The Practice and Spirit of T'ai Chi Ch'uan

T'ai Chi Ch'uan is the classic Chinese method of calisthenics for health, self-defense and spiritual growth. Graceful in movement, slow in tempo, relaxed in continuous natural postures, t'ai chi ch'uan is "meditation in movement" practiced throughout the world for its profound health benefits. The Chinese say tha whoever practices t'ai chi regularly will in time gain the pliability of a child, the vitality of a lumberjack, and the peace of mind of a sage.

T'ai Chi emphasizes the integration of mind and body in every motion, through slow respiration, mental and visual concentration, and dynamic relaxation. Most Asian martial arts (such as karate, judo, and kung fu) emphasize powerful linear movements, heavy-fisted strikes, and acrobatic kicks-all motivated by brusque muscular compression and dynamic tension. Progress in t'ai chi, by contrast, depends on developing not outer strength but inner awareness, and the methods for achieving this are more subtle than the physical techniques of the art.

T'ai Chi and Health

The regular practice of t'ai chi maintains health, develops keen balance and agility, and encourage proper circulation of energy and bodily fluids. The cornerstone of t'ai chi practice, the "solo" exercise or simply the "form"), is a slow, graceful and beautifully fluid choreography of relaxed natural postures and movements. In addition, t'ai chi sparring practice (with an opponent) imparts its own particular benefits, notably the mastery of a practical and noble method of self-defense and the transcendence of fear.

Like Hatha Yoga, t'ai chi strengthens the functioning of the central nervous system and thus effectively exercises the entire physiology, not just a few muscle groups and the cardiovascular system. The most immediate and obvious benefits are improved posture, circulation, metabolism, digestion, and neuro-muscular functioning, as well as accelerated healing of disease and infection. Chinese physicians have long prescribed t'ai chi as physical therapy as "gymnastic medicine," in combination with herbs, acupuncture, and acupressure to provide a holistic treatment for disease. The often-amazing results of proper practice suggest that, in some way not fully known to Western science, t'ai chi can indeed relieve many chronic ailments and impart longevity.

Although such health benefits have gained it worldwide popularity, t'ai chi is first and foremost a martial art. The "push-hands" (t'ui-shou) practice-which is not begun until one is well-practiced in the solo forms-is a type of sparring in which paired practitioners try to "uproot" one another from the standing position by yielding to and redirecting the opponent's strength and momentum. Other Asian martial arts such as judo, aikido, pa-kua and other forms of Chinese Boxing emphasize some of the yielding qualities of t'ai chi ch'uan, but none achieve to the same degree its relaxation, grounding, and subtlety.

Brief History

The origins of t'ai chi ch'uan are shrouded in Chinese myth and folklore. The most popular theory holds that Chang San Feng, a Taoist sage of the Yuan Dynasty (13th century), created t'ai chi in his dreams. Chang San Feng was a master of Shaolin boxing, the oldest of Chinese martial arts, and to this tradition he applied the principles of yin and yang, the I Ching, and Taoist breathing techniques (chi-kung) to create a transcendent boxing method - t'ai chi ch'uan, or "grand terminus" boxing.

Shaolin boxing was devised by the Indian Buddhist master Tamo (Bodhidharma) around 500 A.D. at the Shaolin monastery in Honan province. Taoism's purpose was to rejuvenate the health of the Buddhist monks there, who were weakened by religious practices that emphasized mastering the mind while neglecting the physical body. Shaolin boxing was characterized by highly kinetic and stylized movements inspired by the postures and movements of animals. Five types of "animal acting" were practiced: (1) tiger, to strengthen bones and develop power and ferocity; (2) dragon, to train attention and cultivate spirit (shen); (3) leopard, to develop the muscles and swiftness; (4) snake, to cultivate the internal energy (chi); and (5) crane, to develop the sinews and train balance, suppleness, and agility. Legend has it that Chang San Feng was inspired by the agile and fluid movements of a snake and crane in combat to realize that the soft and resilient can overcome the hard and rigid. Out of this realization he created t'ai chi ch'uan.

