* What is Tai Chi chuan?
Tai Chi Chuan is a truly holistic tradition which can serve us in three fundamental ways: martial arts training, health and healing, and spiritual development. A student can place their primary focus on any one or all three of these areas depending on what is most important to them, but Tai Chi has the capacity to benefit us on many levels indeed. Let's consider each in a bit more detail:
1. Martial Arts Training
I begin with this topic as Tai Chi was created initially as a martial art. Tai Chi has its roots in a small farming village in China known as the Chen village. Many years ago, the people of this village were regularly threatened by bandits and military factions and so had need of an effective martial art that was also energizing and healthy to practice. The development of their art was likely derived from some of the Taoist and Shaolin styles of the time and became very effective for them on many levels. (See A Brief History of Taijiquan in the Resource Section of this page).
Tai Chi is referred to as one of the Internal martial arts in that it seeks to cultivate such principles as relaxation, listening, sticking, and the circulation and cultivation of internal energy with all of its movements, rather than relying wholly on muscular strength and speed. Internal qualities are more subtle and challenging to master, but are quite powerful and satisfying as they are developed. (Note that the internal/external designation in martial arts is nuanced indeed and can not be applied with a broad brush.)
2. Health and Healing
Tai Chi is also a system of exercise that, when regularly practiced, powerfully supports health on every level. The stories of people who have healed themselves from various illnesses through the practice of Tai Chi are legion. Likewise, there is a growing list of studies here in the West which verify what has been known for decades - Tai Chi is a powerful tool for healing chronic problems and maintaining good health well into later years.
The health benefits of regular practice, while cumulative, can ve experienced in a relatively short period of time. People often report feeing significant improvements in their overall well-being in as little as a month, with even a single practice session bringing noticeable benefits. I believe the reason for this is that Tai Chi is largely a study of human nature. It asks such questions as: "How are we put together? How can we move most naturally and easily? How can we enhance the natural flow of our energy and handle conflict with the least amount of stress?" The answers to these questions become part of good Tai Chi practice and improves our health in the process.
3. Spiritual / Personal Development
Finally, Tai Chi can be approached as a spiritual discipline - not to be confused with a religions one. Spiritual here refers to that which helps us cultivate our character and realize higher levels of our potential. Philosophically, Tai Chi is based largely on Taoism, the purpose of which is to experience and align with one's True Nature. A basic Taoist perspective speaks to the interconnectedness of all that is. It follows from there that one should not seek to strive with others or the natural world. Rather through the cultivation of oneself, one becomes better able to be in harmony with the world. in so doing, conflicts gradually fall away, creating a natural state of dynamic peace that can lead to higher levels of self-knowledge and enlightenment. While this spiritual element may not have been present in the early days of Tai Chi's development, because it is based on what seem to be clear universal principles, the spiritual element arises quite naturally. Tai Chi thus offers the possibility for tremendous growth if one sincerely practices and integrates their experience.
A Final Thought
So Tai Chi is all of these things, yet it remains only an attempt by humanity to more fully know itself. As such, it is important to remember it is a tool and as with all tools, it is much more useful to emphasize the human being who would utilize it. In actual practice, Tai Chi is an organic, fluid system and though it is composed of very precise movements, there is a great deal of room for individual expression and interpretation. As one develops, one learns what feels correct internally and what works well externally. This awareness can then permeate the rest of one’s daily life in positive, creative ways.
One final thought on all this: It might be easy to conclude from the above discussion that I see Tai Chi as some sort of “grand ultimate” path for personal development. (wink) Actually, no, I believe ultimately “all roads lead to Rome.” This road is pretty wonderful though...