Academic Training Traditions Martial Arts Mind/Body Life Sciences
Overview TaiJi QiGong Yoga spacer
  Curriculum Lineage

Taiji Quan (Tai Chi)

A Question Asked and Answered

But Taiji Quan is a Martial Art!: So why categorize the internal martial art of taiji quan as a mind-body method, aside from our other martial arts, and along with two non-martial practices like qigong and yoga? The answer is perhaps simply a matter of logistical preference, rather than one of perception or accepted convention. The practice of taiji quan for martial art is blended very closely with a slow and deliberate mind-body method for achieving correct posture, movement, and intent. Think about it - without the inherent method for developing this 'correctness', taiji quan would not be very useful as a martial art.

The movements of tai chi are performed slowly and gracefully, and without obvious martial appearance to most. So some may ask, how can someone 'fight' at such a slow pace? It is more accurate to consider how one 'trains for fighting' using such a slow pace method? The secret lies in the body method and mental training, not simply in the pace of practice, or in some set of techniques represented by the movements.

We at Academic Training Traditions place personal emphasis on the dual practice of taiji quan for both martial art and health. However, this level of practice may be too rigorous for some. Since many people see 'tai chi' mainly as a health practice, with many varied benefits, we have also designed a simplified mind-body program using tai chi methods to address those needs. Throughout history, and even today, the postures, movements, and form sets of taiji quan have been modified or rendered easier through further simplification. Such modifications generally retain certain essential principles relating to health benefits, but may sometimes downplay the more difficult (or subtle) aspects relating to martial skills development.

We maintain that the internal principles of taiji quan are very profound and resilient. So the form itself can sometimes withstand certain modifications by knowlegeable practitioners and teachers. This is evident in the actual evolution of the various styles of taiji quan, and it has carried through in the development of some modern performance versions, and simplified health versions. The essential principles remain to promote health, and may also provide some foundation for the development of martial skills from solo form practice.

Because of its martial heritage, taiji quan (unlike qigong and yoga) has various two-person drills aimed at developing martial skills. These are often similar among the various styles of taiji quan, and may explain why similar martial skills are often developed, despite variations in the solo form. And yet, the solo form is the essential repository and foundation for further inculcating these skills over time. Such abilities and skills ultimately transcend what we call 'the tai chi form'. Regarding the two-person drills used in taiji quan, we maintain that they will eventually find unique social applications that extend beyond the traditional training of martial skills.

Qigong and yoga can also contribute to correct posture and movement for everyday activities. Qigong is a well-known health exercise on its own, but certain components were incorporated into internal martial arts practice. Yoga is a body strengthening set as well, and certain yoga methods have been used in the training of wrestlers in India and elsewhere.

However, in their purest sense, qigong and yoga often have very specific exercises for specific indications. This does not detract from the benefits of practicing these systems as a whole. But this remains a step outside of taiji quan, which brings about general health benefits across a spectrum of different postures and form variations. Certain movements in various qigong sets might mimic a martial art movement, while others do not, and yet each is applied individually to alleviate specific ailments. Yoga methods are similar in this regard, often ranging from the very practical to the more arcane.

Some Combined Thoughts: In all three arts (taiji quan, qigong, yoga), the practitioner seeks to master self-awareness, thereby knowing the self in order to know others. Two-person practices found in taiji quan (and in other martial arts systems) can foster a further understanding of others via the newly receptive self, and also contribute to improved spatial-relational activities. The main lesson here is for one to develop and maintain a strong sense of self-awareness, and an awareness of others, using inward contemplation and a structured body method.

Elements of taiji quan, qigong, and yoga often can be combined and taught together for self-development. We do this here using a mix of these traditional methods of physical culture and their modern physiological correspondences. In fact, biomedical research of taiji, qigong, and yoga represents a growth field for human-centered studies that is given much emphasis in Academic Training Traditions activities. Martial arts like karate and judo have been studied also for their physiological and psychological effects. But because they have evolved also into competitive sports, they are more often the subject of sports science investigations and injury prevention models in sports competitions.

Most of the scientific and biomedical research to date, including the initial studies of taiji quan, have been carried out within the sports science and health fitness models. While some attention has been given to behavioral correlates for human development in the case of traditional karate and judo, the emphasis often gravitates back into the sports science model. There is much to be gained, however, by linking the study of taiji quan postures and normal human gait, and in determining their effects on general awareness and balance. This can be cross-mapped onto the many physiological and psychological responses that have been measured for qigong and yoga.

