What is Tai Chi?

Tai Chi Feb 10, 2022

Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese martial art. It involves, not only body movements and forms, but also the movement of chi (internal energy). Neigong (“internal work”) is the practice of controlling breathing and chi flow throughout the body. Tai Chi is completely adaptable to people of all ages and body conditions. The meaning of Tai Chi (or taiji) is symbolized in the yin-yang symbol. Chuan "fist" can be added to it to refer to the martial art, Tai Chi Chuan.

I've been seriously practicing Tai Chi since 2014, though I started the basics much earlier. My teacher, Dr. Shie-Ming Hwang, is a Grandmaster of Tai Chi and other Chinese martial arts who moved to the US from Taiwan 45 years ago. He is a fifth generation disciple in the Yang Tai Chi tradition.

I've been practicing a shortened version of the Yang Tai Chi form developed by Dr. Shie-Ming Hwang. This form can be done at a slow speed, or much faster at "performance speed." There are a lot of movements packed into this form. Each movement could be taken apart and practiced on its own.

These two videos below are the form at performance speed.

It can be fun to learn forms, but that's only part of the practice. In a one hour class we generally spend 20 minutes with standing warmups, 20 minutes for sitting meditation/breathing, and 20 minutes on the form, at a slow speed. It took me a couple years, more or less, to learn the form well enough to do it on my own. And I'll be working on perfecting it for years...or a lifetime.

Breathing with the tantien (something like diaphragm breathing), directing chi flow throughout the body, along with basic movements: standing, bending the knees, bending forward, and Tai Chi posture...provide more than you might expect from things so simple. It's also harder to describe with words than it is to actually DO, if you follow along in a class or learn from somebody.

I used the basic movements to solve back and shoulder problems that I got from spending too much time sitting at a desk, as a student in Turkey. They also helped me when I had neck problems while working as a painter, using an 18" roller on an 8' pole. I found that, even at times when I experienced extreme neck pain, where it hurt to lift my head from a pillow or move my neck at all, I was still able to do the basic movements...and the pain always got better while I was doing them and afterwards.

I've heard people say, "I'd like to do Tai Chi, but my knees are bad these days." I've also met people who said, "My knee pain is really tolerable now that I've been practicing Tai Chi." It's important that you know yourself, and be your own advocate. Someone else's great experience doesn't mean much to anyone else. However, I've found that the expression" "The proof is in the pudding" applies to Tai Chi. I've found Tai Chi and Neigong to be some of the most powerful tools for maintaining a healthy body and mind. Also, everything is scalable. If you can't bend your knees a lot, bend them a little. If you can't stand, sit down.

Because Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art, it would not be complete without some sort of sparring or competition...a chance to demonstrate what you've learned. We do that with "push hands" (tui shou). In our two-hour classes, we practice push hands for most of the final half of class.

There are two kinds of push hands: fixed step and moving step. They both involve two competitors lining up, with one foot forward touching a line on the floor, and the other foot back.

In fixed step push hands, the goal is to push (or pull) your opponent off their feet, while not moving your own feet (unless you pick up a foot and put it back down in the same place). Fixed step is similar to something I remember from when I was a kid that used to be called, in Ohio at least, "Indian Arm Wrestling."

Moving step is the same concept, but once you begin, you can move around within a circle or square. The goal is to push your opponent out or to the ground. There is also an outer circle or square that will get you or lose you more points.

For fixed step practice, we do two three-minute rounds, with a 30-second break in between.

For moving step practice, we do two-minute rounds, with a 30-second break in between.

Beyond that, there are lots of different rule sets out there. If you enter a competition, ask to see the rules. Dr. Hwang hopes that Push Hands can one day become an Olympic sport. Until then, it will be hard to find an easy rule set to go by.

I've been practicing Tai Chi Chuan and push hands for many years now. I've never suffered an injury that didn't get better through more practice. Sure, it's possible you could break a bone or get seriously injured, but it is rare with Push Hands. Also, the ability and power developed in Push Hands is potentially scalable to strikes and actual fighting.

So, what is Tai Chi? Is it meditating in a chair, directing your breath and chi flow? Is it something like sumo wrestling? Is it a form with kicks and punches? It seems to be hard to pin down. Tai Chi, like Yoga, can really mean anything. I don't think goat Yoga, or beer Yoga, for example, are real traditional Yoga. Tai Chi hasn't come to that yet, but not everyone means the same thing by Tai Chi.  Some people do warmups and forms, completely separated from the martial arts aspects, and call their practice Tai Chi. Some people only know Tai Chi through external aspects, through Push Hands, but without the internal benefits of relaxation and chi. What I mean by it is the ancient Chinese martial art, with accompanying principles, chi flow and breathing practices.

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Joseph Shamis

Joseph Shamis is a recovering academic.

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