What is Tai Chi ?

by Terry Dunn

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 yet dynamic in beautiful natural postures, t’ai chi is a “moving meditation” that rejuvenates body, mind and spirit. For centuries, visitors to China have been intrigued at seeing Chinese of all ages doing this mysteriously beautiful and tranquil exercise. Practitioners discover that t’ai chi ch’uan is a powerful martial art that fulfills a daily prescription for perfect health.

The most immediate health benefits of t’ai chi practice are improved posture, flexibility, balance, circulation, metabolism, and neuro-muscular function, and a strengthened immune system. Throughout the ages, Chinese physicians have prescribed t’ai chi as a gymnastic form of medicine to complement healing with other traditional treatments such as acupuncture and herbs. Regular t’ai chi practice develops robust physical strength, emotional calm and serenity, mental clarity and latent powers. Thus the Chinese say that those who practice t’ai chi ch’uan will attain the pliability of a child, the vitality of a lumberjack, and the wisdom of a sage.

Based on the laws of nature, t’ai chi is perfect exercise–a sublime combination of metaphysics, meditation, and medicine within the body of a martial art. The asian martial arts have been adopted by west primarily for exercise and self- defense. But t’ai chi is like no other martial art or gymnastic exercise. Progress depends in t’ai chi depends not on developing outer strength, or speed, but rather on inner awareness to develop and control the subtle energy flows of the body. T’ai chi practice harmonizes breath, physical movement, mental concentration and visual focus to cultivate man’s intrinsic energy or life force, which the Chinese call “chi” ( “qi”) . Diligent practice brings about chi’s health benefits and its strategic and philosophical value–that of conquering the unyielding with the yielding.

“Nothing under heaven is more pliable than water. But when amassed, there is nothing that can withstand it. That the soft overcomes the hard and the yielding conquers the rigid is a fact known to all men yet utilized by none.”

The Tao Te Ching, ancient Taoist canon

In contrast to other martial arts such as karate, wrestling and boxing, which emphasize heavy fisted strikes, and direct, head-on clash of force against force, t’ai chi employs circular movements, a relaxed total-body coordination and a profound strategy of yielding, “sticking” and going-with the flow of attacking force in order to prevail over an aggressor. The t’ai chi adage of “four ounces to deflect one thousand pounds,” is an accurate description of t’ai chi’s physical application. But such skill requires years of dedicated practice under excellent instruction.<P>

T’ai chi ch’uan has been transmitted over the centuries through a private oral tradition between master and student. Today there exist four major styles-Chen, Yang, Wu and Sun-as well as dozens of lessor known styles developed by various innovative masters. The oldest known t’ai chi form was developed by the Chen family of Hunan province during the 15th century. It gave rise to the Yang style, which today is the most widely practiced form, although the Chen style in the last ten years has experienced tremendous growth in popularity in the west, due to many Chen style instructors immigrating from China.

The foundation of t’ai chi practice is the performance of the solo shadow-boxing exercise, or what t’ai chi players simply refer to as the “form.” The form is a pre-choreographed routine of fluid natural postures and martial art maneuvers. Each posture has a classical Chinese name, some quiet poetic–Wave Hands Like Clouds, High Pat the Horse, White Crane Cools Its Wings, Single Whip, and Shoot Tiger with Bow. Solo form practice is the most commonly seen aspect of t’ai chi and has captured the fascination of the West.

Beyond form practice, there is t’ai chi sparring, called “push-hands” (tui-shou), in which two practitioners try to unbalance one another by redirecting the other’s energy –by “sticking” to the opponent and offering no resistance whatsoever. This 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., relaxating) and learn the utter disadvantage and futility of tense resistance, brute force, and head-on confrontation. Push-hands is the very tip of the iceberg in developing self-defense skills in t’ai chi, which is known as “t’ai chi kung-fu.” Advanced t’ai chi practice involves push-hands, advanced forms, and t’ai chi swordplay, and systematically imparts benefits far beyond good health, notably the mastery of a practical and noble method of self-defense and the transcendence of fear.

Advanced practice opens one to metaphysical dimensions of the art, where individual existence is experienced at as a conscious energy process continuous with all life. T’ai chi is the perfect expression of Taoism, a timeless school of alchemy and philosophy from China that extols living harmoniously in accord with nature’s cyclical patterns of change. Within every T’ai Chi movement is the principle of yin and yang, which is action based on the awareness of implicit unity within all apparent opposites: positive and negative, full and empty, dark and light, hard and soft, cause and effect. Beyond being a potent health and self-defense discipline, T’ai Chi unlocks the wisdom of the ages, and empowers man to see and adapt to change–and so master one’s fate. First, last, and foremost, T’ai Chi teaches responsibility–i.e, the ability to respond.

The above discussion of t’ai chi ch’uan is an abstract from a longer article titled, “The Spirit and Practice of T’ai Chi Ch’uan” by Terry Dunn, published in the Nov/Dec 1987 issue of the Yoga Journal.

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