- The 70 percent rule of moderation
- How to protect your joints.
During the first year, unless you are exceptionally sensitive, it is unreasonable to expect to feel a lot of chi. Although at its advanced levels tai chi’s primary goal is to grow and balance your chi, in the beginning approaching your practice only from the perspective of chi is neither necessary nor desirable. Staying grounded in the body tends to keep any self-perceived experiences of energy from being pure fantasy or overly exaggerated.
Tai chi’s physical movements serve as effective sensitivity and awareness exercises that keep the body flexible, reduce stress, and tone and strengthen muscles. In terms of health and longevity, tai chi is a non-impact, physical exercise without any notion of energy.
Tai Chi: Body-Energy-Spirit
All Taoist practices are based on the three treasures: body, energy and spirit (jing, chi and shen, respectively, in Chinese). Learning tai chi serves as a body practice and advancement as an energy practice. So whether or not you have an interest in practicing tai chi for spiritual pursuits, it always starts with the body—making you incredibly healthy down to the cellular level.
The physical body is the container through which your energy and spirit flow. This is the physical approach to health, longevity and optimum performance. Through tai chi, you learn how to exercise the body down to its most subtle aspects. This can best be done if you understand the body’s physical mechanisms and realities, such as anatomical subtleties or how different parts of the body do or don’t work well or flow together.
The legendary martial arts abilities of many tai chi masters derive from the development of the many functional kinds of subtle energy. This is where many of the “secrets” are hidden in tai chi and for which some train arduously over decades to achieve and master.
Increasing your life-force energy, which can be achieved from regular tai chi practice, can produce extraordinary healing and provides the gateway to human intuitive or psychic capacities. For people who are overly energetically sensitive or psychically developed, tai chi can help ground and smooth their energy, so they can handle—rather than be overwhelmed by—their natural talents.
Spirit’s sphere of influence works directly with the mind and the invisible spirit within us. It involves the arts and sciences of meditation, which originally generated the first two levels of body and energy.
Spirit involves active use of the mind. It tells your body and chi when and how to move. Applying your spirit’s energy well is mandatory to get to the root of and fully engage your true personal power, obtain emotional balance and inner peace, and actualize the potential of your mind.
While intent can take you a long way with body and energy, the Heart-Mind is required to fully activate spirit, which is the center of your consciousness. That is the place where thoughts and images come from before they reach the conscious level.
Working with body, energy and spirit has within it beginning, intermediate and advanced techniques. They are learned much the same way as music: basic techniques build on each other until you can seamlessly blend them. The art of tai chi is as complex as the greatest symphony. At its most advanced stages, the body, mind and spiritual components blend into a unified whole that lead you to experiencing the Tao.
Unlike learning music, however, where you progress by learning successively more challenging pieces of music, in tai chi you perform the same series of movements, each time going deeper and learning more.
Learning Tai Chi Is Challenging
Tai chi is challenging to learn. People who do tai chi well make it look easy and effortless. But the truth is tai chi is not especially easy to learn. An interesting point about learning anything of value is: Things are difficult when you can’t do them and easy when you can. The road to attaining fluidity, smoothness and relaxed movements in your tai chi practice requires much patience and effort, just like any sport or art form.
Tai chi requires and progressively develops gross and subtle physical coordination. Tai chi is one of the most sophisticated methods of integrated whole-body movement.
Tai chi is a workout that can be as strenuous and invigorating as aerobics, even though it can look easy, simple and relaxed. You will likely use muscles that you didn’t know you had. Before you really learn to relax and soften your body, the habitual tension stored in your legs and shoulders may make you tremble and ache.
It is quite normal to feel some emotional unpleasantness, especially as you begin to really notice, often for the first time, what stress is doing to your nervous system, or how unquiet and devoid of inner peace your mind and emotions really are. For everyone, part of learning tai chi is learning to recognize the subtle tensions within your body and mind. This can freak you out as you may not be able to believe the degree of unconscious tension held by most people. However, if you can overcome it, you will feel truly empowered about your ability to let go.
At first, it may be difficult to practice on your own. It is best not to feel guilty about this; just accept your limitations rather than quitting. Attending a weekly class is the best way to create a regular practice rhythm.
Many students focus on learning movements correctly or doing them perfectly. It is not possible to do tai chi perfectly, so don’t approach learning tai chi with a been-there-done-that mentality.
I remember I once asked my Teacher Liu if he had ever done tai chi perfectly and he said that he had. Later though, he said that he realized he had practiced tai chi even better than the time before! –Bruce Frantzis
Although tai chi is not especially easy to learn, it is not the most difficult thing to do either. Half of China’s 200 million people who successfully learn and practice tai chi daily begin after age 50. If they can learn tai chi, so can you.
Some degree of challenge makes most recreational activities more fun, interesting and alive, whether they are physical (golf, skiing, tai chi), mental (reading good books, doing crossword puzzles), or artistic (playing music, painting). Lack of any challenge causes many activities to become boring, causing people to quit.
Conversely, all worthwhile activities that continue to have both short- and long-term pay-offs usually have continuing challenges.
Building a Sustainable Tai Chi Practice
You don’t have to be an expert to benefit from learning tai chi. Even when done poorly, tai chi fosters vibrant health from deep within your body. As you grow in experience and are able to pay more attention to body alignments and energy mechanics, you’ll find you gain more and more from your practice.
Give yourself time to absorb the big shapes of the movement. The most important thing is to learn the whole sequence together even if you have to fudge some moves. This builds confidence for the long haul. Refining the moves happens with practice, or in the next rounds of learning new information.
If you have specific moves you really like, do them singly outside the sequence of the form. This builds up your confidence and creates the foundational skills needed to eventually overcome the bigger challenges of more difficult moves.
Do not emotionally beat yourself up over moves that you personally find difficult. Just move on and complete the entire sequence as best you can. Don’t get hung up on one or two moves. You will improve with practice.
Whatever you do, don’t compare your learning speed to others. Tai chi is challenging for everyone to learn although some will pick it up faster than others. It’d your commitment that matters–not how fast you can play the game.
Above all, be patient with yourself.