What is Tai Chi?

In the recent BBC TV programme ‘Trust Me, I’m a Doctor’, Michael Moseley tested Tai Chi and Zumba as forms of exercise to compare their effectiveness on our health. He asked can the slow movements of Tai Chi be as good for our health as the fast-paced activity of Zumba?

He found the Zumba group were all fitter after 12 weeks as was expected, with improved elasticity of their blood vessels and lowered blood pressure. They were surprised, however, to discover that the results from the Tai Chi group also showed the same benefits. Source: BBC. View this three minute BCC video.

So if you don’t want to break into sweat, or have limited physical flexibility, then Tai Chi offers you all the same health benefits as vigorous exercise, and more as you will discover. But what is Tai Chi? And what can it offer you?

Tai Chi, also known as Tai Chi Chuan*, meaning ‘The Supreme Ultimate’ was developed thousands of years ago in China, as a form of self-defence. It is a slow-moving meditation where your breathing is always connected with the ebb and flow within a specific sequence of movements. The aim is to relax into each movement while remaining alert and mindful.

It can look deceptively simple but just try doing slow motion punches, deflections and kicks and you’ll realise why Tai Chi is often referred to as ‘internal weight-lifting’. The speeded-up movements are actually applicable for self-defence. Tai Chi is also an exercise that promotes harmony between mind and body, thus reducing stress, and at the same time has numerous health benefits, including improving physical balance, posture, flexibility, antioxidant capacity, and increasing energy, stamina and strength.

In traditional Chinese medicine, human beings are considered miniature versions of the universe, made up of the five elements – wood, fire, water, earth and metal. The energy from these five elements, known as ‘qi’ (pronounced ‘chee’), flows throughout the body, and practising Tai Chi helps to improve the flow and to channel this energy in a smooth and balanced manner – also known as ‘balancing your qi’. ­Practicing out of doors, in parks or gardens where you can connect with the energy of nature, enhances the benefits.

Tai Chi sprung from the ancient Chinese discipline of Qigong, meaning ‘energy cultivation’ – based on the Taoist principle of Yin and Yang, ‘ebb and flow’. They were secret practices and only taught to selected students or family members, or were practised by monks and nuns for their spiritual development. Since the 1970s Chinese masters have brought their teachings to the West and the practices have become increasingly popular. There are five traditional schools, known by their family names: Yang, Chen, Wu (Hao), Wu and Sun. Most modern styles of Tai Chi trace their development to at least one of these. Similar to different yoga styles you may choose your preferred style, though ultimately the right teacher for you may be more important than the style.

You may wonder what’s the difference between Qigong and Tai Chi?

While Qigong focuses on the inner development of one’s energy for physical, mental and spiritual health, Tai Chi uses that energy in the ‘outer world’ to defend and deflect for self-defence.

Qigong is more akin to ‘acupuncture in movement’ and offers specific self-help techniques and short exercise sequences for different organs and for different seasons of the year. You can read more on the ‘Four Season Medical Qigong’ site.

Recent studies find that Tai Chi helps reinvigorate stem cells, see article. See also the NHS Guide to Tai Chi and the NHS’s Health Benefits of Tai Chi Examined – here, as often Tai Chi is talked about somewhat interchangeably with Qigong.

The underlying principle for both remains the same: ‘The least effort is most effective’.

‘The least effort is most effective.’

Both practices aim to open the flow of the energy paths or, as per acupuncture, the meridian lines passing through the body. Much like a river, the flow may be initially muddy or even blocked, until your body can allow open relaxation in healthy strong movements and postures, connected on three levels, the human (heart), earth and sky/heaven.

However, the concept goes against our ingrained Western approach of pushing ourselves to our limit and doing 100%, which in itself creates tension. With Tai Chi and Qigong you want to do 70% so that your body and mind can remain relaxed and open for the free flow of energy which you can then learn to direct.

There’s noting better than seeing it in action, so here’s a small selection of videos.

Qigong videos

For an example of autumn Qigong exercises see this video by YoQi:

For a daily 15-minute Qigong routine see the following video:

Tai Chi videos

Self-practice for health – ‘Tai Chi 5 Minutes a Day, Module 1 – easy for beginners’:

Self-defence – ‘5 Tai Chi Self Defense Fighting Combat Techniques’:

Self-practice for self-defence applicable Tai Chi – Watch the winner of the  ‘1st World Taijiquan Championships 2014 (Women’s Group A Yang Style Taijiquan). Can you see the fluidity, mindfulness, awareness and intelligence in the movements?

We trust this gives you a deeper insight and encourages you to explore these ancient practices, whatever your age. If you have any questions or would like to go on a Tai Chi retreat please contact us.

*Note:
The old Western spelling is Tai Chi Chuan and Chi Kung. – In early 1990 Chinese authorities decreed that the spelling in Latin characters should be Tai Ji Quan (or in one word Taijiquan) and Qigong. This more closely matches the Mandarin pronunciation and differentiates the two different ‘chi’ ­ – in Qigong it means ’energy’, whereas Tai Ji Quan means the ‘Supreme Ultimate’ (‘Ji’ does not mean energy). So the modern spellings for short are Taiji and Qigong (but ‘Tai Chi’ is still widely used).

By Ulrike

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