Over the centuries, t'ai chi ch'uan has been transmitted from generation to generation from master to disciple through a private--i.e., secret-- oral tradition. Today there exist four major styles - Chen, Yang, Wu and Sun - as well as dozens of lesser known styles developed by various innovative masters. The oldest known t'ai chi form was practiced by the Chen family of Hunan province. Chen t'ai chi was a closely guarded family secret until it was taught to Yang Lu Chang in the late 18th century. Yang in turn taught what he learned to his sons, in they in turn to their sons. Of the many t'ai chi lineages that sprang from the Chen family teachers, the three generations of Yang masters, ending with Yang Cheng-fu (d. 1935), were the most illustrious because of their martial prowess, innovative refinement of the art, and their proliferation of the art to all sectors of Chinese society. Today the Yang style is the most popular style being practiced throughout the world, although in the last two decades, the Chen style has gained much popularity.

The Principles of T'ai Chi Ch'uan

T'ai chi ch'uan technique and physiology are rooted in Taoism, a timeless philosophy form China based on living in accord with nature's cyclical patterns of change. In order to realize all the physical and spiritual benefits of t'ai chi, one must diligently adhere to the five basic principles set forth in the t'ai chi classics: (1) relaxation; (2) separation of yin and yang (insubstantial and substantial); (3) turning the waist to control all movement; (4) keeping the spine straight; and (5) and a fluid, total body synchronization. The ultimate goal of t'ai chi form practice is to perform all movements-an entire t'ai chi routine- as one movement. The dynamic interplay of yin and yang thus manifested creates harmony and balance between mind and body, and then between man's total being and nature. These principles of natural movement and meditaiton are codified in the T'ai Chi Classics, along with advanced instructions for the martial applications of t'ai chi ch'uan.


Total and constant relaxation of the body sets t'ai chi apart from all other martial art forms. Relaxation does not mean going limp or in a collapsing; rather, it means using the body in the most efficient manner, applying just enough strength to do a certain movement or task without straining or tensing muscles unnecessarily. Such relaxation allows us to conserve energy and have greater stamina, consistency, and effectiveness in all we do.

The relaxation principle of t'ai chi promotes superior health by allowing the central nervous system to optimally regulate all vital body systems. Conscious maintenance of relaxation through t'ai chi practice promotes many beneficial changes, including the following:

Accompanying these effects is the experience of "sinking," which means letting go of upper body strength, lowering one's center of gravity to the tan teen (an energy focal point located two inches below the navel), and grounding one's energy in the earth. This technique is known as "rooting." Having a good root means first of all that the legs are strong enough to support and transport the body in a comfortable and stable manner. Ultimately this root can be so well developed that one can literally hold one's ground in the face of seemingly overwhelming force--numerous attackers of any size and skill. The mark of the accomplished t'ai chi practitioner is that he can never taken off his feet. Sinking goes hand in hand with relaxation in t'ai chi, as they are essentially the same concept.

Separating Yin and Yang

The ancient Chinese saw every aspect of reality in terms of the interaction of polar opposites: positive and negative, light and dark, full and empty, contraction and expansion. As they tried to understand the factors influencing the dynamic and delicate balance of these opposites, they developed the universal concepts of yin and yang. Understanding yin and yang means not only recognizing the dual and counterbalancing nature of reality, but also realizing the implicit unity with all apparent opposites. To come to the understanding of yin and yang in t'ai chi, we separate them first in static postures to find the limits of balance in order to achieve "flow"--integration and harmony--in movement through these postures.

To "separate" or distinguish between yin and yang in t'ai chi form practice means to completely shift the weight to one leg and then to the other in every movement. One leg does not move until the other one is fully weighted. The body's weight shifts fully onto one leg (which becomes yang) before the empty (yin) leg moves effortlessly. The dynamic interplay of yin and yang in the legs manifests throughout the body, so that the upper body and arms also move with a counterbalancing harmony. Separating yin and yang is essential for improving balance and coordination and strengthening the internal circulation of chi, or vital energy.

Turning the Waist

This principle is essential not only in t'ai chi, but in all forms of martial arts, yoga, and dance. A strong, flexible waist is essential to connect the upper body with the lower and so mobilize one's physical totality. T'ai chins grace, fluidity, and ultimate power comes from every action's originating in the central and largest muscles of the body, and then translating outward to the smaller muscles of the extremities.

T'ai Chins health benefits derive largely from this principle of turning the waist. Professor Cheng Man-ching (d.1971), a famous artist, scholar, and physician, as well as a master of t'ai chi ch'uan, explained, that while humans are superior to other animals because they stand upright and can thus separate the pure form the base and evolve both intelligence and spirituality, they are at the same time disadvantaged because their vital organs are crowded one on top of another in a small space, subject to atrophy and degeneration from improper diet and lack of exercise. In comparison, four-legged animals have fiercer strength and vitality because their organs hang from a horizontal spine so that the slightest motion causes stimulation of these organs. Turning the waist, consistently applied with the other principles of t'ai chi, enables the practitioner to maintain internal strength and fullness (of energy) by stimulating and massaging the vital organs with every movement.

