What is Tai Chi?
T’ai Chi Ch’uan, to give it its full title, is founded on the principle that qi (life force) flows through the body, re-energising and healing the body. And the slow graceful movements of Tai Chi promote that flow, calm the mind and enable self-healing. Made up from the words for ‘great’, ‘ultimate’ and ‘fist’, T’ai Chi Ch’uan is generally translated by scholars to mean the ‘Supreme Ultimate Power’. It is practised daily by millions of Chinese people, often outdoors, and is increasing in popularity in the West.
Tai Chi aims to stimulate the smooth flow of qi, the essential energy of life, through the meridians or energy channels of the body. Practitioners believe that disease is caused by imbalances of this force, and
Tai Chi is practised mainly as a form of preventive healthcare, rather than a response to an ailment. Nevertheless, many report that it offers direct relief in: strengthening muscles, increasing energy, flexibility, agility and stamina, improving co-ordination and balance, lowering blood pressure, decreasing stress and promoting a general feeling of well-being.
When taught by a trained practitioner, and practised correctly, Tai Chi can engage and exercise every muscle from head to toe. Using the underlying principles of Tai Chi (learning not to exert external strength or aggression to overcome obstacles, but to yield in the face of the unyielding, using softness against what is hard), gradually the body learns to yield and relax and the mind become open and responsive. What may have originated as a form of martial arts has become a method of self-defence and self-healing, frequently described as “Meditation in Movement.”
There are five main styles of Tai Chi today:
Yang (the form most commonly practised in the West) is a slow, rhythmical performance of a series of still postures, linked into one another in a long, continuous dance-like exercise. The ‘short form’ consists of 24 movements which can take 5 – 10 minutes to perform. There is also a ‘long form’ version which has 108 movements are can take from 20 to 40 minutes to complete.
Each move in the sequence has a distinct, descriptive and often poetic name, such as:
- White Crane Spreads its Wings,
- Snake Creeps Down, Golden Rooster Stands on Right Leg,
- Pick Up the Needle from the Bottom of the Sea.
Whilst not all medical practitioners would subscribe to the concept of qi and the meridians, most would recognise Tai Chi as a beneficial form of exercise and many recommend it for relaxation and stress relief.
What to expect
As with any form of art, skill or exercise, it’s best to learn from one who knows how. Although it is a very gentle form of activity, a qualified instructor can help you to practise this ancient art, safely and in a way that will give you the maximum benefit. You won’t be required to give a medical history, but it is advisable to let your instructor know about any old injures, weaknesses or chronic conditions (particularly anything involving your balance).
No special equipment is required, but it’s a good plan to go in cool, comfortable, loose-fitting clothes that will accommodate movements and stretches. The session will probably begin with some warm-up activities. As Tai Chi is suitable for all ages and states of fitness, you may be surprised to observe the diversity of members of the class.
The purpose of a session is to teach you a series of moves – gentle but quite specific movements which link together into a flowing sequence. And in the course of the session, you may become aware of the presence and movement of the energy called ‘qi’.
Each move will be demonstrated by your instructor, so you’d be advised to find a place near the front so that you can see clearly. Some instructors describe the moves for you to follow, others just lead by example, in silence, and you can learn by imitating their actions just a little behind. As the moves are performed very slowly and deliberately, you need not worry about being left behind.
The moves have evocative names, translated from the Chinese, like ‘Snake creeps down to water’, ‘Grasping Sparrow’s Tail’, and ‘Waving Hands Like Clouds.’ You’ll begin to learn them as the weeks go by.
A skilled Tai Chi instructor will also be able to teach you about the values underlying this technique (associated with Tao philosophy) and how you can use it daily on your own to lessen your anxiety, increase your relaxation, and improve your vitality.
Each movement is rehearsed and repeated time and again, over and over. And each person strives to perfect the each section of the ‘form’. It may not sound exciting, but those who practise regularly come to acquire a patience and a passion for perfecting their performance, and derive a deep satisfaction from this subtle practice which brings focus, clarity and peace of mind.
Unlike the exertions of an aerobic or exercise, you should expect to leave your session feeling relaxed and chilled out class.
Effects and Benefits
Numerous benefits are claimed for those who practise Tai Chi on a regular basis: focus, concentration and stress relief; relaxation, flexibility and agility; a sense of calm and serenity – in fact, benefits for all the human systems, mind, body & soul.
Back pain sufferers often find that Tai Chi is an excellent therapy. Research indicates that the slow, controlled and repeated movements of Tai Chi deliver the benefits of aerobic exercise without the hazards of high-impact activity and consequent injury.
Regular sessions of Tai Chi are said to assist a weight loss programme, improve suppleness, and tone up the muscles and ligaments supporting the spine and therefore help to protect against recurrent back pain.
While other martial arts are external systems, Tai Chi Chuan, alone, is an Internal system. By moving into and holding the poses of the Form, the qi continues to move smoothly through the meridian channels. Therefore, doing these external actions, assists the free flow of internal energy.
