THE STUDY AND BENEFITS OF TAI CHI
The study of t’ai chi ch’uan primarily involves three aspects:
Health: An unhealthy or otherwise uncomfortable person may find it difficult to meditate to a state of calmness or to use t’ai chi ch’uan as a martial art. T’ai chi ch’uan’s health training, therefore, concentrates on relieving the physical effects of stress on the body and mind. For those focused on t’ai chi ch’uan’s martial application, good physical fitness is an important step towards effective self-defense.
Meditation: The focus and calmness cultivated by the meditative aspect of t’ai chi ch’uan is seen as necessary in maintaining optimum health (in the sense of relieving stress and maintaining homeostasis) and in application of the form as a soft style martial art.
Martial art: The ability to use t’ai chi ch’uan as a form of self-defense in combat is the test of a student’s understanding of the art. T’ai chi ch’uan is the study of appropriate change in response to outside forces, the study of yielding and “sticking” to an incoming attack rather than attempting to meet it with opposing force. The use of t’ai chi ch’uan as a martial art is quite challenging and requires a great deal of training. Despite having a single Chinese spelling, there are two different spellings in the English usage, one derived from the Wade-Giles and the other from the Pinyin transliteration, with the West mostly being familiar with the Wade-Giles, t’ai chi ch’uan. This name is often shortened by Westerners to “t’ai chi“ (or “tai chi,” a common misspelling). This shortened name is the same as that of t’ai chi philosophy, sometimes resulting in confusion between the two. The chi in the martial art’s name can also be mistaken for chi, especially as ch’i is involved in the practice of t’ai chi ch’uan. The up-to-date Pinyin transliteration, tàijíquán, is not subject to such misinterpretation, as the spelling of the hanzi; jí is quite distinct from that of qi. “T’ai chi ch’uan” remains the popular spelling used by the general public today. Many professional practitioners, masters and martial arts bodies write it as taijiquan.
When tracing t’ai chi ch’uan’s formative influences to Taoist and Buddhist monasteries, there seems little more to go on than legendary tales from a modern historical perspective, but t’ai chi ch’uan’s practical connection to and dependence upon the theories of Sung dynasty Neo-Confucianism (a conscious synthesis of Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian traditions, especially the teachings of Mencius) is claimed by some traditional schools. T’ai chi ch’uan’s theories and practice are believed by these schools to have been formulated by the Taoist monk Zhang Sanfeng in the 12th century, at about the same time that the principles of the Neo-Confucian school were making themselves felt in Chinese intellectual life. However, modern research casts serious doubts on the validity of those claims, pointing out that a 17th-century piece called “Epitaph for Wang Zhengnan” (1669), composed by Huang Zongxi (1610–1695 A.D.), is the earliest reference indicating any connection between Zhang Sanfeng and martial arts whatsoever, and must not be taken literally, but must be understood as a political metaphor instead. Claims of connections between t’ai chi ch’uan and Zhang Sanfeng appeared no earlier than the 19th century.
The core training involves two primary features: the first being taolu (solo “forms”), a slow sequence of movements which emphasize a straight spine, abdominal breathing and a natural range of motion; the second being different styles of tuishou (“pushing hands”) for training movement principles of the form with a partner and in a more practical manner.
The taolu (solo “forms”) should take the students through a complete, natural range of motion over their centre of gravity. Accurate, repeated practice of the solo routine is said to retrain posture, encourage circulation throughout the students’ bodies, maintain flexibility through their joints, and further familiarize students with the martial application sequences implied by the various forms. The major traditional styles of t’ai chi have forms that differ somewhat in terms of aesthetics, but there are also many obvious similarities that point to their common origin. The solo forms – empty-hand and weapon – are catalogues of movements that are practiced individually in pushing hands and martial application scenarios to prepare students for self-defense training. In most traditional schools, different variations of the solo forms can be practiced: fast/slow, small-circle / large-circle, square/round (which are different expressions of leverage through the joints), low-sitting / high-sitting (the degree to which weight-bearing knees are kept bent throughout the form), for example.
Breathing exercises; neigong (“internal skill”) or, more commonly, qigong (“life energy cultivation”) are practiced to develop qi (“life energy”) in coordination with physical movement and zhan zhuang (“standing like a post”) or combinations of the two. These were formerly taught only to disciples as a separate, complementary training system. In the last 60 years they have become better known to the general public.
Qigong involves coordinated movement, breath, and awareness used for health, meditation, and martial arts training. While many scholars and practitioners consider t’ai chi ch’uan to be a type of qigong,the two are commonly distinguished as separate but closely related practices, with qigong playing an important role in training for t’ai chi ch’uan, and with many ta’i chi ch’uan movements performed as part of qigong practice. The focus of qigong is typically more on health or meditation than martial applications.
T’ai chi ch’uan’s martial aspect relies on sensitivity to the opponent’s movements and centre of gravity dictating appropriate responses. Effectively affecting or “capturing” the opponent’s centre of gravity immediately upon contact, is trained as the primary goal of the martial t’ai chi ch’uan student. The sensitivity needed to capture the centre is acquired over thousands of hours of first yin (slow, repetitive, meditative, low-impact) and then later adding yang (“realistic,” active, fast, high-impact) martial training through taolu (“forms”), tuishou (“pushing hands”), and sanshou (“sparring”). T’ai chi ch’uan trains in three basic ranges: close, medium and long, and then everything in between. Pushes and open-hand strikes are more common than punches, and kicks are usually to the legs and lower torso, never higher than the hip, depending on style. The fingers, fists, palms, sides of the hands, wrists, forearms, elbows, shoulders, back, hips, knees, and feet are commonly used to strike, with strikes to the eyes, throat, heart, groin, and other acupressure points trained by advanced students. Chin na, which are joint traps, locks, and breaks are also used. Most t’ai chi ch’uan teachers expect their students to thoroughly learn defensive or neutralizing skills first, and a student will have to demonstrate proficiency with them before offensive skills will be extensively trained.
In addition to the physical form, martial t’ai chi ch’uan schools also focus on how the energy of a strike affects the other person. A palm strike that looks to have the same movement may be performed in such a way that it has a completely different effect on the target’s body. A palm strike that could simply push the opponent backward, could instead be focused in such a way as to lift the opponent vertically off the ground, breaking his/her centre of gravity; or that it could terminate the force of the strike within the other person’s body with the intent of causing internal damage.
Most aspects of a trainee’s t’ai chi ch’uan development are meant to be covered within the partnered practice of tuishou, and so, sanshou (“sparring”) is not as commonly used as a method of training, but more advanced students sometimes do practice by sanshou. Sanshou is more common to tournaments such as wushu tournaments.