Among Chinese martial arts styles, tai chi, practiced morning and night around the country, is perhaps one of the most iconic and easily recognizable forms. But for all its ubiquity, it is still a very misunderstood style. And that includes why it’s such a beneficial activity.
So what are the benefits of training tai chi? Is it suitable for you? Read on as Cultural Keys’ founder and tai chi instructor AJ Donnelly explains more!
What actually is tai chi?
Put simply, tai chi is a martial art that promotes training traditional Chinese kung fu techniques infused with the principles of a Chinese philosophy called Taoism. Obviously there is a lot more to it than that, with layers upon layers of in-depth application and interpretation, but for the purposes of this article, it’s a good place to start!
You could (and many have) write tomes on the contested history of tai chi. According to the legend, tai chi was invented in the 12th century by a monk named Zhang Sanfeng (played by Jet Li in the movie Tai Chi Master). However, no actual historical evidence has shown this to be anything other than a legend.
In fact, it is much more likely to have been an evolution of one or more existing styles being combined with Taoist philosophies, with something closer to what we recognise today first being recorded in the 16th century.
Over the centuries, tai chi has developed and evolved into many different styles, with Chen and Yang being the most common and Yang being the one most widely known and practised. Why? Because today it’s more often taught as only a slow and relaxing exercise, without a lot of details that were part of its original martial function – but this has greatly widened its appeal.
What’s in a name?
Let’s quickly talk about that name, tai chi. Tai chi in Chinese is taiji/太极 (supreme ultimate, according to one possible translation) or taijiquan/太极拳 (supreme ultimate fist) to give it its full name. When using its English name, people sometimes misunderstand, and think the chi in tai chi relates to qi/气 (life force or energy). It does not. While qi, and qigong (the art of consciously developing your internal energy) is an important part of tai chi, it’s not part of the name. Just an unfortunate romanization!
With those common misconceptions somewhat cleared up, let’s take a look at the actual benefits that training tai chi can offer you! Note: Every style of tai chi has its own benefits, but as I teach Yang Style, that’s what I’ll talk about here.
All for One!
Tai chi is a whole-body activity. While there are a multitude of ways to train (even sitting down apparently) it is primarily an activity that engages every part of your body, equally. When practicing forms and techniques, you will be coordinating every single part of your body, engaging every muscle, from calves and thighs, to biceps and forearms, core, heart and lungs.
And while Yang Style taichi is mainly practised slowly (mainly, but not only), that doesn’t mean all those parts don’t get a great workout. Slow, steady, full (as opposed to limp or empty) movements train your slow-twitch fibers (the ones for endurance and stamina) and prolonged training, when focusing on deep postures, large movements and powerful technique, can help train cardio and fast-twitch muscle strength. Maybe you have a preference for one of these over the other, but in either case, tai chi has them both!
And One for All!
Because tai chi can be considered a full body activity, it requires full attention to make it work. Coordinating how you breathe, how hard you breathe, how long you breathe, how far you step, how deep you step, how high your left arm goes, how outstretched your right arm goes, what your intention is moment to moment, and where your qi is focused, all while trying to remain centred and rooted at the same time is no small feat and requires a level of concentration not seen in many ‘leisure’ activities.
And of course, like any great art, that’s not something that you get overnight. In fact, training your focus and concentration is only one part of this benefit, the others being memory, patience and discipline. And who doesn’t need more of those?
The sky’s the limit!
It may be an overused cliche at this point, but in my opinion, tai chi really is like chess; simple to learn but hard to master. And as such, it can be practiced and enjoyed by anyone. Unfit, overweight, stressed and depressed? Do ten minutes slow and steady tai chi every morning to help you get going! Athletic over-achiever with more energy than three cans of red bull? An hour’s fast and hard tai chi every night! And both types of people will get just as much out of doing so! I’ve taught both types (and everyone in between) and no one has ever said “Nah that was too easy”, nor “that was too hard!!” Tai chi scales to you, with zero barriers to entry and absolutely zero glass ceilings!
And what’s most important here, is that like one of tai chi’s most core concepts – adaptability – your training will adapt with you over time, or at any time in fact! On a bus stuck in a traffic jam? Run through the form a few times in your head! Late for school and only 3 minutes to practice? 25 tai chi opening and closing movements, done! Ate one slice too many and need an extra burn? Increase your movement size by one step, sink 2 inches lower and hold each posture for 60 seconds… win!
You are you own master in tai chi, and it will be available to you whenever and however you want it. No excuses accepted, because none are needed!
Yes, there is an element of self defense
Let me make this quite clear. No, tai chi is not just ‘moving-meditation-healthy-dance-only-for-the-elderly’ type thing. Yes, it is a martial art. No, you can’t fight with tai chi. Yes, you can do self defense with tai chi. No, you can’t learn it in one afternoon. Yes, everyone can learn it, with practice and the right teacher.
Maybe these distinctions are grey for some, but to me, and many of my students, they are acutely clear. When I teach, I do put an emphasis on the soft, slow, relaxed movements of modern Yang Style tai chi, but at the same time, those movements, those postures aren’t empty or flaccid. I demonstrate what a technique is, how it can be applied, what the purpose of each small step and movement are, to make clear that it is a martial art we are practicing. I also teach a few simple applications of the techniques, such as how to break out of grasps or move out of the way of oncoming aggression.
Yes, it would take a long time to understand how to effectively apply such techniques, and maybe that’s not for everyone. And it should certainly not be a primary reason to learn (Cultural Keys recommends Krav Maga for effective and efficient self defense training!). But confidence, assertiveness, strength of will and yes, how to physically defend yourself or others when absolutely necessary, are certainly part of what you can achieve by training a martial art. And as such, this oft-ignored benefit should definitely be part of a complete program or list of benefits to training!
Language, culture, philosophy and all that good stuff
Tai chi most certainly surpasses the physical, earthly ties of our bodies and elevates our minds as well – if you decide to take that path. That’s because taichi is fundamentally part of the core traditional culture and philosophy, history and language of China. And if you spend enough time learning about the inside of tai chi, all that stuff does tend to rub off on you.
Like I mentioned above, tai chi at its most fundamental is about expressing the philosophical concepts of tai chi, such as Yin and Yang, through movements which have a martial application. So to understand and therefore practice tai chi at a higher level, you have to learn something about the theories and practices of Taoism. And in learning about Taoism, you also get to know about the traditional culture of China, as the two are intrinsically linked, due to the way Taoist teachings were shared and transmitted through the ages.
Add to that the ability to learn key language points, by learning the names of postures and techniques in Chinese, which in themselves are a transmission method of culture and language, and you really see how tai chi has a reputation for being such a total package!
As you can see, tai chi has a lot more benefits than simply moving your body around a bit (though the importance of any kind of daily movement should never be underestimated!) So whether you are looking for a gentle way to start your day, a full-body intensive workout, or even just a way to connect more with Chinese culture, tai chi is the complete package. Maybe it’s time to give it a try?