Tai Chi, like much of Traditional Chinese Medicine, is based on the balancing principles of Yin and Yang. Yang the aggressive masculine principle, counterbalanced by Yin, the soft feminine principle. In the Hand Form of Tai Chi the postures are constantly changing from the Yin to Yang aspect. By training slowly, the body becomes familiar with this constantly changing energy.
When Yang force comes towards you, you greet it with Yin or softness thereby neutralising that energy.
Although Tai Chi is an ancient discipline, very little scientific research has been applied to it until recently. Now evidence is emerging as to its effectively in a very wide range of conditions. Preliminary research suggests that regular Tai Chi exercising, particularly in older adults, may:
- Improve physical functioning, and thereby ease everyday tasks such as climbing stairs and putting on clothes.
- As a weight bearing exercise, increase bone mineral density which often decreases after menopause
- Improve blood circulation in the legs.
Research has been and is being done into the effects of regular Tai Chi practice on the following conditions:
Ankylosing Spondylitis, Arthritis, Balance, Bone Health, Brain Injuries, Cardiac Rehabilitation, Cardiovascular system, Chronic Heart Failure, Dementia, Diabetes, DNA Damage, Fall Prevention, Fibromyalgia, Headaches, HIV/AIDS, Immune System, Metabolic syndrome, Osteoarthritis, Parkinson’s Disease, Proprioception, Psychological well-being, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Sleep, Stress, Stroke, Vestibular disorders.
What the passer-by observes as a group of individuals moving in unison in an almost balletic slow-motion dance of poise and grace, the student can experience as a rewarding ritual that is intrinsically satisfying and adds pattern and meaning to other areas of activity. Tai Chi promotes a contented outlook and a clear mind, and those who practise Tai Chi report that it helps them to deal more easily and lightly with the stresses of everyday life.
Tai Chi and Fascinating Facts
- One legend says that a 13th-century Taoist monk called Chang San Feng fashioned the Tai Chi movements after having a vivid dream about a crane and a snake fighting in a dance-like way. The bird was seen to represent universal consciousness and the snake to embody the regenerative powers of nature. Chang San Feng is said to have combined the sequences of his dream with traditional breathing to invent Tai Chi.
- Another old story is that it was invented by monks as a form of self-defence, as they were not permitted to carry weapons. One form is called “empty hands”.
- In 1992 an American trial published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research showed that Tai chi could reduce the symptoms of stress, and in 1996, a trial in Atlanta, Georgia, found that regular practice of Tai Chi could improve the health and wellbeing of elderly people.
- Mel Gibson, star of violent movies such as Lethal Weapon and Mad Max, in his real life is reported to practise the more peaceful forms of Tai Chi Chuan and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
- Research projects in Erasmus MS University in the Netherlands and Oregon Research Institute, USA have both found the continued practice of Tai Chi significantly reduces the risk of falls among the elderly.
- Well-known Indian Bollywood actor Kunal Kapoor is said to be well-versed in Tai Chi and is now studying Goju-Ryu karate.
- During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1969), the practice of Tai Chi was suppressed by the government. In these more liberated times, it is promoted by the Chinese government as a measure that encourages preventive healthcare.
- U-Tube hosts an unlikely clip of thoroughly British actor Hugh Laurie (of Jeeves and House fame), doing a Tai Chi routine in his underpants on a balcony as part of a movie filmed early in his career.
- Certain Tai Chi movements may hold hope for sufferers of Type 2 Diabetes, according to researchers from Thailand who have found that a low-intensity arm-swing exercise helped to lower blood glucose and markers associated with the development of heart disease in this group which is predisposed to eventually develop heart and blood vessel disease.
- Does Tai Chi deliver the feel-good factor? Researchers at Boston’s Tufts Medical Center undertook a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of Tai Chi on psychological well-being – in particular on stress, anxiety, depression, mood disturbance and self-esteem. Almost 4000 subjects (both healthy and with chronic conditions, from 11 to 85) in forty studies were included. Significant reductions in stress, anxiety and depression and enhanced mood were found. Although some of the studies also showed positive effects on self-esteem, but there was insufficient data to prove it conclusively.
The International Taoist Tai Chi Society
The International Taoist Tai Chi Society (ITTCS) is a global volunteer organisation providing instruction in Taoist Tai Chi internal arts and methods in more than 500 locations in 27 countries. The Society brings together people of different languages and cultures in a world-wide community. The International Taoist Tai Chi Society includes two other organisations founded by Master Moy: the Gei Pang Lok Hup Academy and the Fung Loy Kok Institute of Taoism.
The ancient Taoists were renowned for their study of the arts of health and longevity. The Taoist Tai Chi Society™ internal art of taijiquan conveys the essence of this tradition to the modern world in more than 25 countries around the world. The society invites anyone who is interested to ‘discover a genuine path for health and tranquillity’.
The Tai Chi Union for Great Britain
The Tai Chi Union for Great Britain is an association of practitioners of recognised styles of Tai Chi Chuan, the largest collective of independent Tai Chi Chuan Instructors in the British Isles (with a national list of over 800 registered instructors). It aims ‘to unite Tai Chi practitioners, promote Tai Chi in all its aspects including health, aesthetic meditation and self-defense and to improve standards and collate and disseminate information on Tai Chi classes and events in Great Britain and elsewhere.’