An overview of Tai Chi Chuan and what it can bring to people today.

By David Robert, Chief Instructor of the Toronto Academy

There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about what Tai Chi Chuan is, what it teaches, and who it is good for. The general consensus seems to be that it is just an exercise suitable for older people. But others think it is some kind of mystical exercise that develops magical powers, or an odd martial art, or just a dance.

The difficulty is that Tai Chi Chuan doesn’t fit easily into a category that we are familiar with. At its roots it is a martial art, but study of the art goes to a very deep level. It is an integrated exercise designed for both the mind and the body, and in fact emphasises and trains the connection between them. Other, better know disciplines, like music or golf, have clearly defined goals and benefits that we can recognize and place in relation to our day-to-day lives. That is not to say they don’t include other things as well, things that are revealed to those that study them deeply. But the benefits of Tai Chi are not easily measured, and the goals don’t place any priority on getting a good score or public performance. Because of this it is easy to be confused trying to place Tai Chi Chuan alongside the things we are familiar with. The classic writings on Tai Chi Chuan could be useful to help us understand what it is, assuming they are properly translated, but they are written for another time and another culture, and are targeted toward students that are already deeply involved in learning the art. In this article I try to fill in this gap, and place Tai Chi Chuan in a context that relates to western culture at this time. I am writing this from my perspective as a western student with 30 years of experience training in the art, and my experience as the chief instructor of the Toronto Academy for Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan.

Let’s start with the most pervasive misconception: the belief that Tai Chi Chuan is not a martial art because it includes slow motion and practices softness and sensitivity. This is an oversimplification. People have focused on the slow movements and ‘softness’ because they are different and sell well. There’s a good market for unusual and strange behavior, and one can make money and gain a lot of prestige by providing it. But concentrating on slow motion and softness alone is not Tai Chi Chuan. It leaves out other aspects that are absolutely required in order to balance the training. How these things are combined cannot be explained without experiencing it, or something like it, for yourself.  This is where I should probably talk about the yin-yang symbol and the philosophy of hard and soft. But doing so will be of little benefit because until you have experienced how these are combined in physical motion for yourself it is just playing with words. Note however, that we are not the only ones that use slow, relaxed practice. Sports professionals and musicians will also spend time analyzing their movements slowly and avoiding tension. Speed covers mistakes: it’s only by slowing things down that one can bring the conscious mind into play and correct – and direct – the motion. When the exercise is done slowly and properly the fine details of the motion sink into your nervous system and become part of you. Only then can you learn how to use it on demand, at any speed. However, I emphasize that it must be the correct motion. You need to practice Tai Chi Chuan slowly to understand the motion, but not all slow motion practice is Tai Chi Chuan.

In addition to its martial aspect, Tai Chi Chuan can be a great benefit to the body. Many studies have documented Tai Chi Chuan’s benefit as low impact exercise, and I think that there is no longer any doubt that it has these benefits. Results vary widely however. In my view the results reflect the very real problem of putting in the right amount and quality of effort, and receiving competent instruction. Certainly some movement is better than no movement. But the real benefit of Tai Chi Chuan is in strengthening the entire body and the connection between the body parts rather than just strengthening muscles. Proper Tai Chi Chuan practice can open up the joints, activate the meridians, and stimulate the acupuncture points. Our goal is not just to make the body flexible, but to make it supple and elastic. This sort of practice is very mentally and physically demanding and it’s easy to just relax and ‘go with the flow’. The result will look very similar to the inexperienced, but the difference in benefit is dramatic. It is really a matter of getting out what you put in. If you don’t put in the effort the results will be disappointing.

Putting in the effort is most important in the mental area. Think of it this way: if you do the same exercise every day you can retain a fair amount of physical health, but if you think the same thoughts every day you brain will quickly become incapable of doing anything else. There is no mental benefit to going over the same ground every day. It will, in fact, just condition you and reduce your ability to change. In Tai Chi Chuan you must always be reaching for that extra feeling, or concentrating on the coordination, or watching yourself for things that work and things that don’t. That is not to say that you learn something new every day – that doesn’t work either. What is important is that when a new layer of practice reveals itself that you work on it diligently until it becomes part of you. It is ‘digested’ as we say. Once it is digested the following stage can be approached.

Regardless of Tai Chi Chuan’s benefit to the mind and body separately, what really makes it distinct from other exercises (in my view) is the emphasis on the mind-body connection. In recent decades research has shown us (or confirmed it to those already familiar with it through personal experience) that there is a very strong connection between the mind and the body. We don’t really stop and think about the implications though. Consider that a leading cause of ill-health is stress, or that changing your body posture is one of the easiest ways to change your mood. Researchers into the structure of our thought (Steven Pinker, among others) have shown that the underlying thought patterns of our brain reflect the elements of motion. As one researcher pointed out, it is not too much to say that if we did not move, we would have no need for a mind.

