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What Is Tai Chi Chuan?
By Robert Poyton

Tai Chi Chuan is usually translated into English as Great Ultimate Fist. The term Tai Chi refers to the yin yang symbol prevalent in Chinese culture. The term Chuan refers to boxing method (boxing in this context means a method of empty hand combat ). So, put simply, Tai Chi Chuan is a self defense method based on the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang - the two complementary opposites that underlay the natural processes of life.

You may also hear Tai Chi Chuan referred to as Internal Kung Fu. Internal here points to the fact that as a general rule Tai Chi emphasizes relaxed movement and energy development as opposed to tension or muscular strength development. Kung Fu (or Gung Fu) has become a generalized term for Chinese Martial Arts.

A look back at the history of Tai Chi Chuan shows that the art was developed by martial arts experts who were looking for a way to increase their efficiency. They did this by combining existing martial art forms, an in-depth knowledge of the body’s acupuncture system and various forms of Chi Kung  exercise. It was found that by doing this not only was martial technique improved, so was the general physical and mental health of the practitioner. So Tai Chi Chuan is a Chinese martial art system that also brings good health benefits. To obtain good health it is not necessary to fully practice the martial aspects of the art, which makes Tai Chi Chuan accessible to people of all ages and physical condition. Tai Chi has its roots in Taoist philosophy and practice can also act as an introduction to many other areas of Chinese culture.

What does Tai Chi Chuan Involve?

Most martial arts involve practicing a set of movements or techniques linked together in a set series, usually known as a form or kata (Japanese). Tai Chi Chuan is no different in this respect. What is different, however, is that in Tai Chi the forms are generally (though not always) practiced slowly. In this way the practitioner is able to develop control, relaxation, co-ordination and balance. Practicing slowly also helps control and regulate the breathing. Tai Chi Chuan also involves Chi Kung (or Qigong) training. There are many different forms of Chi Kung - some involve sitting still, some involve standing, some involve a series of movements. The emphasis is on concentrating the breath whilst holding a particular posture.  These are the two basic elements of a beginner’s class. Later the student will progress to a number of other activities: pushing hands (partner training for sensitivity), weapons forms (using a sword, staff, etc.), posture application, various supplementary training methods and so on.

The Learning Experience

Tai Chi is very different from aerobics and other forms of exercise. It is not about just following a teacher in a set of repetitive movements, but about developing complete body co-ordination, breath control and concentration. Tai Chi exercises the mind as much as the body and people are often surprised at the demands it makes - Tai Chi looks deceptively simple. The usual teaching method is for the student to be shown a few linked postures each class. The teacher demonstrates the moves, then talks you through them, correcting where necessary. You will then be left to practice. Do not expect the teacher to stand by you all the time - if you constantly follow what the teacher is doing, you will find that when the teacher is not there you will have forgotten most of the movements. Individual practice, both in class and out of it, is the only way to really learn the postures. The teacher will also show how to test the postures out with a partner, or break the movements down into smaller sections to make things clearer. At the end of the day it’s down to what you put into your practice. Don’t be in a rush to progress too quickly - and don’t think that once you’ve learnt a form that’s all there is! As a rough average it is possible to learn a long form in six months. To reach a reasonable standard takes three years. To reach a teaching standard, at least five years. To master a form - a lifetime.

What Does Tai Chi Do?

The first aim of Tai Chi is to teach the practitioner to relax - not  loosely flop around, but rather how to use the body as efficiently as possible with no muscular tension. The foremost requirement is good posture - relaxed shoulders, an upright back, firmly rooted stance. Even just practicing this can help with a number of ailments, particularly tension and muscular problems. Chi Kung encourages deep breathing and so helps increase blood circulation as well as massaging the internal organs. On a mental level, the quiet concentration required for Tai Chi brings a serene state of mind in which the everyday stresses of life can be placed into proper perspective. This eventually leads to a more tolerant, even state of mind. A calm mind is able to respond more quickly and effectively in any situation. Even with just basic, correct practice it is possible to obtain the above benefits. However to reach the higher levels it is necessary to study the art in its wider context. Practicing the martial aspects of Tai Chi involves more complex forms of Chi Kung, body strengthening, two person practice and various other supplementary exercises. Such training is more demanding than basic form practice but does bring greater benefits in terms of mental and physical health, as well as providing an excellent self defense method. At the higher stages the philosophical and spiritual aspects of the art also become apparent.

Robert Poyton is a Tai Chi Chuan instructor and editor of Taming the Tiger; the journal of the San Chai Tai Chi Academy. Be sure to visit his excellent website on San Chai Tai Chi.

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