Keeping the Back Erect

To maintain balance and stability, one must keep the spine erect and the body perpendicular to the ground. Much the same principle applies in yoga, meditation, and other martial arts. A static imbalance carried into motion creates moving imbalance, which is even more stressful, both physically and emotionally. In contrast, an upright posture enables one to be comfortable, alert, well balanced, and ready to respond in any direction. This principle goes hand in hand with the primary principle of relaxation. If the back is erect, then the body is at ease, optimally aligned with the force of gravity. But if the back is leaning off the vertical, energy is wasted as muscles and connective tissues work to hold up the body against the pull of gravity, and the heart must work harder to pump blood through the circulatory system. An erect spine alleviates not only muscular strain and vertebral problems, but also numerous conditions involving the vital organs that are regulated by nerves stemming from the spinal column.

This principle is so important that the I Ching clearly prescribes, in hexagram 52 ("Meditation"), "keeping the back straight until one no longer feels one's body." It further explains that:

the back is named because in the back are located all the nerve fibers that mediate movement. If the movement of these spinal nerves is brought to a standstill, the ego, with its restlessness, disappears...When a man has thus become calm, he may turn to the outside world. He no longer sees in it the struggle and tumult of individual beings, and therefore he has that true peace of mind which is needed for understanding the great laws of the universe and for acting in harmony with them. Whoever acts from these deep levels makes no mistakes.

Pearls on a String The fifth principle of t'ai chi is the culmination of diligent practice of the preceding principles (relaxation, separating yin and yang, turning the waist, and keeping the back erect). By adhering to these principles, one develops a total body synchronization in which all parts of the body move as one. The t'ai chi classics refer to this synchronization as "pearl moving through nine passages" (chiu ch'u chu), or "moving like a string of pearls."

To demystify this idea, let's assume that the nine passages refer to nine joints of the body: ankle, knee, hip, lumbar spine, middle back (thorax), cervical spine, shoulder, elbow, and wrist. Thus, "moving like a string of pearls" means that all movements flow from the feet up through the torso to the upper extremities in a spiraling motion, with the mind concentrating on relaxing these nine joints in sequence. The t'ai chi classics similarly state:

The motion should be rooted in the feet, Released through the legs, Controlled by the waist, And manifested through the fingers.

Correct practice of t'ai chi ch'uan--demonstrating movement like a string of pearls --opens the pathways along which chi flows and the vessels through which blood flows, increases circulation of chi and blood, and maintains balance of chi flow through the body.

T'ai Chi Kung Fu

When one has developed total body synchronization, one has crossed the threshold to excellent health-and also to potential excellence in the art of self-defense. With the control, agility, sensitivity, and integrated strength required to move chi through nine turns of the pearl, one can begin to learn t'ai chi kung fu - the mastery of one's physical reality by applying the profound strategies of the Taoist classics.

For example, the universal principle of harmonizing yin and yang teaches one to yield to external force instead of directly confronting and resisting it. An aggressive action (yang) is best met with a yielding and evasive action (yin). If an adversary attacks with a heavy frontal blow, instead of standing "full" and meeting his force head on, the t'ai chi adept responds by "emptying"- shifting backwards or angling off to one side. The adversary finds only empty space and is thrown off balance. With the attack thus neutralized, the t'ai chi player has control of the situation, with several options for avoiding violence. For example, he or she could now counterattack by completing a circle of movement, returning the aggressor's force at his most vulnerable point. If properly done, this response is instantaneous and uses the slightest amount of force to send the opponent flying several feet away. The t'ai chi classics describe this level of skill as "deflecting a thousand-pound momentum with a trigger force of four ounces."

It is important to emphasize that to yield does not mean to surrender, but rather to retreat to a superior position. True understanding of yin and yang is manifested in having presence within yielding and strength within softness:

Nothing under heaven is softer or more yielding than water; but when it attacks things hard and resistant, there is nothing that can withstand it. That the yielding conquers the resistant and the soft conquers the hard is a fact known by all men, yet utilized by none.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

The development of authentic t'ai chi boxing skill (t'ai chi kung fur) requires 10 to 15 years or more of arduous training with superior instruction. The phrase "t'ai chi kung fu" implies this sense of duration, perseverance and patience, for kung fu means "excellence over time" or "mastering work" and connotes fine, diligent, unceasing effort without strain or obsession. Only in America has kung fu been identified with the stylized mayhem seen in B-movies. In Chinese, "kung fu" has a specific martial arts connotation, but can be used to describe excellence in virtually any art or endeavor.


