Tai Chi has seen a great surge in popularity as a health-enhancing practice in the West, although there is still a great deal of misunderstanding about its principles and so, in turn, not everyone is potentially enjoying the full benefits of this oriental discipline.
Many people seem to think that Tai Chi is simply a set or relaxing arm and body movements, but don’t appreciate that it is, in fact, a martial art. Tai Chi Chuan often has two forms, the slow, well-known training patterns that are commonly associated with the art, and the full speed martial applications used for defence and counter-attack. Although there are proven health benefits in the meditation and focus required to maintain good form and posture throughout the exercises, most traditional practitioners will also teach the underlying principle of Chinese Medicine; that of the flow of Qi throughout the channels and meridians of the body.
Traditional martial arts are so closely integrated with Chinese Medicine, that many of the kung fu masters prevalent before the Cultural Revolution also practiced as doctors, herbalists and bone-setters in addition to teaching their combat skills. Like Western medicine, a thorough understanding of the human anatomy and its strengths and weaknesses gave the knowledge to both harm and heal. With the principle of good Qi circulation being essential to health, practices such as Tai Chi, Hsing-I or Ba-Gua taught exponents how to channel and direct their Qi energy, projecting it into an opponent at point of contact (much like an electrical circuit being completed), and disrupting that person’s energy flow and causing further sickness and ill-health in addition to the mechanical impact of the blow.
The gentle stretching movements of Tai Chi are a good low impact way of promoting mobility and flexibility, making this a popular exercise for the elderly. For the student of Chinese Medicine, this movement of the limbs and trunk also helps to enable Qi to flow through the major channels more readily. This is important for both good health with a strong circulation, and for the ability for advanced practitioners to visualise focussing this energy to the hands or arms in order to deliver a block or strike.
Although many years can be spent training on the physical aspect, this is only a part of the total discipline. As the movements become more natural and flowing, more attention can be paid to the awareness and flow of energy in the body, and the place of oneself in the surrounding world. Many traditional practitioners prefer natural surroundings for performing Tai Chi, and sunrise and sunset are considered the best times to do so in order to gain most benefit from the natural energy flow of the environment. This is why you see a great deal of Chinese people practicing their Tai Chi in parks and suburban green spaces at the start of the day.
Although many Western advocates are not entirely comfortable with the full practice of meditation, it is generally seen as a calming and relaxing art to perform, at least once the anxiety of getting the moves right has passed!
About the author:
Steve Jones works for a used car sales company but has spent several years studying Traditional Chinese Martial Arts, including Tiger-Crane Combination, Fukinese White Crane, Tai Chi and Hsing-I.