T’ai Chi Ch’uan, often abbreviated to its shorter, more common spelling, “Tai Chi,” is one of the best known Chinese martial arts, practiced all over the world for both health and combative purposes. There are five schools, or methods, within the Tai Chi family, known as Sun, Wu, Wu-hao, Yang, and Chen.
Little is known about the origins of the art, as most of the oral histories either contradict each other or are contrary to documented historical fact. One thing all sources agree upon is that the forms of what became modern day Tai Chi likely began in Chen village of China sometime during the 12th Century.
In both Asia and the West, Tai Chi is primarily practiced for exercise, to improve range of motion in the limbs and torso, and as a type of “moving meditation” that is known to calm the mind, body and emotions of those who practice any of its many forms.
How to Learn and Practice Tai Chi
Most Tai Chi instructors recommend that anyone interested in learning the ancient Chinese art begin by studying its history and potential benefits. After that, there are some suggestions that nearly everyone can follow in order to become proficient in Tai Chi:
Read about the health benefits and history of Tai Chi. There are lots of educational books, both online and off. See the list below for some helpful choices.
Find a class in your area and ask if you can sit in and observe. Most instructors are happy to let newcomers watch a class, but don’t expect to be able to participate while observing. Community centers and gyms usually want a signed medical waiver before allowing you to take part in the movements.
Join a class only if you feel comfortable with the teacher. Your first Tai Chi instructor will have a huge influence on how you receive the teaching, so make sure you mesh personally with the instructor. Actually, nearly all Tai Chi teachers are good at what they do and easy to get along with.
Continue to read, learn, and attend classes. Tai Chi is a lifelong journey, and it pays great benefits to those who stay with it for a number of years.
Essential Reading for Tai Chi Learners
There are literally hundreds of books and videos on the subject of Tai Chi. Below are five of the best choices for those who want to learn about the ancient Chinese martial art/exercise.
An interesting and complete guide that emphasizes the stress relief aspects of Tai Chi. The book explains how the Chinese even today use Tai Chi as a form of medical treatment and disease prevention. There’s a lengthy history of the practice, a description of its long evolution, a discussion of how Tai Chi was influenced by Buddhism, Taoism and other faith traditions, and plenty of up-close illustrations that show proper hand and foot placement.
Beginners find the book easy to understand and follow, regardless of what form of Tai Chi they study. One of the unique aspects of the Complete Book of Tai Chi is its discussion of all five forms of the art, as well as an explanation of the martial arts version, known as “push hands.” Anyone who intends to use Tai Chi for self-defense, health, relaxation, or meditation will find what they want in this simple, thorough book.
One of the most popular forms of Tai Chi is the Yang style, explained here by one of the most experienced authors on the subject in one of the most praised books on Tai Chi. It is simple enough for beginners but contains enough advanced material for those who already know the basics.
This clever, easy-to-read book about the history and practice of Tai Chi is an ideal entry into the art form. It not only shows all the proper movements and foot/hand positions that a newcomer needs to learn, but also gives a full explanation of the inner work that Tai Chi demands. Breath, attitude, meditation and more are all on the teaching agenda in this helpful book.
Here is a treasure chest for those new to the art and practice of Tai Chi. The author delves into the mental aspects of a daily routine, the long and short Yang forms, meditation, self-defense, and the many healing aspects that are often neglected in other books.
There’s a bit of everything in this lean, Western take on Tai Chi. Practitioners of all levels will learn about health benefits, how to do a basic routine and what the martial art aspect is all about. There is an especially helpful section that shows students how to build an effective routine that they can stick with for years.
The Future of Tai Chi
Tai Chi is now regularly practiced by more than 250 million persons worldwide (outside of China, where more than 1 billion people take part in some form of Tai Chi each day).
As Western Tai Chi centers continue to prosper, and as more children learn about it in primary school, the ancient Chinese exercise system will no doubt continue to grow in popularity. Tai Chi can help develop better lower-body and upper-body strength, balance, flexibility and overall stamina. While it is certainly not an aerobic form of exercise, it is wonderfully adaptable for all levels of fitness.
Because of its many long-term health benefits and short learning curve, Tai Chi will likely continue to be a mainstay of fitness programs all over the world for many years to come.