T'ai chi kung fu is developed through several progressive training stages beyond the practice of the solo forms: push-hands (tui-shou), dual practice (san-shou), swordplay and weapons training, and free-sparring. Each of these advanced training stages adheres to the principles of form (described earlier) as well as to the following imperatives: 'stick" to the opponent, (2) offer no resistance to the opponent's actions, and (3) maintaining perfectly relaxed, natural balance. Once begun, all of these modes of training are ongoing and overlapping. However, push-hands is the most important for developing marital skill in t'ai chi, because it trains the ability to read and interpret external force (tong chin), the ability to evade and neutralize all aggressive force against one's person, and perfects the technique of efficiently discharging energy through an opponent's center of gravity in order to uproot him (fa-chin)precisely at the moment of his attack .

In push-hands, two practitioners face one another in the basic "bow" stance and attempt to unbalance one another by redirecting the other's energy --by "sticking" to the opponent and offering no resistance whatsoever. This gentle but difficult practice depends on the persevering use of mind and energy--and not strength--to "de-reflect" aggression and thus control any physical confrontation by maintaining perfect balance. Push-hands training is the laboratory wherein students test their abilities of yielding and "rooting to the earth" (i.e., relaxing) and learn the utter disadvantage and futility of tense resistance, brute force, and head-on confrontation. Relaxation allows the sensitivity necessary to interpret an opponent's strength in terms of the direction and magnitude of force (tong-chin). With structural sensitivity, we can respond to aggression by "sticking" to an opponent and following his actions, hiding within his form and neutralizing any attack without suffering harm. In contrast, if we resist force with force and tension, we give the opponent a finite target to strike harder, or a handle with which to throw us further. In the reverse situation, if we try to push an opponent with a tense body and ham-fisted force, we readily reveal our intention and allow the opponent the opportunity to neutralize our action. Tension limits one's ability to respond and adapt to any change in the opponent's position.

T'ai chi push-hands training offers one of the most gentle and refined means to learn self-defense. But developing t'ai chi kung fu through push-hands skill is no easy matter. Many students who start push-hands soon give up, frustrated at their inability to physically master a martial technique they can grasp with their minds. For, try as they may, they cannot get the better of a more experienced student or teacher who has greater ability to yield and neutralize all attacks. Push-hands is especially trying for those whose minds are ahead of their bodies. The solution is always the same; perseverance and practice. Advanced t'ai chi practice involving push-hands, advanced forms, and t'ai chi swordplay, systematically impart benefits far beyond good health, notably the mastery of a practical and noble method of self-defense and the transcendence of fear.

One master notes that "we practice the form to know ourselves; we practice push-hands to know how to interact with others. To not get push-hands is to miss t'ai chi." Another says, "To practice only the form is like eating half a chicken; practicing push-hands is like eating a whole chicken." This statement alludes to the fact that the health and spiritual benefits of t'ai chi are amplified when the student begins to push-hands.

The Oral Tradition of Teaching

The traditional martial arts master in China generally had no more than a few students, who apprenticed themselves for many years--even lifetimes-- in order to learn the complete art. Gaining admission to a school of boxing was no simple matter. The aspiring student had to follow strict protocol, offering gifts and entreaties and virtually begging for admission, especially if he did not have a sponsor. If accepted, the novice would usually undergo years of rigorous and tedious basic training with a senior student before being accepted to receive personal instruction from the master.

Such a master would teach his or her students slowly, often unsystematically, and always in secret. Secrecy was necessitated throughout all of Chinese martial arts by a long history of intrigue and violent betrayal. Today, masters still observe the tradition of secrecy and custom of "never showing too plainly". As one master put it, "The truth (higher knowledge) is never taught in class." Instead, the higher level of the art is meted out slowly, as a student proves his character through successive periods of trial and testing. The teaching is imparted sometimes through physical demonstration, sometimes through symbols, often telepathically, but never entirely in writing.

