T'ai Chi Ch'uan is a unique method of moving meditation. Correctly practised, its forms and postures are beneficial to many aspects of health, comprise a complete martial art and offer a genuine way to align ourselves with life and nature (the Tao). During the second half of the Twentieth Century, T'ai Chi (also Taichi or Taiji) has spread from its birth place in China to be probably the most widely practised system of daily exercise in the world.
The exact roots of T'ai Chi are still debated. In the modern era, five main styles evolved which were named after their founders, and later styles developed from these. Which ever style we study, the movements should express the T'ai Chi principles, such as sinking and relaxing, upright posture and continuous flowing movement. The principles are few, the T'ai Chi Classics say, but the permutations are endless.
What is beyond doubt is that the study and practice of quality T'ai Chi enhances all aspects of one's life. Dedicating time and effort to one's practice pays dividends in terms of better health, improved posture, greater co-ordination, a calmer mind and an increased ability to deal effectively with the pressures of a busy life. Often we also find a growing sense of equanimity within our relationships.
T'ai Chi is a truly effective martial art. However, to develop the skill and sensitivity required to reach this level takes many years, and so is not suitable for those requiring quick results. Rather than building up external strength to block or defeat what appears to be against us, we learn to yield and follow what arises: for instance allowing softness (Yin) to counter hardness (Yang), and advancing (Yang) when our opponent retreats (Yin).
Through the sustained practice of partner work as well as study of the Form we educate our bodies and quieten down the mind. From this more natural and relaxed state we learn to respond directly to things as they really are, rather than reacting to our ideas of what is happening. After only a short time of practising T'ai Chi we feel tangible benefits. After several years, we begin to notice old habits falling away; leaving us with a deeper feeling for what my teacher's teacher calls The Natural Process.
Why Study T'ai Chi
People begin T'ai Chi for many reasons: they may be referred for 'gentle exercise' by a doctor, they may be a keen martial artist interested that T'ai Chi Ch'uan translates as 'supreme ultimate boxing', perhaps they are hopeful that Taoist meditation may help with their stress levels, or they may just be 'shopping' for something sociable to do as a hobby. Whatever our reason for beginning T'ai Chi, it is rarely the same reason we end up staying.
Personally, I only went along to my local class because a friend was going, I didn't even know what T'ai Chi was. Later that evening my friend said he thought T'ai Chi was 'airy-fairy' and that he would not be coming again. Conversely, I was delighted that I had stumbled across a room full of friendly, welcoming, grounded people, engaged in solo and partner work in a powerful yet gentle way. The atmosphere in the room was light-hearted and relaxed but at the same time the students were really working on what they were doing. I was 14 years old and had experienced my first taste of T'ai Chi; I soon fell in love with it.
My first years of T'ai Chi were done just for the hell of it. I liked going along and that was enough. My previously terrible posture improved, I stopped bumping into things and bruising myself all the time and slowly I felt a little more relaxed and confident in myself, a real bonus during my awkward teenage years.
Nowadays, the reasons I continue my T'ai Chi are somewhat different. I am endlessly awed by how softness and letting-go can neutralise attacks, on so many levels, and this spurs my study in the 'martial' aspect of T'ai Chi. The transformation of my students, colleagues and myself as we let go of physical and mental habits and tensions is a constant inspiration. Most precious are the moments of quiet naturalness that arise both in the solo form and in the spiralling flow of push hands and other partner work.
Whatever your reason for beginning T'ai Chi, or for continuing T'ai Chi, a few guidelines will help you find a suitable class. Look for a welcoming and friendly atmosphere, of course. A healthy respectful attitude from the students is a good sign, as is a teacher who is open to genuine questions. Over-concern with levels, certificates or competing with other schools is perhaps less wholesome. Unlike the external martial arts, T'ai Chi traditionally has had no formal grading system. However, a good teacher would be happy to outline their lineage and to say where they had studied. A sincere student with a sense of humour and an open mind should be welcome at any good school.
The T'ai Chi Classics are the earliest texts that outline the principles of our art. These writings emphasise the Natural Way, using images from nature to point to the correct method. For instance, we are told: "Be still as a mountain, move like a great river" or "Walk like a cat". Being natural may sound simple, but it is not at all easy. Over time we seek to embody the principles of T'ai Chi, developing our central equilibrium, practising the four square (push, press, roll-back, ward-off) and four corner (pull-down, split, shoulder, elbow) energies through push hands and Ta Lu. We also pay close attention to the correct touch, training our sensitivity through sticking (listening) hands exercises. Through letting go of preoccupation with ourselves and becoming far more interested in 'the opponent' and our surroundings, softness overcoming hardness transforms from being a nice sounding idea to something that really works. This takes time and effort, as well as familiarity with losing: 'invest in loss', and 'eat bitter' being two classic T'ai Chi instructions. Through practice, our rigidly held ideas of our self which may require defence are called into question. T'ai Chi differs from external martial arts in a fundamental way, as to seek to win by any means is antithetical to our study. In the Yang Family Forty Chapters it says: "External skill without internal principle is simply physical ferocity. This is a far cry from the original nature of the art, and by bullying an opponent one eventually invites disaster. To understand the internal principles without the external skill is simply an armchair art." In our school we teach martial applications to all those who are interested, and a general outline of the use of each posture of the form is usually given to all, as an aid to understanding. All students take part in partner work, and we specialise in making it accessible to all by providing a non-competitive atmosphere where our partner is our collaborator in learning. For those seeking to learn self defence techniques quickly, we would recommend finding a specialist course.