What is Tai Chi?
Tai Chi is the most well-known of the Chinese "internal" or soft martial arts.
It is about 500 years old.
There are five main styles.
Essential tai chi principles are common to all styles.
Health benefits abound.
Tai Chi is also very different from most other kinds of exercise so, for the beginner, it can take a number of months to adjust to moving differently.
Tai chi is characterised by slow, connected movements, which flow continuously from one to another. The movements travel in a curve and are gentle, yet powerful, directed by focussed intention. The body is maintained in a supple, usually upright, posture, and transfer of weight from one movement to another is conscious and controlled.
Based on a variety of stylised combat movements, the resulting "forms" or postures are put together using seamless transitions. In addition to mastering balance, the co-ordination of arms and legs, often moving at different speeds and in different directions to each other, provide an almost unique kinesthetic challenge to the brain.
Physical and mental health benefits come from regular practice: increased muscle strength and flexibility, and overall improvement in cardiovascular health, as well as reduced anxiety and increased ability to cope with stress.
Of the five main styles, Chen style is the oldest and most martial of the Tai Chi styles. Yang style is the most widely practiced in the world today. Sun style is the newest style, characterised by higher stances, "agile" stepping, and incorporating Qigong movements. See Tai Chi Styles for more details
Tai Chi is now recognised to be one of the most effective exercises for physical and mental well-being. As an internal martial art, it places emphasis on breathing and mental aspects. Execution of internal style movements is generally softer, in contrast to those of the external, which tends to be harsher (e.g., Karate). Many of the martial arts concentrate on the external form, such as vigorous body movements, dynamic kicks, and harsh punching actions. In contrast, Tai Chi consists of fluid, gentle, graceful, and circular movements that are relaxed and slow in tempo. Breathing is deepened and slowed, aiding visual and mental concentration. The body relaxes, allowing the life force or “Qi” (energy inside the body) to flow unimpeded throughout the body. These techniques help integrate mind and body into a harmonious inner and outer self. A person living in harmony is more likely to be happy, fulfilled and healthy.
Nowadays, Tai Chi is increasingly being practiced throughout the world for its many health benefits. Tai Chi strengthens and mobilizes joints and muscles, improving physical fitness and mental relaxation. It is especially suitable as a therapy for chronic conditions because its movements are slow and gentle and the level of exertion can be adjusted to suit each person’s physical condition.*
The Tai Chi for Health approach to tai chi emphasises the essential tai chi principles and incorporates Qigong
The above characteristics mean that tai chi can feel very strange until the body and brain have become accustomed to the slowness, roundness and co-ordination challenges of the sequences. However, the health benefits can be experienced almost immediately, especially by focusing on the essential tai chi principles, which guide how the body and mind are developed with tai chi. In turn, these principles can be applied to daily life, so practice can begin from the start, in everyday situations – while the movements may take sometime to learn, and a life time to master! Tai Chi for Health programmes emphasise the principles rather than perfection, from the beginning. Approved modifications are also introduced, so that movements may be performed within the mobilty range of the practitioner, without pain or discomfort.
Health benefits can also be gained from the incorporation of Qigong into the sequences. All Tai Chi for Health programmes deliberately incorporate and focus on the "qi cultivation" aspect of tai chi. Qigong, an umbrella term for exercises performed for the express purpose of enhancing health, imbue tai chi with an almost magical quality for enhancing physical and mental well-being.
See also What is Real Tai Chi?
* Based on notes from TCA Reasource Book 2013 version by Dr Paul Lam