The oral tradition of teaching in t'ai chi has both its virtues and its drawbacks. Some say the tradition of secrecy is outdated and destructive to the art. (As with yoga, many systems of boxing have died with the passing of the masters.) Yet secret oral teachings and their mystique are a fundamental part of the teacher-student relationship. The slow revelation of knowledge is designed to change a student's concept of time-to instill patience, test perseverance, and build character. There are no timetables in learning t'ai chi ch'uan and no certificates of rank. A student makes his own time-develops kung fu-through hard training under the supervision of the teachers. And only the best students-those who persist and persevere-are entrusted with their teachers' complete knowledge and power.

The Spirit of T'ai Chi Ch'uan

In their purest form, the martial arts are a vehicle for self-empowerment that addresses the human totality, integrating the physical, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. They are traditionally taught alongside other meditative, yogic, and healing disciplines in a holistic context of self-realization and spiritual growth.

More than any other art developed in the East, the martial arts take the practitioner to the Tao by directly and immediately confronting the problem of death. Many Eastern religions teach that, to attain spiritual awakening, one must overcome the fear of death and thus eliminate overattachment to life. Through the course of voluntary training, the martial artist is "tricked" into letting go of fear and other unnecessary defenses as he repeatedly experiences their uselessness in achieving the performance goals set by the teacher and the art. By persistently focusing his entire being on dealing with a worthy opponent in training, he gradually realizes that he need fear only actual threaten to life and limb, which he has now become effective in recognizing and addressing.

The controlled crises of t'ai chi and other martial arts training are created by the teacher to awaken the consciousness of the student. In such crises, one must live totally in the moment and act with a straight-forward, resolute mind. In t'ai chi ch'uan, this behavior is sparked when practitioners join in the dual practice of push-hands.

At some point in the training, the student manages to suspend the fear, prejudices, rationalizations, emotional abreactions, and mental abstractions that prevent effective response to the opponent's actions. By penetrating the moment through intense concentration, one attains internal harmony-the integration of the body and mind-out of which appropriate action flows directly and spontaneously. As the saying goes, "At the point of a sword, there is no time for philosophy."

At this moment of total concentration, there occurs a perfect identification between subject and object, in which one experiences the unity of the self and all life. This enlightened state of awareness is called satori by Zen Buddhists, and the spontaneous, intuitive, and naturally correct action that stems from it is called wu-wei ("not-doing") by the Taoists.

Sometimes students of eastern philosophy who do not also practice a yogic discipline are confused by the words "not-doing" and struggle to figure out how to "do" it. In t'ai chi, the rigorous discipline of diligently "doing" the practice leads over time to the spontaneous manifestation of "not-doing." First cultivation and attainment, and then abandonment to a perfected second nature-- rather than mere speculation about philosophical concepts--leads to success in t'ai chi ch'uan.

By developing greater proficiency in the martial arts, one learns to overcome fear and come closer to the spiritual dimension of t'ai chi (which actually means the "Grand Terminus"--or ridgepole of the universe), where individual existence is experienced as a conscious energy process continuous with all life. This deep experience of continuity and unity is at the heart of Chinese philosophy and culture. When translated into ethical terms, it becomes the principle of sincerity and compassion.

The preservers of China's spiritual truths are traditionally of the warrior class--more so than the priestly class--for true warriors are first to attain the knowledge that:

The weapons of war are not carnal.

In contrast to the violent macho image of the martial arts hero popularized by B-movies, the truly accomplished martial artist--epitomized by the t'ai chi master--possesses humanity and compassion along with physical prowess. The Taoist sage Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, the oldest extant book of military strategy, wrote that true martial excellence lies in winning without fighting--that is, in defeating an opponent's strategy before violence occurs. The purpose of learning t'ai chi as a complete martial art is to develop one's skills to the point where one becomes unattackable. When one cannot be harmed, no one else need be harmed, and ultimately even one's aggressors are rendered harmless. Thus, t'ai chi ch'uan, an "art of war" handed down through the ages, is essentially an art of peace as well as a path to health and spiritual mastery.

T'ai Chi Ch'uan is the epitome of high Chinese culture--philosophy, medicine and meditation in the body of a martial art--and one reason why Bertrand Russell commented: "There is nothing more civilized than a civilized Chinese."


  • The T'ai Chi Classics are an ancient compilation of treatises setting forth the principles of t'ai chi ch'uan. Written in classical Chinese, they can be understood on varying levels of sophistication. However, to understand their ultimate meaning, one must have received the oral teachings from a qualified master of the art.
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