Tai Chi

First Impressions of Tai Chi by a Western Ignoramus of Eastern Therapies

Tai Chi (originally “t'ai chi ch'uan” or “supreme ultimate fist”) was originally a kind of martial arts, which has become a popular form of gymnastics in the People’s Republic of China, and throughout the rest of the world. This is partly because of its near universal appeal, but also because after Mao came to power, and especially during the Cultural Revolution, many traditional practices, including Tai Chi, were suppressed, and a number of Tai Chi masters left China and settled in other countries. The combative aspects of Tai Chi have become less and less prominent with the passing of time. Swords have become ploughshares, so to speak.

There is a wide variety of different schools and styles, and no central organization which regulates them, for instance by prescribing an official form of training and recognition for teachers.

The main element of Tai Chi is the “forms”, a series of movements which flow into one another. A form consists of several “pictures”, or single movements carried out in a particular sequence. A form or series can last from 1-2 minutes to an hour and a half. The movements should be gentle, relaxed and flowing and several have poetic names, such as “sharing the mane of the wild horse”; they are not exercises in strength or speed. Some people might say that Tai Chi is a sport for people who don’t like sport.

The basic principles underlying these movements include keeping the head upright, the back and waist relaxed, letting the shoulders and elbows hang loosely, and distributing one’s weight evenly.

The origins of Tai Chi are unclear. According to one tradition a monk called Zhang Sanfeng, some time between the 10th and 14th centuries, discovered the basic movements when watching a fight between a snake and a white crane in the Wudang Mountains in China. Tai Chi has been passed down in monasteries and in families, and five different family styles have evolved over time (Chen, Yang, Wu/Hao, Wu, and Sun).

I have recently started doing Tai Chi, in a group with a teacher, to the accompaniment of Chinese music. The teacher and the members of the group carry out the exercises simultaneously. A beginner like me learns by copying not only the teacher, but also the more experienced group members, which seems to me to be a very natural way of learning. I also like the way the exercises demand the full concentration of both mind and body.

Paul Crichton
London, 27 December, 2013