What is Tai Chi?
Tai Chi Chuan (which is pronounced ‘Ty Chee Chew’) is a form of exercise, employing slow, graceful, flowing, circular movements. Usually, it is now just called Tai Chi.
It originated in China many centuries ago where it developed as a martial art (T’ai CM Ch’uan means ‘Supreme Ultimate Boxing’). However, over the centuries, T’ai Chi evolved into one of China’s powerful traditional internal health systems, which works on body, mind, and spirit at the same time.
The primary purposes of Tai Chi
Are to increase and maintain the reserves of vital life-energy (‘Chi’) and to develop spiritual awareness. The combined effect of these aims is believed to have a
profoundly beneficial influence on health.
This ancient art also teaches the importance to our well-being of controlling breathing, focussing the concentration and stilling the mind. Indeed, Tai CM is often described as a moving meditation and can be of great help to those suffering from insomnia and the many effects of stress.
Its curative, as well as preventive powers, have long been recognized by Chinese doctors, and it is used in hospitals and clinics as part of the treatment for cancer,
nervous disorders and heart disease.
Who is Tai Chi suitable for?
Tai Chi can be successfully practiced by anyone of any age. It does not require physical fitness. Indeed it is ideally suited for older people and those who are not very agile, as the exercises are gentle but can also improve fitness and agility.
Do I need any special equipment?
All that is required for the practice of Tai Chi is clothing that is not too tight. It can be done in bare feet or training shoes, but most people wear Chinese Kung Fu slippers.
You will need a bright, flat piece of floor or ground of about 5sqm. Outdoor practice (in the shade in hot weather) is highly recommended. In China, where people practice in parks and squares, some do T’ai Chi before breakfast, some after work or before sleep, and some at both ends of the day.
THE PHILOSOPHY BEHIND THE ART OF TAI CHI CH’UAN
The beliefs and principles underlying T’ai Chi are part of the Eastern philosophy which believes that people should aspire to the Tao — the Way of Harmony with Nature.
It is based on the concept of Yin and Yang, the two fundamental, complementary life forces which cannot exist without each other.
The beginnings of Tai Chi are attributed to a Taoist thinker of the eleventh century called Chang San-Feng. One day while watching a crane stabbing at a snake with its beak he was struck by the way the snake moved slowly and continuously, seeming to yield and yet still managing to evade its attacker.
He formulated these movements into a system aimed at nurturing
inner strength. These slow, circular movements were combined in later centuries with controlled breathing and the characteristic qualities of different animals developed by even more ancient Taoist philosophers.
Apart from the crane, these include the tiger (the symbol of ego) which has to be ‘mastered’ and the monkey (the symbol of mischievousness) which has to be ‘resisted’. This advanced form was taken up by Taoist monks as a means of focussing their bodies and minds.
The comprehensive series of exercises which became Tai Chi has only been systematically taught for a few hundred years. There are various schools of T’ai Chi, but the basic principles are the same.
How can I learn Tai Chi?
The benefits of T’ai Chi cannot be fully acquired without the aid of a fully qualified teacher. Regular attendance at classes is necessary for at least one and a half hours per week over several months. All movements are repeated many times and the teacher will continually check and correct your posture and balance.
All the actions are carried out on the feet, usually with the spine vertical and the knees bent. There are two series, or forms, of Tai Chi movements. The short form contains somewhere between 40 to 50 sequences of actions and takes 5 to 10 minutes to do.
The long form has over 100 moves and takes 20 to 40 minutes, depending on how fast they are done. The movements are very slow, to focus
the consciousness precisely, and are, for the most part, smooth and flowing. Eventually, they blend into a seamless flow.
There are, also, a series of movements which are more specifically for self-defence. These are more rapid (although still relaxed) and are done with a partner. The names of the movements reveal their Taoist origins. For example, ‘Grasp Sparrow’s Tail While Warding Off Tiger’ portrays the balance of Yin and Yang within the position. ‘Step Back and Repulse Monkey’ sums up the T’ai Chi philosophy of success through yielding.
To find a Tai Chi teacher in your area, look for information on notice boards in libraries, health food shops, and specialist bookshops. Community centers, local night schools, and fitness centers sometimes hold classes or have helpful information desks. It may be a good idea to go and observe a class before joining. Many teachers are happy to allow this.
Ask the teacher to explain about the form of Tai Chi taught and, if possible. Ask the participants about their reactions. Aim to find an uncrowded class as this will ensure more personal attention.