What is Tai Chi?

Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art that has evolved over the last couple of centuries into a popular practice with multiple applications, including self-defense, exercise and physical conditioning, stress relief, disease prevention, and improving overall health. Many people (myself among them) consider it the ultimate age-defying art. Why?

Mural in the Tai Chi Museum in Chen Village, Henan Province.

What is so special about Tai Chi?

Tai Chi, in its martial aspect, is founded on the principle that a smaller, weaker person can prevail over a bigger, stronger opponent. The most basic tenets of Tai Chi, as explained in the Tai Chi Classics, address how this is possible. [See The Origins of Tai Chi, on the Taijiquan Jing and Taijiquan Lun.]

Tai Chi is said to be an internal martial art, more concerned with cultivating and issuing internal energy than with developing muscular (“external”) strength. A person who seeks only to build muscles and deliver heavy kicks and punches will always be pitting strength against strength, and the bigger, stronger opponent will always prevail.

The person who practices Tai Chi uses technique, intention, and natural movement to capture a stronger opponent’s energy and turn it to advantage. To do this, it is necessary to achieve the frame of mind most effective in fighting—which is not anger, fury, desperation, fear or any other such strong emotion, but calmness and presence of mind.

The goals of Tai Chi

The goals of Tai Chi therefore include cultivating internal energy, adhering to the body’s most natural ways of moving, and practicing deep, deliberate relaxation.  The value of these goals is obvious, even for a person who has no intention of fighting.

Another important objective lies in achieving balance—not just the ability to stand on one foot or to avoid falling, but balance in the broader sense of managing opposite tendencies. In traditional Chinese philosophy, this means balancing Yin and Yang—yielding energy versus warding-off energy. Earth-energy versus sky-energy.

I practice balance in my backyard.

In more Western terms, this means maintaining balanced emotions and a balanced center, both literally and figuratively: being aware of one’s center of gravity, being alert yet calm, aware of both one’s internal state and external surroundings, which might take the form of an adversary (physical or otherwise) or the natural environment.

The free flow of Qi

According to traditional Chinese medicine, the foundation of health lies in the free flow of qi throughout the body. Qi is variously defined in English as vitality, life force, or simply as energy. The channels for the flow of qi are called meridians, and they are mapped in traditional Chinese medicine much as we map arteries and veins in the West.

The free flow of energy is not exactly the same thing as what we call good circulation—the latter refers to circulation of the blood and delivery of Oxygen. But the two are analogous. In both cases, the general idea is that blockage and binding are damaging and unhealthy, while free circulation throughout all parts of the body is beneficial and enlivening.

Whatever the technical explanation or scientific theory behind this concept of free flow, it works. A steadily increasing body of evidence shows that people who practice Tai Chi regularly experience improved overall health and balance, lowered stress levels, and greater resistance to disease.

Many people consider Tai Chi the secret to rejuvenation and longevity.

Those of us who have already incorporated Tai Chi into our daily lives gain a whole new level of well-being that has to be experienced to be believed. As a form of physical training, it is gentle, effective, and free of drudgery or injury. Having once tapped into that, who would give it up? Most of us will do it for the rest of our lives.

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