Tai Chi Chuan
A common perspective on Tai Chi Chuan in North America is that it is a “free-flowing, slow-moving, soft, meditative-like exercise,” that is commonly recommended for those suffering with chronic muscular-skeletal disorders, such as arthritis or fibromyalgia, or for seniors with balance problems. While this viewpoint has some merit, it reflects ony a limited view of traditional Tai Chi Chuan.
It is important to realize that Tai Chi Chuan began as a martial art, and it was after the early Taoists and the family-based Tai Chi Chuan styles (Chen, Yang, Wu, Hao, and Sun) developed their martial systems using internal energy, that the health benefits became more apparent. In the traditional way, and to more fully understand and benefit from the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, students must acquire skills that allow them to form the mental intentions (or the martial intent) which establishes the mind-body connection. This produces the flow of chi through the body, upward from the root to the hands and fingers, resulting in an intentional direction of chi “as if” it were a martial application. That is, the flow of chi through the meridian system, as well as through the body (when breath, blood, and chi flow together freely), is directed by the mind-intent. It is this chi flow that provides the primary health benefits of Tai Chi Chuan, although there are some health benefits from simple movement, such as joint opening, muscle extension, and ligament and tissue expansion.
However, simple body movements without intent have only limited value. While this approach is practiced, especially among those who merely want a low impact exercise, it is not traditional Tai Chi Chuan. To many advanced students, group Tai Chi performances that merely emphasize the “form” resembles dance choregraphy rather than Tai Chi Chuan. Without the integration of internal energy, the form remains empty and weak. This presents a challenge to the student. Namely, developing the skills that allow the body to remain in a relaxed, yet alert, state and simultaneously have power and strength internally. The Tai Chi Chuan classics are often quoted as “the arms should be like steel rods wrapped in cotten.” See: Yang Chengfu’s Ten Essentials for a greater understanding of how this point is woven into Yang style practice. This may be easily found on the official Yang family web site.