Saturday, 20 May 2017

What Is Tai Chi?

What comes to mind when you first think about T‘ai Chi? You may think of Chinese people rising early in the morning to take part in slow, meditative movements to ease themselves into the day. T‘ai chi, often written tai chi, as we know it today has come on a long journey from its origins. Despite a number of theories to tai chi's origins no one theory has yet managed to pin down this elusive art.

Peoplel practise tai chi in Beijing's Temple of Heaven
 Outdoor Tai Chi Practise in Beijing's Temple of Heaven.
Image by Craig Nagy, Vancouver, Canada. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Written in full we ought to say T‘ai Chi Ch‘uan which loosely translated into English means Supreme Ultimate Boxing or Source Fist. This meaning offers us a clue to tai chi's origins within the self-defense and martial arts of China. We would more commonly describe those fighting arts as Kung-Fu in the west.

Nowadays we can best describe tai chi as an art and an exercise. It appears from a growing body of research that regular practise of tai chi offers people some important health benefits. In particular, improved balance, flexibility, fitness, strength, lowering blood pressure, general heart health, mental health and symptoms associated with stroke, fibromyalgia, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

Tai chi emphasises the integration of mind with body. This integration marks tai chi as a unique form of exercise along with another associated exercise practice from China referred to as Qigong (chee gung), older still, known as Daoyin, meaning to guide and pull. To get a feel for this integration you practise tai chi movements, or forms, slowly as one smooth flowing movement with a deliberate focus on those movements.

Daoyin tu - chart for leading and guiding people in exercise
Daoyin tu - chart for leading and guiding people in exercise.
This image from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Refer to Wellcome blog post (archive). Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
‘This is a reconstruction of a 'Guiding and Pulling Chart' excavated from the Mawangdui Tomb 3 (sealed in 168BC) in the former kingdom of Changsha. The original is in the Hunan Provincial Museum, Changsha, China.’
Tai chi truly represents a whole body form of exercise as you coordinate your hands and arms with the controlled transfer of your weight from one stance to another. In other words to perform tai chi well from start to finish you must engage all parts of the body. The hands, arms, legs and feet all move in circular and spiral patterns with turns of the torso via the waist, neck and head. A saying associated with the practise of tai chi goes along the lines of – When the wind blows the whole tree moves.

Regular practise of a tai chi form can strengthen and mobilize the joints and muscles, improve physical fitness and induce a deep sense of mental relaxation. The slow and low-impact nature of tai chi make it ideal for people recovering from illness or injury and those living with chronic health conditions.

Not that people who live with long term health conditions should only practise tai chi for health. In China, fit and healthy people practise tai chi to cultivate and sustain their health. Anyone can benefit from a little tai chi practise each day.

People performing Tai Chi Chuan at the Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing, China.
People performing Tai Chi Chuan at the Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing, China.
Image by © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

A Tai Chi for Health (TCHI) programme differs from the traditional approach to learning tai chi where you had learn and perfect many complicated sequences of movements over many years. Some tai chi forms go on for well over a hundred moves with complex and difficult movements to perform. Within a TCHI workshop participants practise the tai chi movements within a safe and pain free range of mobility. Participants can take a seat for some or even all of the session. A key message in our classes goes – If it hurts, stop doing it.

Harvard Medical School's Osher Center for Integrative Medicine as well Dr Paul Lam's TCHI programmes have found that people can gain all the health benefits of tai chi from simple movement sequences derived from the traditional long form tai chi styles. A typical TCHI form such as Tai Chi for Rehabilitation (TCR) will take no longer than three to four minutes to complete.

So, there you go, a snap shot description of tai chi. Tai chi has much more to offer though. Through regular practise you begin to realise the depth of meaning within the principles that underpin tai chi. The movements truly do embody a cultural and philosophical way. Another blog post I think.

If that has peaked your interest then please do get in touch. If you think someone you know, a member of your family or a close friend might benefit from tai chi please do share this page.

We look forward to seeing you.