Our approach enables one to layer modern scientific studies of these arts onto the training and teaching, and also into the interpretations (or re-interpretations) of the traditional classics written on these arts. More importantly, the continuing research eventually should enable the development of an improved 'translational vocabulary' between modern physiologic measurements and the traditional physical and metaphysical views on these arts.

Taiji Quan in History

Taiji quan was practiced traditionally as a martial art, and to gain health and profound enlightenment. At its core, taiji quan was practiced mainly by men in order to develop a high-level, and seemingly effortless martial arts skill. This skill was developed through the deliberate training and refinement of various types of 'jin'. For example, 'ting jin' is sensing (or 'listening') to feel the opponent's line of strength. 'Dong jin' is thorough comprehension to differentiate all types of 'jin'. This enables one to recognize the opponent's line of strength and to respond correctly with minimal effort. This culminates in a profound ability to instantaneously feel, understand, interpret, direct, and re-direct the power from an opponent, in order to topple them with little expenditure of force.

There is clearly much more to this than some form of magic felt by an opponent or witnessed by observers. But therein lie the essence and secret of the 'supreme pinnacle fist' as a martial art. Personally speaking, I am still trying to understand such high-level skills, but have great faith in time and the practice methods. Fortunately, the practice of taiji quan can bestow many other benefits, even if the practitioner does not develop high level martial skills.

That said, each of several famous great masters of taiji quan were known to have developed the highest level skill. Few if any of these masters were considered profoundly literate, yet each was wise in their own way, and each became a peerless fighter, with many thriving well into advanced age. Among these was Yang Luchan (1799-1872), who learned the art in Chen village. Although the exact origins and earliest evolution of taiji quan are lost to antiquity, the Chen family boxing is the prototype that evolved into the taiji quan of today. Some also believe that centuries-old Daoist principles, and qigong and other rituals, underwent continuous fusion with various pugilistic methods around Chen village from at least the early to mid-1700's.

In any case, taiji quan emerged and developed further with Yang Luchan, who spread his art to Beijing in the early 1800's. Yang Luchan's sons, Yang Banhou (1837-1892) and Yang Jianhou (1839-1917), and Yang Luchan's grandsons, Yang Chengfu (1883-1936) and Yang Shaohou (1862-1930), all excelled at the art, and in passing it on to subsequent generations.

Several other lineages and styles also developed subsequently from Chen and Yang styles via other famous masters (Wu Quan Yu, Wu Yuxiang/Li Yiyu, Hao He, and Sun Lutang styles). Yang style has become the most popular style of taiji quan in the world today, and has been passed on via recent generations of the Yang family, Fu Zhongwen, and also by the late Zheng Manqing of Taiwan (photo above). Chen style taiji quan continued to evolve through today, as passed down by Chen family decendents, including Chen Xiaowang (photo above). The style of Wu Quan Yu (1834-1902), which emanated from the Yang family, has been passed on by recent generations of the Wu family and Ma Yueliang, and also by the late Wang Peisheng of Beijing (photo above).

Taiji Quan Today

Bridging the Health Arts and Martial Arts: Taiji quan has spread widely, just within the past half-century. It has also undergone some radical changes in approach from its traditional aim of developing high-level martial arts skills. But at the same time, it has become more available for practice by both genders, and by the young and old.

Granted, many today practice tai chi for martial art, and some do achieve a certain level of skill, depending on their teacher and lineage. Many more practice tai chi today simply as a life style, mainly for health reasons, and to achieve inner peace. Because of the soft nature of tai chi practice, these aims can be sought separately from martial prowess and spirit. And after all, speaking sociologically, to practice tai chi for living well seems a better reason than having to practice out of necessity to prevent loss of life at the hands of another. In any case, emphasis in this art has become more recreational, at least relative to the veneer surrounding other martial arts practices.

Accordingly, we have positioned the art of taiji quan in the mind-body section of Academic Training Traditions, mainly to serve as the best possible bridge between the health arts and martial arts, and simply because it is uniquely and profoundly both. Tai chi is an effective form of general qigong in its own right, and often borders on the yogic experience in its psycho-spiritual dimensions. These are yet further manifestations of training for martial skills. But in the end, tai chi is probably the best method for achieving a proper blend of posture and movement for either generic or martial applications. For more about taiji quan as a martial art, follow the link to Yin Cheng Gong Fa on our Martial Arts page.

