Tai Chi as a recreational fitness practice has long roots that trace back to China, where it was originally a multi-faceted physical regimen that incorporated martial arts, fitness and health aspects. The majority of tai chi enthusiasts in the West today focus on the internal calm that tai chi helps develop as well as its full-body fitness and health potential.
Anyone who wants to use tai chi routines as a form of moving meditation can do so without compromising either its health or martial arts components. Indeed, many who take lessons end up spending their entire lives studying tai chi in its myriad forms.
The art of tai chi is hard to accurately date because so much of its history is anecdotal and unsupported by written documentation. We do know that it has been around for at least 150 years and possibly much longer than that. Beginners soon find out that tai chi has a complicated lineage tree with offshoots and sub-strata that are almost impossible to comprehend.
Fortunately, teachers of tai chi, especially in Europe and the U.S., keep things simple and try to instruct newcomers in the basic stances and some of the exercises that are common to all five of the major schools, namely Chen, Yang, Wu, Wu-Hao, and Sun. The so-called Yang Long Form exercise is quite popular among Western students who stick with tai chi classes for a year or more.
Much the same way that Japanese tea ceremony and the practice of drinking matcha tea originated with Zen Buddhist monks, tai chi can be traced directly to Confucian and Taoist adepts. Interestingly, the practice of tai chi and the ritual based upon the drinking of matcha tea are quite similar in their intents. Both are an inner discipline that can awaken the consciousness and bring a sense of calm, attentive awareness.
The Basics of Tai Chi
It is difficult to cover an art form as diverse as tai chi in anything short of a book-length manuscript or a live classroom situation. But, beginners should know the basics of this popular Chinese physical art. Here are some of the key concepts:
- Most forms of tai chi use smooth, slow physical movements with the goal of relaxing both the mind and body. Note that there are a few advanced tai chi techniques that use fast movement as well.
- Properly done, tai chi not only relaxes a person’s mental and physical life but has proven benefits for the body’s cardiovascular system and the immune system.
- Tai chi is one of the few physical fitness systems that have no known adverse side effects. It is always wise, however, to check with a health professional if you intend to begin a regular regimen of tai chi classes or private lessons.
- Most tai chi exercise sequences involve standing upright while gracefully moving the limbs in a directed order, and may or may not include walking and turning at the same time.
- Tai chi was originally a martial art. The legend of its origin is quite unusual. Chinese lore has it that a monk was observing a crane in battle with a snake. Marveling at how easily the snake dodged the crane’s sharp, darting attacks, the monk created an imitative, almost passive form of self-defense that avoided attacks instead of counter-attacking an opponent.
- Students are often surprised to find that tai chi classes usually start with a short session of meditation.
- Tai chi is one of the most popular types of exercise in the world. Tens of millions of Chinese people do their routines every morning, typically in an outdoor setting. Traditionalists prefer to do their tai chi practice near trees.
- There’s a lot going on during a standard tai chi exercise, especially for advanced students. Both body and mind are at work, alert and attentive to what is happening. As for the body, both motion and breathing are key components of the outer form of the practice. Inside, the mind is also balanced and calm, but directing the body’s sequence of movement.
- Practitioners are advised to nurture five methods as a way to approach tai chi. In order to maintain a centered, focused mind: clarity. In order to keep the body safely in movement: balance. For the creation of full awareness: slowness. So that continuity is present: calmness. And finally, tai chi students learn to let the separate movements flow into each other effortlessly and seamlessly by maintaining lightness.
- After learning the basics, tai chi “players” (as they are called in Asia) can practice anywhere, anytime and without a partner. However, the tradition of tai chi suggests that the exercise be “same place, same time” each day, and preferably outdoors, near trees.
- Because tai chi is so safe and easy to learn, classes are often composed of a wide range of physical types, from the very old to those who are quite young, both thin and heavy, tall and short, male and female, coordinated and not-so-coordinated. No special skills are needed to learn tai chi. (Perhaps that is one of the reasons it has been around so long and has so many adherents!)
- Tai chi students tend to be open-minded, lighthearted and much less “stuffy” than some overwrought followers of other martial arts. A common sign in tai chi studios reads: “What will it be today? Tai chi or Chai tea?”
- Much is made of the differences between tai chi and so-called “hard” martial arts (tai chi being a “soft art”). Perhaps the attitude is best summed up in the following anecdote:
On a mountain road outside a small town in Southern California, two strangers bumped into each other and immediately crouched into fighting stance, now nose to nose but barely able to see each other’s faces in the ink-black night. The first says, “You’d better be careful. I spent 20 years in Asia studying under a martial arts master. I know tai chi.” After a tense moment of silence passed, the second stranger responded, “Really? What a coincidence! I spent 20 years in India studying yoga. What do you say we go grab a bite at the café in town?” The first smiled and replied, “Sure thing. Hey, I’ll show you the Yang Long Form if you can teach me to do a half-lotus.”
The future of tai chi
Tai chi might not be an “ancient” art form, but its undocumented origin almost certainly dates to long before the mid-1800s, when written records first appeared. Its booming popularity in the West is continuing unabated, and it looks as though tai chi will be around for centuries to come.