About Tai Chi
Taijiquan (often written in the West as "Tai Chi Chuan" or just "Tai Chi") is an old and profound Chinese martial art system that is practised by millions of people worldwide because of it's tremendous health benefits. When the routines are practised as gentle slow motion exercise it is suitable for nearly everyone.
Regular practise and correct instruction helps the body to let go of tension and trains the mind to become calmer and much more focused. For hundreds of years it has been well known to increase health & vitality, improve concentration & focus, boost the immune system and ward off illness.
The soft, rhythmic, circular movements of its slow practise routines gently massage the internal organs, assist the lymphatic flow, align the skeleton, and increase circulation to every cell in the body; which over time, can bring robust health. Many people nowadays practise Taijiquan form (solo movement routine) just for its health benefits and philosophical insight. The art has been well documented throughout history for its ability to aid healing and prevent illness by boosting the immune system. From Taijiquan one can choose what they want to achieve from improved health and meditation to 'internal' martial arts.
"Taiji" is the name given to the philosophy of the interaction between Yin and Yang (the opposite yet mutually supportive forces of everything in nature and the universe). "Taijiquan" is the name of the exercise system that we practise. "quan" (chuan) means fist, or in this context, means martial art style. Many people regard Taijiquan as slow relaxed movement for health and well-being, but it is also a combination of martial techniques, breath control, rich philosophy and moving meditation.
At a basic level, the movements are performed in a slow relaxed manner, they are suitable for everyone regardless of age or fitness level. However, for more able-bodied students, Chen style also contains fast dynamic movements, called ‘Fa Jin’ or ‘energy release’ that can generate a lot of power for striking, long and short range. However these can be also practised at a more casual pace depending on the students physical abilities. The idea is to link all the body parts together through slow careful practise so that the body can move as one whole unit - real Tai Chi is never just "waving your arms around", it is about learning to transfer energy (movement) through every part of the body like a whip. This transfer of energy can then be applied to different techniques. The first task is to learn to relax and "open" the joints.
- Beginners... Basic exercises and 16 movement form
- Improvers... 30 movement form
- Intermediate... full 74 form
For those that want to, the "Laojia Erlu" (second routine), nicknamed "Cannon Fist" can also be taught along with traditional weapons forms and hand to hand combat application.
However, most people find they have enough on their plate just learning the first routine.
It is widely accepted and historically verifiable that what is nowadays known as Taijiquan or Tai Chi (the martial art system), began around 400 years ago in Henan Province with Chen Wang Ting (陈王庭 1580 - 1660), Ninth generation of the Chen Family, when he retired to Chenjiagou (Chen family village). He was a seasoned, battle-hardened General at the end of the Ming dynasty and start of the Qing dynasty.
In his retirement he combined his vast knowledge of martial arts with Chinese Medicine theories, and a profound understanding of natural laws and Yin/Yang philosophy. The family style took their name and much later became known as Chen style Taijiquan.
Chen style is the original and most complete system, because, as the Taijiquan family tree spread across China, a lot of knowledge was lost within the other styles (Yang, Wu, Woo, Sun styles). Chen style perfectly embodies the yin & yang theory with its use of both slow and fast, soft and hard, high and low movements as well as its characteristic twining and coiling techniques.
Practising Tai Chi form
All styles of Chinese martial art have solo practice sequences known as "forms" that contain the techniques of the style. Nowadays, it has become popular for people to practice in groups, although greater progress can be made by oneself. In Taijiquan the forms are practiced regularly in order to develop the attributes required to progress one's skill level. The level of detail beginners learn is just the tip of the iceberg as the art is infinite in its depth.
Although it can be said that Chen style is characterized by it's use of low, deep stances, beginner students may need to start with a reasonably high stance whilst they build up strength and flexibility. Over time, the hips can relax and open and the legs will naturally become stronger and more able to support the body whilst maintaining the smooth movement and softness required.
For correct Taijiquan one needs to learn to relax and utilise the whole body to create circles. When we are very young our bodies are very soft but as we age we become more stiff. Through prolonged training the body becomes soft and flexible and the flow of movement becomes easier and easier. Continued regular practice builds up the 'Qi' (vitality) and overall improved health, energy and stronger immune system are the natural result.
