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What Is Tai Chi?

Tai Chi Chuan, (also written "Taiji" or "Taijiquan") or simply Tai Chi, is a slow, graceful Chinese exercise that enhances relaxation skills, mental focus and physical alignment while building leg strength, endurance and stability. Ideal for increasing stamina, flexibility and coordination, Tai Chi promotes efficiency of movement and economy of effort. Its principles apply to all activity. Tai Chi is a form of Qigong, a Chinese term for energy cultivation.

Tai Chi practice incorporates principles for health of body, mind and spirit. These principles promote harmony in human interactions as well.


Tai Chi "Form"

Tai Chi was originally developed by Chinese martial arts experts in order to advance their skills. Traditional Tai Chi forms incorporate highly complex movement patterns throughout the entire sequence which are based in blocks, kicks and punches. Most traditional forms take 12-20 minutes to perform and over one year to learn. Although natural athletic ability and previous movement training are a great asset, the discipline of regular practice is the key to long-term benefits. Tai Chi, like any true art, has a depth which can be appreciated through years of practice and dedication.

Tai Chi encompasses several styles or forms, each originating from three main branches named after their most famous proponents (Yang, Chen or Wu). Many interpretations of these styles have emerged throughout its long history, resulting in numerous variations in form. All these traditional forms of Tai Chi involve highly complex movement patterns that take months to learn.


Origins of Tai Chi

Tai Chi originated in China around the 13th century A.D. as a synthesis of martial arts exercise and sitting meditation. The perspective of the Tao was intregal to the philosophy and culture of China for thousands of years and naturally influenced the development of Tai Chi. Tao is translated as "road" or "path." According to this perspective, living simply, being quiet and observant and willing to move with the flow of things promotes harmonious life. This insight is based on astute observation of nature's cycles and on a cosmology that is compatible with modern theoretical physics. The body is a microcosm of the universe and one's personal health is influenced by the rhythms of life on earth, the patterns of the larger universe, and all relationship to other humans. All of life is interconnected.

Tai Chi, which is based in self defense movements, evolved as a physical activity for integrating mind, body and spirit to function in harmony with the external world. Rather than cultivating brute force, which inevitably becomes depleted. Tai Chi (which means "Supreme Ultimate") cultivates the Middle Way, a peaceful path.


Benefits of Tai Chi

Medical research has found tai chi is a moderate aerobic exercise that

  • enhances immune function,
  • reduces stress and anxiety, and
  • lowers blood pressure.
It also improves balance and reduces falls, and reduces joint pain in arthritis. Tai Chi is a powerful weight bearing exercise that helps improves strength, coordination and flexibility. Specific research studies are available.

Guidelines for Tai Chi Practice

Mindfulness

Basic to the practice of Tai Chi is an attitude of mindfulness, or awareness of the present moment. Attention is focused on the position and feeling within the body. Surroundings are experienced with the senses.

Postural Alignment

The practitioner maintains focus on proper, natural standing postural alignment throughout the sequence, checking to see that the body is upright, the head erect, spine comfortably aligned, shoulders balanced and relaxed, and the weight evenly distributed on the soles of the feet. While moving, the body remains in an upright position and the shoulders remain aligned over the hips.

Breath Awareness

Natural diaphragmatic breathing patterns are maintained throughout the entire sequence. Many people hold their breath while concentrating. Tai Chi trains breath awareness with movement.

Active Relaxation

Active relaxation involves integrating mindfulness with physical relaxation and simultaneous awareness of all parts of the body. It involves being both alert and calm at the same time and promotes the flow of Qi or life force throughout the body.

Slow Movement

Most exercise programs focus on exertion and straining as a means to achieving increased strength and endurance. Tai Chi facilitates both strength and endurance through slow, relaxed movement. The slower and lower the movement, the greater the strength and endurance benefit.

Weight Separation

During transitions and weight shifts, the weight ideally is 100 percent on one foot, keeping the body upright. Commonly referred to as "separating the weight," it contributes to better balance and increased leg strength.

Integrated Movement

The head, trunk and pelvis rotate as a single "column" aligned over the stable base in the feet. All arm and hand movements are initiated by the upright rotation of this "column." There is no twisting of the spine.


The Mind/Body Principles of Tai Chi

Tai Chi is based on the perspective that mind and body are not separate; rather, they are different expressions of Qi energy or life force. The principles that facilitate health of body naturally are healthy for the mind, and visa versa. These principles apply to human interaction as well. Tai Chi was developed as a means of cultivating the body, mind and spirit to function in harmony with the external world.

 
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