This is the second of a three-part series on the gentle art of well-being, T’ai Chi: the slow motion martial art originating in China. In the course of these articles, teacher and Practice Works community member Stephen Guesman conveys the profound physical, mental and even spiritual benefits that result from regular practice of disciplines such as T’ai Chi.
Most of you have seen taijiquan being ‘played’ either in a park, on television or in the movies. It’s a 10 to 20 minute routine that looks like a slow motion martial art. This is no accidental resemblance—taijiquan is a martial art, even though some folks may not realize it. With its emphasis on deep breathing, mental imagery and slow graceful movements to promote flexibility, taijiquan is aptly described as moving meditation. But to claim that taijiquan is not a martial art would be ludicrous if you were standing in my teacher’s studio in New York City. There, the full range of taijiquan is available, including ‘push hands’, applications classes and full force contact. Medals and trophies on display attest to taijiquan’s effectiveness in national and international wushu competition. (Wushu means martial arts in Chinese and is an approved major in Chinese universities.)
As a martial art, taijiquan is in the internal or soft tradition, as opposed to the more prevalent external or hard traditions. As an ‘internal martial art’, taijiquan relies more on relaxation, co-ordination and balance than on external strength and exertion. Internal martial arts, including taijiquan, judo and i kido, are primarily self-defensive arts that learn to neutralize an opponents attack and redirect it if desired. Becoming proficient in any martial art takes many years of diligent practice, and the internal arts such as taijiquan are no exception.
But the health benefits of taijiquan practice begin almost immediately.
In Chinese philosophy and medicine there exists the concept of ‘qi’, a vital force that animates the body. One of the benefits of taijiquan’s deep breathing and graceful movements is to foster the circulation of this qi within the body, in doing so the health and vitality of the person are enhanced. This qi circulates in patterns that are closely related to the nervous and vascular system and thus taijiquan is closely connected to the practice of acupuncture and Chinese medicine.
Focusing on the precise execution of these exercises provides practical learning about balance, alignment and rhythm of movement. Thus the practice of taijiquan contributes to being better able to stand, move and walk in all aspects of your life. In addition to helping avoid the injuries of falling, ‘players’ usually experience improvement in chronic conditions such as arthritis and vertigo.
*Tai-ji Quan or taijiquan is the modern translation for what was once Tai Chi, or more properly Tai Chi Chuan. The symbol usually called “the Yin-Yang” is properly called the Tai-ji. The intrinsic energy “qi”, that taijiquan and Chinese medicine seek to manage, was previously called chi. See “It’s Not T’ai Chi Anymore”, Natural Awakenings, August 2013; or contact the author for a re-print.
Another benefit of taijiquan is to promote a peaceful and tranquil mind. Breathing is low and slow, in natural synch with the movements. The mind is gently focused on the forms as they ebb and flow with the breath. For ten minutes a day you can just release and let the form play through you.
Accomplished players may progress on to two-person exercises commonly known as ‘push hands’. I prefer the lesser used title of ‘sensing hands’ because the practice is about learning to be sensitive to and responsive of another person’s qi. Sensing hands is also an opportunity to employ some of the martial aspects of taijiquan in a kind of slow-tempo combat. In the practice of sensing hands it is of paramount importance to relax in order to feel your partner’s intentions – possibly before they know it themselves.
The practical exercises of taijiquan are an expression of the philosophical tradition of Taoism (dao-ism). Taoism’s most well know sage is Lao Tsu who may, or may not, have lived about the time of the Buddha (~600 b.c.e.). Lao Tsu is the alleged author of the seminal work of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, the way of change. Some say that the Tao Te Ching has been translated and reprinted second only to the Bible.
One could call taijiquan the yoga of Taoism, but taijiquan goes even further than yoga in expressing the principals of its culture’s philosophy. And that begins our story for next time: The Way of Tai-ji Quan – Investing in Loss.
Stephen Guesman plays and teaches Taijiquan at Practice Works in Birmingham Alabama. He welcomes comments or corrections to this article. You can reach Stephen at [email protected]; be sure to say “taiji” in the subject line.
Image by Joshua Earle.