The term ‘tai chi’ is somewhat familiar to most of us. It’s common to envision slow, measured, low-impact movements performed by elderly, zen-looking men or women. There’s a good reason for this, as most tai chi forms are rooted in intentional, meditative movements. Yes, this makes them perfect for older generations. But, tai chi can be much more than exercise for the immobile. Younger generations are beginning to discover this ancient martial-art for it’s value in developing mind, body and spirit. In this article we’ll take a fresh look at age-old practice of tai chi to see how it fits into a modern, natural lifestyle.
A mysterious history
Nowadays, it’s commonly accepted that tai chi shares its early history with the development of Taoism more than 4000 years ago. Many fascinating legends claim to detail it’s exact lineage, though the exact story remains a mystery.
One common theme however, links many of these legends. That is, man’s observation of nature. One such legend claims that tai chi was developed by a Taoist priest in a mountainous area of China. The story describes the priest observing a crane preying on a snake. While a snake would typically yield quickly to a crane, the snake harmoniously used both head and tail to evade and attack the crane. The priest copied their unique natural movements to develop the earliest form of tai chi – one where brute force could be overcome with gentleness and internal power.
Though originally a fast-paced form of self-defense, how exactly did tai chi transition into a slower-paced practice? One theory suggests early monks slowed the movements to prevent breaking their meditative state during training. The slower form may also have been better aligned with their philosophy of nonviolence.
With such a long, rich history, tai chi has been adapted into a variety of forms – each with its unique stylistic personality. This can make selecting a form overwhelming for beginners. So, let’s take a brief look at three of the most popular and contrasting forms taught today.
Many believe Chen-style tai chi to be the original form from which many other forms were developed. In fact, it’s well documented that the Yang style was likely a direct descendant of Chen.
Founder Chen Wang-ting is said to have developed the form from his extensive combat experience and knowledge of various fighting forms. Although the form was taught only within the Chen family for many generations, it eventually fragmented into several forms that were made accessible to the public. These days, almost all incarnations of the Chen style are taught, including many interesting variations.
This style is popular for it’s beautiful combination of poses – slow and detailed at times, yet fast and explosive at others. This style tends to be popular among students wanting a balance between softness and strength.
If the story is to be believed, Yang Lu-chan originally learnt the Chen style by spying on the Chen family. Eventually, he became one of the few outsiders allowed to learn the form.
Yang removed many of the fast-paced, explosive moments from the Chen style, and instead focused on slow, steady, sweeping movements. The adapted style became what is now accepted as the most popular tai chi form in modern times.
Sometimes referred to as the Old Wu Style, this particular form was devised from the Yang style. It’s typically referred to as a more ‘internal’ practice. The student connects with their inner-nature by cultivating strong internal energy flows through subtle external movements.
Broadly speaking, the benefits of tai chi are both physical and spiritual – with both strongly complimenting one another. Each student is free however, to adopt a practice and belief system that is comfortable for them. The elderly and immobile for example, may choose to explore the physical benefits, many of which are well-documented. Some of these include:
- Improved Balance
- Preventing falls
- Improved strength and endurance
- Relief from chronic conditions (such as fibromyalgia)
These days, younger generations too, are beginning to discover tai chi as a gateway to both physical and spiritual development. Jake Mace, a long-time student and teacher of tai chi (and other martial arts), is one modern-day proponent of this movement. His work has helped popularise western tai chi by touting the benefits to younger students. Let’s look at a few:
Tai chi, by combining various breathing and focus techniques, can greatly reduce the stress levels of modern warriors. By calming the mind, we can effectively shift our state of mind from the stressy ‘fight or flight’ mode, into the relaxed world of the parasympathetic nervous system. It is here that healing and rejuvenation can occur most efficiently. This could be a great tool for relieving work-related stress, or preventing it from arising in the first place.
Disease & injury prevention
Reducing stress alone has the power to prevent the development of many diseases. Tai chi practitioners however, believe that healing can occur at a deeper level. The movements of tai chi are intended to move qi (pronounced chi), or ‘life force’ around the body. By moving this qi into stagnant areas, it is believed we can prevent the development of disease and even help to heal existing ailments – preventative medicine at its best.
Strength & flexibility
The beauty of many tai chi forms is that they are adaptable. While some stances may benefit the less-mobile, more agile students can often sink deeper into a stance, creating stronger positions. More advanced poses require the student to slowly develop the flexibility and strength required to obtain the correct posture. This can be a lifelong pursuit, with impressive results.
Connection to nature
As mentioned earlier, some believe that tai chi was developed by observing movement in nature. It makes sense then, that practicing tai chi can help us to reconnect with both our inner-nature and natural environment simultaneously. By practicing in a natural setting, students often find they are able to cultivate an even deeper connection with tai chi postures and movements.
Tips & tricks
Like any great hobby, getting started with tai chi can be the hardest part. It can be difficult to know where to begin, particularly with so many forms to choose from. So here are a few tips to help you on your journey:
- Research: Browse YouTube to get a visual idea of the many forms. Find one that suits you.
- Teacher: Find a teacher that teaches your form and resonates with you. For example, if you are looking for a faster more explosive form, you may want to find a teacher with a background in martial arts. These days you can also choose from a number of great online schools.
- Location: Find a location where you can practice regularly. This could be a backyard, garage or park. Wherever you choose to practice, ensure the area is free of obstacles and that you are unlikely to be interrupted there. Fortunately, there is very little else you need to practice tai chi!
- Practice: Ensure you practice regularly. By practicing several times a week you will maximize the benefits and speed your learning of the form.
Though an ancient art-form, tai chi continues to grow across eastern and western cultures alike. Interestingly, younger students are beginning to revive the practice as they begin to appreciate the myriad of benefits on offer. By strengthening body, mind and spirit, students are finding themselves better equipped to find happiness and balance in a modern life. In doing so, they are also helping to preserve the rich history of tai chi. Perhaps it’s time to tap in, and try tai chi for yourself!