Tai Chi has come to mean a series of slow, graceful movements originating in China, and practised primarily for health reasons; it is one of the soft martial arts. The words Tai Chi are often translated as Supreme Ultimate, or something beyond description. When applied to martial art, Tai Chi is more properly called Tai Chi Chuan, Chuan meaning literally fist, or fighting art. Taijiquan means exactly the same, in a different spelling system. Although not strictly correct (and mixing up two spelling systems!), I use the terms Tai Chi and Qigong, now widely recognised in the West.
Tai Chi is represented by the Yin-Yang symbol (above), which illustrates the complementary forces at work in the natural world. Each contains the germ of its opposite and transforms into the other in a continual cycle, just as night becomes day, winter changes into summer, and back again. Similarly, in the movements of Tai Chi there is balance and flow; strength comes from yielding, and giving out energy requires rest and recovery reflecting these natural cycles.
Known as moving meditation, Tai Chi has a positive impact on mind and body. It demands the practitioners complete attention, calming the mind, inducing relaxation and improving concentration. The movements are not strenuous, yet can greatly improve strength and suppleness, and the resilience and flexibility of joints and muscles, particularly in the back and legs. It can create a marked improvement in posture, co-ordination and balance. It may also improve cardiovascular and respiratory function, and enhance the immune response.
A Tai Chi form is a specific sequence or series of movements; it can also mean a single movement. Although some movements may originate in the 13th century, the sequences currently practised were probably devised two or three hundred years ago. There are several styles, identified with different family lineages. The Yang style, developed by Yang Lu Chan in the 1800s, is one of the most widely taught.
The original long form, sometimes called Standard Tai Chi Chuan or '108 forms', consists of three sections and takes about 25 minutes to perform. The short form, Simplified Tai Chi Chuan or '24 forms', was devised in China in the 1950s, and takes around five minutes. The benefits of Tai Chi can be experienced as soon as one begins to learn, but most students find it takes at least six weeks to learn the short form, and a year to memorise the long form. To experience the full richness of the form can take several years of practice.
People of all ages and levels of fitness, including those with mobility problems, can practise T'ai Chi. Many movements can be adapted for people who need or prefer to sit. It may help to look for a teacher who can offer one-to-one sessions.
Qigong (or Chi Kung) means energy work and is applied to a wide range of exercises many of which combine simple, repeated movements with rhythmic breathing. It is often taught alongside T'ai Chi, but is also taught as a separate discipline or applied as a healing art.
No but it can provide the calm and focus needed for spiritual practice, or any form of discipline.
My classes include martial applications for some of the moves, and will give you the poise and control needed if you wish to develop these skills elsewhere.
No special equipment is required to practise Tai Chi. Loose, comfortable clothing (such as a tracksuit, or T-shirt and cargo pants or leggings) should be worn, with flat, thin-soled shoes or bare feet. It is best not to eat a heavy meal shortly before a session, though a light snack is fine. It is a good idea to bring a small bottle of water or fruit-juice to the session.
T'ai Chi in Oxford