What is Tai Chi and how can it help me?
I think it’s true to say that most people have heard of Tai Chi, however, although they know about it, most people are perhaps a little fuzzy on exactly what it is, how it works and most importantly why they should consider taking it up and somehow fitting it into what is already a busy life.
Before we get into all of that, I think it might be useful to clarify a couple of terms and issues around spelling and language. Because Tai Chi has its origins in China and its terminology is derived from the Chinese language and history, it can be a little confusing.
What’s in a name?
In the title of this piece, I have used the term 'Tai Chi' as this is still the most common name in general use. It is, however, an abbreviation. The full name is 'Tai Chi Chuan', which translates as 'Supreme Ultimate Fist'. The term 'Supreme Ultimate' relates to the philosophical concept of the endless interaction between Yin and Yang. This concept is often illustrated by the image of the circle with black and white 'fish' within it. The word 'Fist' in this case is analogous with the word boxing, indicating that this is a martial art. It is quite common for the term 'fist' to be dropped, leaving simply 'Tai Chi'.
The use of different translation protocols adds a little further confusion. 'Tai Chi' is a product of an old translation process (Wade Giles). The newer, more modern, translation process (Pinyin) results in the name 'Tai Ji Quan'. It’s exactly the same thing just different spelling.
What is Tai Chi?
As mentioned above, Tai Chi has its origins in martial arts, although today it is done mainly for its physical and mental health benefits. The most well-known aspect of Tai Chi is what is known as the hand form. If you think you have seen someone doing Tai Chi this is what you will probably have seen. The hand form is a sequence of movements that are usually done slowly and, depending upon which form it is, may take anything from five to thirty minutes or more.
The hand form features a range of slow-motion punches, pushes, pulls and kicks. Each movement should flow into the next and each technique should be delivered from a strong and stable base. An important aspect of Tai Chi training is the development of balanced and deep respiration. For balance, we try to aim for inhalation and exhalation to last approximately the same duration. The correct depth of breathing is achieved by learning to activate the diaphragm as the primary driver of respiration and the external intercostals to a lesser degree. Becoming aware of poor breathing patterns (e.g. using the accessory respiratory muscles during what should be easy relaxed breathing) should be an important aspect of training.
There should be more to Tai Chi than simply learning the hand form. Because of its martial origins, the hand form focuses on a relatively limited range of motions. These postures and movements are structured around efficient and stable body positions. The body can only be strong and relatively relaxed in a limited number of positions; think of everyday safe lifting skills. We all understand that certain positions put the body in a weak and vulnerable state. The concept of relaxed strength sits at the heart of Tai Chi postures.
Due to the relatively limited range of movements in the hand form, Tai Chi study should include additional types of movement exercises such as calisthenics or Chi Kung (Qi Gong) etc. I use a form of Yoga known as Dao Yin which was traditionally used as an adjunct to traditional Chinese medicine, rather like a treat-yourself prescription. It was also used to address some of the issues experienced by people undertaking extensive periods of sitting meditation.
Whatever form the additional exercise takes, it should include full joint articulations, extensive flexion, extension and rotation of the spine and again correct respiration. All complete traditional schools use some form of supplemental exercise protocol, the level of difficulty should be adjusted to accommodate the capacity of the practitioner.
What does Tai Chi do for the body?
On this topic, I always emphasise one very important fact: Knowing Tai Chi has absolutely no benefit to your health, only doing Tai Chi has any effect. I’ve been involved in Tai Chi training for well over thirty years and it’s amazing the number of people that I have met who join a class with the intention of learning the hand form and, once they have learnt it, they give up. It’s rather like undertaking the 'Couch to 5K' running program and then having run 5K, retiring back to the couch! It's completely pointless.
Fortunately, there has been quite a good deal of research into the physiological effects of Tai Chi, so it is possible to make some verifiable claims regarding the benefits of Tai Chi training, bearing in mind the above comment regarding doing and not just knowing Tai Chi.
Among the most widely recognised benefits of Tai Chi are its effects on lower limb strength, balance and kinaesthetic awareness. It is for this reason that Tai Chi is becoming very popular in the prevention of falls among the elderly. To maximise this benefit, the importance of mindful movement should be emphasised during the class. In this respect, Tai Chi is similar to Somatic education. Because of the great importance of mindfulness in each movement, it is essential to aim to ultimately learn the sequence and have it fully
committed to memory. During the practice of the form, your mind should be entirely directed to the correct performance of the movement rather than trying to remember what move comes next.
A second area of benefit is the quality of respiration. It should be noted that this article uses the term 'experienced/expert practitioner'. This points to the importance of regular and correct training, merely ‘going through the motions’ of the hand form will not bring these benefits.
A concomitant benefit of good respiration is the impact on the mind and the autonomic nervous system. The ability of trained respiration to calm both mind and body is the basis of all mindfulness practises.
What to expect from a Tai Chi session
Tai Chi classes vary enormously in their content and delivery. They should all have some things in common, though. On your first visit, the tutor should carry out a basic health screening to identify any specific needs that you may have. This should also be an opportunity to ensure that you have arrived for the correct class, some schools operate different classes for people with different levels of experience.
In general, you should expect some form of warm-up routine utilising calisthenic movement that articulates all major joints and brings some temperature into the body. Teaching of the hand form requires some degree of personal attention from the tutor and should focus on the essentials of correct posture. Many people find the actual retention of the sequence quite challenging. The main reasons for this are:
- trying to learn too much in one session
- infrequent training
A 'little and often' is the correct approach, performing a few movements correctly is of far more benefit than randomly performing a long sequence of half-remembered movements.
How to get started with Tai Chi
If you want to give Tai Chi a go, the first thing is to find a class that you can get to on a regular basis. Tai Chi requires some commitment and you don’t want to put barriers in your way such as distance and time when you’re just starting out. If you become more committed to the training, in the medium term, it is easier to motivate yourself to travel further afield to deepen your study.
Finding a good teacher can be a little tricky, although there are a number of national organisations, they don’t necessarily guarantee quality or knowledge. The best way to assess any teacher is to talk to them and chat with other class members. While you may not be able to discern good Tai Chi from bad, you will soon recognise if the person can teach. Can they communicate what the class will cover? Do they correct individuals? Are there opportunities to ask questions? Is the class paced in a way that you have time to think and review your learning and of course are people enjoying it?
To get the maximum benefit from Tai Chi you will have to commit to regular training with a good teacher. You have direct control over how much you practise, but finding a teacher that you get on with and delivers the quality of tuition that you want may take a little time, but it is time worth taking.
1 Zhi-Guan Huang et al (2017), 'Systematic review and meta-analysis: Tai Chi for preventing falls in older adults', BMJ Open, doi: 10.1136, available here: https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/7/2/e013661
2 Brown DD, et al (1989), 'Cardiovascular and ventilatory responses during formalized T'ai Chi Chuan exercise', National Library of Medicine - Res Q Exerc Sport, Sep 60(3), pp. 246-50. doi: 10.1080, available here: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2489850/
3 Zaccaro A, et al (2018), 'How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing', National Library of Medicine - Front Hum Neurosci, doi: 10.3389, available here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6137615/