Tai Chi Chuan is the study of motion that has been developed in one of the most demanding circumstances there is: in martial arts. Martial art has no rules, no conventions, no fixed arena, and no goals beyond the ones you chose at the time. It is not a sport, which has fixed rules and a limited playing field.  Martial art is like life, you never know what and when something is going to impact you, and from what direction. You need the awareness and fluidity to respond accordingly. This is not just a body thing, it is also mind thing. By training the body to be aware and fluid, you train the mind to be aware and fluid also. The two cannot be separated. It is then a small step to apply this behaviour to other circumstances that do not involve martial arts. Well, maybe not always a small step, but you are certainly closer to it then you where before. The practice of Tai Chi Chuan develops the mental capabilities that can be used in other situations. For example, Tai Chi Chuan is a ‘soft style’ of martial arts. It emphasizes awareness, sensitivity, balance, and coordination. To study Tai Chi Chuan is to study the optimal timing, coordination, and effort needed to influence a complex environment. It also requires intimate observation, understanding, and correction of how you yourself react (something we are less conscious of then we would like to believe). If one spends a great deal of time doing these things it is inevitable that one will start to use them when off the practice floor. They become part of you.

Mindfulness is a trendy word nowadays, but it is not new. It has been translated and interpreted largely from Buddhist tradition. Self-observation is a similar term that has come to us from middle-eastern traditions. Awareness and self-awareness is the translation used for many practices used by the Native Americans. Self-awareness is also the name associated with certain Christian mystical practices used to develop self-knowledge. Whatever the name or rituals behind it, observation, self-observation and the management of attention are qualities of the mind that can be developed. Tai Chi Chuan, when done properly, is also a method to develop these qualities. Incidentally, this is one of the things that are missing from the “just move slow and soft” approach that I criticized above. Daydreaming does not test or enhance your capacity for observation and attention.

Tai Chi Chuan has an advantage over other methods used to train self-awareness and attention. Tai Chi Chuan can give you direct, physical feedback of what your mind and body are doing. If the instruction is to keep your foot in line, but it doesn’t do that, then you are not aware of it are you? You may believe that you were, but the foot proves you wrong. In Tai Chi Chuan you also need to watch what happens internally. When it ‘works’ (meaning your practice partner moves easily) how is it different from when it doesn’t? Then you notice that using more brute force makes it worse. What really is going on? It is only through feedback of what your mind and body is actually doing, as opposed to what you think they are doing, that you can find your way. Tai Chi Chuan, being a discipline of physical movement, provides a direct physical measure of your success. These are examples of basic mental training. They are simple, and that is their power: they are accessible. Once these basic capacities are developed more advanced ones, whether in Tai Chi Chuan or in other disciplines, are more approachable.

Finally, we have the mystery of ‘Chi’. What is it really? Scientists have tried to measure it and have not been able to. It’s claimed to have all sorts of magical powers, mostly by charlatans who trade on people’s gullibility with fancy tricks and rituals. My understanding of Chi does not include what these people do. Disregarding such practices, I do claim that Chi is something that can be perceived and worked with. Whether it has a physical form that will ever be measured I don’t know. But I would point out that no one has measured happiness, but they can measure when a person is happy. To say that emotions are not real because they are made up of electrical impulses in the brain does help the very real need of understanding and working with your emotions. Likewise, you can understand and work with Chi also.

Perception of Chi is a key requirement for working with it and one of the biggest hurdles for someone getting started in this area. Exercises are needed to increase it and make it more visible. A relaxed, observing and focused state of mind needs to be cultivated to see it and eventually work with it. In our discipline, we develop and tune the mind and the body, and in parallel work on developing the capacity to perceive and direct the Chi. Ultimately, at a high level, the mind directs the chi, and the chi directs the body. But trying make all those connections at once is likely to end in confusion, or worse the delusion that something is happening when it is not.

This has been a long article, especially in today’s world where everyone is used to consuming their information in headlines and YouTube videos. If you’ve made it this far then you’re probably fairly interested in trying out Tai Chi Chuan. So in summary why would someone, in today’s world, spend their precious free time studying Tai Chi Chuan? Certainly it is not just for the martial art. After all, there is not much place in our society for hand-to-hand combat. If you want to fight join the military. You do not have to be a martial artist to practice Tai Chi Chuan. But martial art is the language that we use. And when one studies something to a very high level, such as soft style martial arts, one gains not just the goal of the study, but other things as well. In this article I have outlined a number of benefits, benefits that are hard to find in other pursuits. If it wasn’t for these additional benefits Tai Chi Chuan would be an interesting hobby and nothing more. Tai Chi Chuan was developed by monks that spent long hours sitting in meditation, much like we do nowadays behind a desk. They developed Tai Chi Chuan as an exercise for longevity and health, a means of self-defence, as well as training for the mind. They combined multiple goals into one exercise, saving time so they had more time for other things. I’m sure most people today can appreciate that goal. They found, as I have found, that training awareness, attention, and movement gives you more time, not less, because you are more effective, and experience each moment in richer detail. Furthermore, work on the mind and body together opens doors to perceptions you did not have before, and options and choices that you would not have considered. This is what I consider the greatest benefit of Tai Chi Chuan: the transformative effect it can have on ourselves.

© 2016 David Robert