A student starts learning with large extended movements and the focus is on correct posture, relaxation and smooth transitions that abide by the core principles. As a person progresses, the circles generated from their body become gradually smaller, subtler and more internal. At a Master level, these circles become very small, sometimes almost undetectable. This is why each persons Tai Chi form looks slightly different. We are all at different levels of ability. Whilst the techniques may have the same template, it is how the movements are generated, controlled and expressed that separates the level of the students.
As a beginner, one should breathe naturally during form practice and not try to force the breath to fit the postures. In the beginning, the movements themselves are enough to contend with... Taijiquan can be practiced at different speeds depending on training goals. If you practice very slowly you will need more breaths for a movement than if your movements are quicker. However, over time, and as the movements become part of you, you will develop a deeper 'body-intuition' and the correct breathing patterns will be taught and integrated with ones movements, to create a smooth & efficient way of executing the techniques, with the internal driving the external.
Taijiquan for Seniors
Taijiquan for Seniors
"A growing body of carefully conducted research is building a compelling case for tai chi as an adjunct to standard medical treatment for the prevention and rehabilitation of many conditions commonly associated with age," - Peter M. Wayne, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Taken from Harvard Medical School reports, the effects of Tai Chi on:
Arthritis. In a 40-person study at Tufts University, presented in October 2008 at a meeting of the American College of Rheumatology, an hour of tai chi twice a week for 12 weeks reduced pain and improved mood and physical functioning more than standard stretching exercises in people with severe knee osteoarthritis. According to a Korean study published in December 2008 in Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, eight weeks of tai chi classes followed by eight weeks of home practice significantly improved flexibility and slowed the disease process in patients with ankylosing spondylitis, a painful and debilitating inflammatory form of arthritis that affects the spine.
Low bone density. A review of six controlled studies by Dr. Wayne and other Harvard researchers indicates that tai chi may be a safe and effective way to maintain bone density in postmenopausal women. A controlled study of tai chi in women with osteopenia (diminished bone density not as severe as osteoporosis) is under way at the Osher Research Center and Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Heart disease. A 53-person study at National Taiwan University found that a year of tai chi significantly boosted exercise capacity, lowered blood pressure, and improved levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, insulin, and C-reactive protein in people at high risk for heart disease. The study, which was published in the September 2008 Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found no improvement in a control group that did not practice tai chi.
Heart failure. In a 30-person pilot study at Harvard Medical School, 12 weeks of tai chi improved participants' ability to walk and quality of life. It also reduced blood levels of B-type natriuretic protein, an indicator of heart failure. A 150-patient controlled trial is under way.
Hypertension. In a review of 26 studies in English or Chinese published in Preventive Cardiology (Spring 2008), Dr. Yeh reported that in 85% of trials, tai chi lowered blood pressure; with improvements ranging from 3 to 32 mm Hg in systolic pressure and from 2 to 18 mm Hg in diastolic pressure.
Parkinson's disease. A 33-person pilot study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, published in Gait and Posture (October 2008), found that people with mild to moderately severe Parkinson's disease showed improved balance, walking ability, and overall well-being after 20 tai chi sessions.
Sleep problems. In a University of California, Los Angeles, study of 112 healthy older adults with moderate sleep complaints, 16 weeks of tai chi improved the quality and duration of sleep significantly more than standard sleep education. The study was published in the July 2008 issue of the journal Sleep.
Stroke. In 136 patients who'd had a stroke at least six months earlier, 12 weeks of tai chi improved standing balance more than a general exercise program that entailed breathing, stretching, and mobilizing muscles and joints involved in sitting and walking. Findings were published in the January 2009 issue of Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair.
Falling down.Tai chi is especially useful for improving balance and preventing falls - a major concern for older adults. Studies have shown tai chi to significantly reduce falls in seniors by improving balance, awareness, mobility and confidence. It can also improve balance in people with neurological problems. A recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine found Tai Chi to be particularly effective for balance in people with Parkinson?s disease. Tai chi helps improve balance because it targets all the physical components needed to stay upright - leg strength, flexibility, range of motion, and reflexes - all of which tend to decline with age.
To cut a long story short, Tai Chi is about the best health promoting exercise a person of advancing years can do. The key to getting the most from it is patience and regular practice. Even just 15 minutes a day will have a significant effect over time!