Tai Chi is a martial art which can be used for self defense just like any other martial art. However, unlike most martial arts which are practiced at full speed, Tai Chi is learned through slow movements. The Tai Chi moves work at faster speed as well and as you progress you may be surprised how natural the movements feel at full speed after being perfected in slow motion.
Tai Chi is a fascinating martial art because it approaches almost everything from the precisely opposite perspective as most other martial arts. As someone with experience with hard striking martial arts (I have a black belt in Tai Kwon Do), I found this new approach to be intriguing.
Today we're going to discuss some key conceptual foundations for learning Tai Chi. If you want to learn more, come visit our Youtube channel. We are going to be releasing free videos about how to learn Tai Chi at home starting next week.
Before we begin, let's get the terminology right. "Tai Chi" is actually short for "Tai Chi Chuan," which is the name for this specific martial art. Tai Chi Chuan is a subset or one example within a larger category called Qigong. Qigong is any martial art which uses slow movements to build up Chi, or life force, within the body. There are many forms of Qigong but Tai Chi is the most well known. Now that we're clear on what to call it, let's get into some of the core concepts of Tai Chi Chuan Qigong.
Chi is the life force within you, distributed throughout your body via your blood. Having blood fully pump through each part of your body keeps it healthy. You would think that all of your body is always full of blood, but evidently this is not entirely the case. I'm told that if all of your body was fully engorged with blood at the same time, you would weigh one entire ton. So what actually happens is that each part of the body is kept on a low maintenance dose of blood just to keep it alive and then each part gets the full serving of blood when used. Tai Chi is a way of systematically moving your blood, and therefore also your Chi or life force, into each part of your body so that toxins and damage can get washed away and then released via the body's natural channels. I'm not advanced enough in my understanding of the human body to confirm or deny the validity of this model, but I do know that I personally feel much healthier and happier immediately after and during my Tai Chi sessions. It makes me feel so good that it's relatively easy to get myself to do it on a consistent basis.
Slow Relaxed Movements
You want to move as slowly as you possibly can. Over time, you will learn to move slower and slower. This is teaching your body how to enter deeper and deeper states of relaxation. Try to release any tension you may be feeling. Your aim is to have your body totally relaxed during your practice. The mark of a true Tai Chi expert is someone who is able to make each movement last for what seems like an eternity. But you work up to that.
The Breath Mirrors the Movements
As you are slowly moving around, your breath is going to mirror your movements. In most cases, you are going to slowly inhale for the first half of each movement and then exhale for the second half. One full move in Tai Chi is typically one full breathe cycle.
It's ok to expend some mental energy keeping the breath and the movement in sync until you get more used to it. Eventually it will become automatic.
Up / Down Breathing
Your breath should be moving in an up / down fashion rather than a forwards / backwards fashion. For more details about this, see our previous article: How to Breathe Properly When You Meditate.
Fluid Motions that Don't Stop
There is no stopping in Tai Chi. All movements in Tai Chi are fluid and a full stop never occurs. The one exception is during sitting meditation, which is typically practiced in the middle of the session near the end. As I do the Tai Chi moves, sometimes I envision travelling around the outside of a circle and I time my breathing to each half around the circle.
In Tai Chi, the feet are fully planted on the ground, something which is called being "rooted." I literally envision tree roots coming out of the bottom of my feet and going about twenty feet into the earth when I practice.
This provides a very solid, stable feeling that is different than in other martial arts. In Tai Kwon Do, for example, I would always be on the balls of my feet and hopping around, trying to stay nimble. In Tai Chi, we do the exact opposite, remaining very stable and fully planted into the ground. For this reason, I prefer to do my Tai Chi outdoors if it's feasible considering the weather.
My understanding is that the Tai Chi stances were partially developed so that people could fight on board of fishing boats that were rocking back and forth. This seems plausible to me after having experienced the sensation of practicing Tai Chi at the beach while waves ran into my feet. I remained very stable despite these external disturbances.
Soft vs. Hard
At full speed in a fighting situation, the Tai Chi movements use a whipping motion. The body is kept completely relaxed until the moment of contact. At that precise moment, the body is jerked back in a whipping motion and then relaxed again. Theoretically, and I won't get into the math equations here, but this doubles the force at the point of impact. I'm very much looking forward to being advanced enough in my own Tai Chi practice to test this out for myself. So far, I have only seen a couple of examples of Tai Chi being used in actual fighting conditions.
Inside to Outside
In a way, Tai Chi is a great martial art to learn at home because it's not overly focused on correction. My teacher routinely let other students do movements completely differently than I was doing them, without correction. The reason for this is that students are encouraged to experiment with different ways to do the movements so they can figure out what feels right for them. This is called learning from the inside out. The inner transformation happens first and then results in an outward expression in movement.
In contrast, more typical martial arts are characterized by correction: you practice each move and get continually corrected until you do it right. Over time, this outward expression is expected to result in inward transformations. With Tai Chi, you are encouraged to figure things out for yourself and to experiment. This is why Tai Chi classes are conducted in silence. You copy the role model and focus on your internal sensations to the greatest extent possible.
As an aside, being encouraged to experiment with the movements is probably why there are many different styles within Tai Chi. Four of the five major styles are named after the Chinese family from which each one originated. I practice the Yang style. Yang-style derives from Yang Luchan, who lived from 1799 to 1872. I would like to get exposed to some of the other styles at a later time, but I very much enjoy learning Yang style.
A Moving Standing Meditation
Tai Chi is meditation, it's just a moving version of meditation. I had previously spent years trying to learn to do zen-style sitting meditation and my quest was essentially a total failure until I started learning Tai Chi. Through learning moving mediation, I was able to understand how to do still mediation. The two also reinforce each other: after doing Tai Chi I'm so relaxed that I can easily go into a deep meditational trance while doing a traditional sitting meditation afterwards. Conversely, if I sit still for twenty minutes of meditating, my Tai Chi movements afterwards are much slower and more relaxed.
Quite simply, Tai Chi changed my life. I feel healthier and more mentally stable now that I practice it. The moves have strengthened my body while paradoxically being very gentle on my body. I can usually practice even if I'm injured in some way. If you want to try out some Tai Chi for yourself, head on over to our YouTube channel and experiment with some of our Tai Chi instructional videos for yourself! We will begin posting them starting next week.
If you enjoyed this article, we suggest you also read What is the Fundamental Nature of Everything?, in which we discuss the meaning behind the Yin Yang symbol. It's useful background knowledge if you want to understand some of the cultural underpinnings behind Tai Chi. If you would like more information about the concepts discussed in this article, we recommend the book Tai Chi Qigong: The Internal Foundation of Tai Chi Chuan. Have a great day!
This article is about Tai Chi Chuan, a subset of qiqong. Qi gong, which sounds like chi gong, is a way of building up chi within your body. People could also call it taijiquan. They might also type in chi kung or taiji. Try out the benefits of tai chi for yourself on our YouTube channel where we show you how to do tai chi exercises from tai chi moves.