What is T’ai Chi Ch’uan is one of the more difficult questions that one is asked since it is not just one thing, but many. On the other hand it sometimes seems so simple since it is a wonderful way to live your life that can also take away the stress of living.
T’ai Chi is a wonderful, gentle exercise which is also an internal martial art. It frees the body, encouraging relaxation. This art activates muscles and opens the joints, increasing flexibility and strengthening without stress. T’ai Chi calms and centers us, clearing the mind. It reinforces soft approaches to the hard edges of life. The benefits from T'ai Chi are many. It is suitable for everyone and anyone and takes a small amount of space and time to practice. Indeed, spending only 30 minutes a day in complete relaxation of body and mind is sufficient for one to gain most of the benefits. Playing T'ai Chi regularly strengthens the immune system helping to ward off disease.
It improves balance allowing one to move with more confidence and stability. T'ai Chi helps us to avoid worry and tension, thereby, preventing stress. Physical health is improved, rejuvenating and prolonging life. A National Institute on Aging study showed that T'ai Chi could, by improving balance and flexibility, reduce falls in seniors by 47%. Other recent studies have found significant success in treating or preventing high blood pressure, hypertension, arthritis, osteoporosis, bronchitis, depression, Parkinson’s Disease and Raynaud’s Syndrome among many others. It has been shown to be an ideal form of exercise for recovering coronary patients. While it does not prevent the common cold T'ai Chi players who have practiced regularly for ten years or more do not suffer as severe symptoms. Indeed the Chinese claim some 640 different diseases and degenerative illnesses are alleviated or cured by daily T’ai Chi play.
T’ai Chi Ch’uan, the full name, translates as supreme ultimate boxing or fist. Clearly it is therefore a martial art. However it is different from the martial arts such as Karate or Tae Kwon Do since it belongs to the group known as internal or soft martial arts which includes Bagua Zhang, Hsing Yi Ch’uan and Aikido. The internal martial arts focus on the development of the use of ch’i, the life force, from the beginning of training while the external arts are more likely to bring this aspect in at a later stage. T’ai Chi, Bagua and Hsing Yi are seeking to strengthen their strikes by the conversion of ch’i to jin (power).
Perhaps even more important in T’ai Chi’s martial approach is the concept of neutralization or active yielding. We do not meet aggression with more aggression but rather neutralize the aggression which allows one to respond appropriately rather than simply react. This kind of controlled response takes many years of training. Master Jou, Tsung Hwa stated it this way, “In three years one can begin to learn the principles of T’ai Chi. In five years one begins to apply them. In ten years, with regular practice, one may achieve a low level of ability and in twenty years, if you practice very hard, you may achieve a high level of ability.” Clearly T’ai Chi Ch’uan, as a martial art, is not for someone in a hurry. However it’s power can be significant if one chooses to make it so. This power can be used for healing as well as a self-defense art.
It should be noted here that the health benefits will be begun to be felt after “one hundred days of practice”. I like to say that T’ai Chi can be a wonderful way to improve your health but it is not a “quick fix” in the western sense.
The third primary area of T’ai Chi study is that of spiritual growth or emotional development. T’ai Chi Ch’uan without this aspect is incomplete. The study of Taoism and Buddhism, the philosophies which underlie most martial arts, teaches us a flowing way of relating to nature and the world around us. Leading us to learn to stay in the present moment, not in an hedonistic sense but rather, living in and participating fully in each moment. Helping us to understand that it is only in that moment that we can exercise our personal power. We learn to let go of the past which we can no longer affect and to not worry about the future which we cannot yet affect. This will lead to much less stress in one’s life. As Master Jou said, “If we learn to move with the principles of the universe, which is the object of T’ai Chi, you will become one with it and will have peace, tranquillity and a harmonious life.”