What is Tai Chi?
Tai Chi Ch’uan (or Taijiquan, the words are interchangeable), is a system of exercise that originated in ancient Chinese Martial Arts and has now become the most practiced health and exercise system in the world. Often recognized by its slow, graceful and flowing but controlled movements, it combines standing postures with movement, stretching, relaxation and meditation.
Taiji is primarily practiced as a sequence of choreographed moves called a form. There are short forms consisting of as few as 6 movements and there are long forms consisting of 128 or more moves. In general, regardless of length, the form is practiced in a slow, smooth-flowing manner. The controlled, mindful, movements of taiji have led many to refer to it as “meditation in motion”.
Tai Chi is also a physical practice and study of the philosophy of the Chinese “cosmic opposites” of Yin and Yang. The carefully structured patterns of the Taiji form reflect the Taoist views of the universe. Throughout the form, and indeed throughout life when one lives within the principals of Tai chi, the spirit is lifted, making the upper body light and flexible, while the Qi is sunk, and feet are planted solidly on the earth. In Taoist philosophy, this is seen as symbolizing man’s position standing between the heavens and earth.
Benefits of Tai Chi Practice:
Taiji is practiced by millions of people worldwide, both Eastern and Western. The vast majority of them practice taiji for its health benefits, which have been proven to be wide ranging and significant. In particular, taiji has been found to reduce stress, improve balance, lower blood pressure and help relieve symptoms for a variety of illnesses, including cancer, Parkinson’s, arthritis, and diabetes among others.
Although some of the effects are quick to be appreciated, it may be some time before others are appreciated. The initial effects are usually seen in more relaxed musculature and breathing, leading to better circulation, deeper relaxation and greater body awareness. Taiji practice quiets the mind and strengthens the body. The mental aspects of practice reduce stress and improve concentration, memory, relaxation and self-awareness.
Central to tai chi is the idea that qi (pronounced “chee”), or life energy, flows throughout the body. Qi must be able to move freely for good health. The principle of yin/yang is important, too. Yin and yang are opposite and complementary forces in the universe, in the same way as light and dark are. Tai chi is meant to harmonize these pairs of opposites. Finally, tai chi imitates motion found in nature, such as the movements of animals, thereby uniting human beings with the natural world.
What is the History of Tai Chi?
The history of t’ai chi is foggy at best. There are many conflicting stories from the past, and the confusion continues right up to the present. To make matters worse, there are many revisionist versions of t’ai chi’s history which are expounded by those out to promote their own style as the best, or the most authentic. So it is difficult to get the full story.
The foundation concepts of t’ai chi ch’uan, which come from Taoism and Confucianism, go back to the beginning of written history in China. They come from Lao Tzu’s monumental text, Tao Te Ching, from the I Ching and from various other health-promoting and breathing exercise treatises. The actual art can be traced back only 300 to 700 years, however. The founder is said to be Chang San-feng, who is thought to have lived from 1279 to 1368. Some experts claim him as just being a myth, while others argue he did exist and there are monuments to him in China.
Many believed Chang San-feng was a Shaolin monk who decided to leave the monastery to become a Taoist hermit. On Wudang mountain, he gave up the hard fighting style he had learned and formulated a new art based on softness and yielding. One story tells how he had a vision between a snake and a crane. In theory, the crane should have had an easy time killing the snake, but in Chang’s vision, the crane would try to attack the snake’s head, and the snake would evade and hit the crane with its’ tail. When the crane would try for the snake’s tail, the snake would bite the crane. This resulted in the discovery of the basic t’ai chi concepts of evading, yielding and attacking.
Chang assembled a martial art that used softness and internal power to overcome brute force. He is believed to have written:
“In every movement, every part of the body must be light and agile and strung together. The postures should be without breaks. Motion should be rooted in the feet, released through the legs, directed by the waist and expressed by the fingers. Substantial and insubstantial movements must be clearly differentiated.”
This marked the beginning of tai chi.