What is tai chi and why do we practice it? Tai Chi is a martial art. It is what is known as an internal art and has been practiced for personal defense as far back as the 1500's in China.
Why we practice tai chi has a variety of reasons from the physical, to the mental, to the energetic, to the martial. The majority of people these days practice Tai Chi for it's well known health benefits. Tai Chi has been studied and documented as reducing high blood pressure, improving immune function, enhancing the sense of balance, developing greater strength and improving flexibility among other effects.
Physically the Tai Chi forms work like a whole body tonic. The joints of the body are moved through their full range in a slow, smooth and controlled fashion. This lubricates, stretches, and opens the joints allowing them to function better throughout the day's activities. There is an old adage. "A well use door hinge never rusts." The same is true of our bodies. Your body needs movement. It needs to be worked regularly in a beneficial way to it's full ability and capacity. Otherwise, our bodies gradually grow stagnant, become stiff, less resilient and eventually wear out. The tonic effects of Tai Chi movements work to keep our bodies strong and pliable while counteracting the stresses and demands of our day to day lives.
Anyone can use Tai Chi improve their physical ability. It is an art which is scalable in intensity. The physical aspect of it can be approached by anyone from a person in their eighties who has been sedentary for years and is trying to restore their energy and vitality, to someone in their teens or twenties, already full of vitality and looking to cultivate extraordinary physical abilities.
Mentally and Spiritually Tai chi is considered a form of moving mediation. The Tai Chi practitioner cultivates a highly focused but also relaxed and aware state of mind. They tune themselves into every shifting of muscle and tendon and become aware of every inch of space that they pass through during the movements the tai chi form. This deep focus calms the mind and allows the practitioner to disengage from the static of trivial daily thoughts. The Tai Chi practitioner is the able to develop a sense of balance and center in their life thus allowing them to choose the focus of their mind rather than have it dictated by whim and circumstance.
Tai Chi is also trained as a form of energy cultivation. Roughly speaking Traditional Chinese medical theory holds that we are born with a certain essential charge. We also have what can be considered day to day energy. This we draw from the air we breathe, the food we eat, etc. Every day, we use just a little bit of that essential energy, when we deplete or poorly supply our daily energy. Over time we gradually deplete our essential charge and in the end when there is no more jing, there is no more us.
Tai Chi is considered a way of cultivating a better supply of that daily energy; that energy that we use over the course of our days to move about, to think, to live our lives. It is what we use for the functioning of our body and mind. Tai chi trains us to use our bodies and minds in a focused yet relaxed and more efficient manner. Thereby we minimize the demands on our energy level. Also, the therapeutic effects of tai chi where it opens the body, stretches it and clears it of stagnation enable the body to burn it's fuel more efficiently.
Finally, though rarely practiced as such these days, Tai Chi Chuan is an effective martial art. Training in Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art is an intensive path. Practicing this art in a martial sense is demanding physically but a significant part of the effective martial use of Tai Chi Chuan comes from the sensitivity and awareness that we cultivate with the practice. It's not just a training of techniques but a honing of awareness, not just of our selves but of our opponent and environment. We utilize push hands to develop an enhanced sense of force, alignment and timing; learning to use minimum effort to maximum effect with right timing and angle. Push hands then can evolve out into free form sparring at which point the principles and skills that we have developed with Tai Chi Chuan have reached the point of legitimate and effective use as a martial art.
Individuals train in Tai Chi Chuan for any one or any combination of the reasons we've just stated. All are valid the one common point is that to receive the deeper benefits of Tai Chi it is important to develop a daily personal practice. Knowing what Tai Chi contains as an art and what you can expect to gain from training will help you shape that personal ritual so that it builds toward your goals.