Tai Chi Quan can be translated from the Chinese as the highest form of martial arts. As with all Chinese martial arts, it developed from Shaolin boxing several hundred years ago and has the distinction of being one of the three soft-style Taoist martial art forms, alongside Baguazhang and Xingyiquan. On a purely physical level, these forms strive toward harmony of movement, utilizing the entire body in unison while helping establish good structure in the body. On a spiritual and emotional level, one strives to transition through the forms while quieting the mind in a moving meditation.
What does this translate into, in terms of concrete, daily practice? The traditional exercise of Tai Chi is perceived as something one does in their golden years, performing slow movements primarily because their ability to move has declined. Actually, the slow pace that remains one of the hallmarks of Tai Chi practice has the following goals: 1. perfecting the movements themselves (and hence reinforcing the understanding of these movements); 2. calming the mind to the point of being able to enter into a meditative state, and; 3. increasing awareness of one’s own body and the world in which it is moving.
Scientific research about Tai Chi has shown that there are indeed many health benefits from regular practice. These benefits include training in proprioception ( the ability to perceive one’s body in space), which tends to decline with age; improvement of agility, balance, tendon and muscle strength and flexibility; improvement in mood, even with depression, and hence improved quality of life; reduction in the recurrence of breast cancer in cancer survivors through reduced inflammation; improved sleep quality; reduced blood pressure; and improved immune response. Research studies point toward the importance of incorporating this type of regular meditative exercise into an otherwise healthy lifestyle rather than considering Tai Chi as a panacea.
Tai Chi is a complete exercise system. By this, we mean that it encompasses many different aspects of physical activity, while having a concrete concept of the body’s machinations. This also includes the concept of self-care, a foundational feature of Taoist thought and Chinese medicine. In today’s world of sports and exercise, there appear to be two types of physical exertion that dominate the conversation: the short, high intensity training of Crossfit-style boot camps, and the relatively static but intense stretching of yoga. Tai Chi has endured for so long precisely because it is able to bridge these two types of exercise by building strength of mind and body. If practiced under proper supervision, the propensity for injury is little to none, especially as one builds confidence in one’s own body.
The concept of Tai Chi embodies the one constant embraced by Taoist thought: change. The Tai Chi practitioner regularly works on joint mobility, tendon strength and flexibility, and proper posture. Strength, agility and fluidity of movement are goals that one pursues in practice. The more that one practices, the more there is to learn. Thus Tai Chi becomes a study of one’s own body, that body’s relationship with gravity, and the changes that occur as one gets stronger and older. It’s for this reason that it can be a long-term pursuit, an exercise for people of all ages.