Taiji Quan and Biomechanics: Tai chi is usually seen as slow continuous movements of the hands and arms, but this is true only in part. All movements of tai chi are actually driven by the legs, through the body's physical center, and about the central axis of the torso. The hallmark features that together differentiate tai chi from other forms of physical exercise include: standing and walking with the torso erect and legs flexed with body weight rooted in the feet, slow alternation and complete seperation of weight shifts between rooted feet, and slow turning of the waist and torso about the erect central axis and using the legs to generate such movements.

Tai chi places special emphasis on body mechanics as a conduit to the mind, and vice versa. Mental attention to the movements of tai chi enhances integration of mind and body and produces a sense of well being. This culminates from being focused in the moment and from understanding the inner structure of body alignments. This exercises the body at a very profound level. Tai chi is therefore a proprioceptive (i.e., "self-feeling") exercise. This has further extension and meaning in two-person tai chi exercises. Doing the solo form leads to enhanced cultivation and awareness of one's vital energy (qi, aka ch'i), and to an overall balance at all levels of being. This is the holistic manifestation of correct body method, i.e., which is a manifestation of maintaining one's physical center and balance during the movements.

At Academic Training Traditions, tai chi is presented in a way to de-mystify, yet still explain and preserve many of the time-honored traditions. Instruction includes basic principles and theory derived from ancient Chinese thought, and also from modern human physiology. Eastern and western models of mind-body integration are called upon as teaching tools in order to convey health information and meaning during tai chi instruction. In fact, the east-west interpretations of the tai chi paradigm can tie together diverse elements of human biology and medicine. Philosophically, we pursue the practice of tai chi methods in order to combine recreation (and stress reduction) with serious study and research of a most profound human-centered activity.

Benefits of Tai Chi: Tai chi is practiced today mainly as gentle form of moving meditation emphasizing softness and relaxation of the body and mind. It is fun to do and a superb maintenance exercise for all. It conforms to World Health Organization standards for moderate physical activity. It is also a moderate aerobic exercise, where synchronized breath-in-motion augments cardiovascular function, and enhances heat production. It is a holistic exercise able to alleviate stress, promote better health, enhance awareness, and enrich the life experience.

Tai chi is not about pure strength development, and it is not a typical endurance exercise. The method of physical activity is gentle, yet mentally rigorous, and is suitable for all. The basic skills can be developed readily by most, and they have very general applications. This differs from the pursuit of elite athleticism, where only a few actually excel. So the practice of tai chi is more inclusive rather than exclusive.

Introduction of tai chi at any age is beneficial. Starting at the college age and earlier in life will impact the individual's activity patterns through out life. If one starts at a younger age, there is a better chance to maintain the practice and health benefits throughout advanced age. Today, many are drawn to tai chi later in life, which may be a consequence of the culture in which they grew up. But they are finding out now about tai chi because of increased media attention. Many are taking courses because it still offers benefits, no matter when one begins to practice the art. Some of the tai chi methods can be adapted also for practice by groups with special needs.

Introduction of tai chi into the medical clinic has impact on certain problems and ailments and can improve quality of life. Tai chi has been applied as a treatment and adjunct treatment with variable degrees of success to a range of ailments and conditions. These include: arthritis and rheumatism, back problems, balance problems, prevention of falling, high blood pressure, asthma, post-operative recovery, general stress, post-traumatic stress, weight management, addictions, mild mental dysfunctions, bone loss prevention, regulation of immunity and natural resistance, enhancing fitness with aging, anger management, other behavioral modification, and general neuromuscular rehabilitation. And the list will continue to grow.

The practice of tai chi is low tech. It requires no special equipment. It has minimal space requirements. And it is of immediate utility, with high returns at the human level. The current generation has seen tai chi begin to take root and grow, and it is now their legacy to gently weave this traditional practice into the modern fabric of today's society.

The photograph of Grandmaster Wang Peisheng (ca. 1980) is from his book: Wu Style Taiji Quan, by Wang Peisheng & Zeng Weiqi, Morning Glory Publications, Beijing. The photograph of Grandmaster Zheng Manqing (ca. 1960) is from his book: Cheng Tzu's 13 Treatises on T'ai Chi Ch'uan, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California. The photograph of Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang (ca. 2001) is from the journal: Internal Martial Arts, Issue #13, Six Harmonies Press, courtesy of Michael Wingate Jones, Editor/Publisher. The photos of Yang Luchan, Yang Banhou, and Yang Jienhou are from archival sources in the public domain.