8 active ingredients

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Holistic health

The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi lists 8 ingredients that promote good health:

  1. Awareness (including mindfulness & focussed attention)

  2. Intention

  3. Structural integration (including dynamic form & function)

  4. Active relaxation

  5. Strengthening & flexibility

  6. Natural, freer breathing

  7. Social support (including interaction & community)

  8. Embodied spirituality (including wisdom & ritual)

These 8 tai chi components offer a multi-layered approach to the cultivation of fitness, vitality and wellbeing.

1. Awareness

Tai chi involves the cultivation of moment-by-moment awareness, paying attention to what is taking place as it is taking place.
Unlike mainstream meditation, this does not involve sitting. It is an active process, involving your body as well as your mind.
The physicality of the art enables you to take the skills immediately and directly into everyday life.


Heightened physical, emotional and psychological awareness are all hallmarks of long-term tai chi training.
The student possesses the ability to sustain attention, avoid over-thinking, evaluating and judging. They learn to attune to the flow of what is taking place; to find harmony and balance.


Adjusting, attuning yourself to what is actually taking place requires an acute presence of being. A clearer state of mind means better decision-making and more effective action.

2. Intention

The metaphorical images featured in the tai chi forms and The Tai Chi Classics e.g. 'Stork spreads wings' evoke images, movements and feelings designed to resonate in the practitioner.
This imagery (and associated visualisation) encourages a cognitive element that contributes significantly to the fitness benefits of the art.
Every movement in tai chi begins with intention.


Mind-body unity is a major theme in tai chi, particularly for students of the martial art.
The cultivation of jing is entirely contingent upon the ability to visualise and then physically generate very specific types of force using the coordinated actions of the body.


Instead of practicing in a forced, uncomfortable way, the tai chi student is encouraged to be playful and open-minded. To have fun.
This leads to greater progress and deeper physical relaxation.

3. Structural integration

The integration of the 8 ingredients leads to a more balanced experience. Tai chi treats the body as a network of coordinated elements, a dynamic process of being.
Good use of circulation, breathing, the nervous system, skeletal structure/joints combine to
make you feel energised and create a positive therapeutic outcome.
Slower, coordinated movements encourage a whole-body unity to develop.

Soft tissue

Tai chi seeks to keep muscles relaxed and soft; pliable and flexible. This interest in softness extends to incorporate tendons, ligaments, fascia, skin and the organs of the body.


One famous aspect of tai chi practice is the onus upon optimal use of the body. A student seeks to gain a physical sense of good alignment.
Rather than stressing, straining and punishing the body, they move in a deliberate, powerful way.

4. Active relaxation

The problem with most modern activities is tension. Driving the car, watching TV, using the computer or speaking on the phone can promote habits of adverse muscular tension and stress.
When people undertake mainstream exercise/sport they typically end up exerting. The muscles never relax and the joints become inflexible.

Not forcing

Students are taught how to allow things to gradually unfold, rather than forcing a result. Forcing promotes resistance whilst allowing leads to release.
Gentleness is cultivated. The body is treated with care and respect.

Do less as standard

Tai chi seeks moderation. Not too much and not too little. Neither passive nor overly-active. 'Doing less' and 'letting-go' are big themes in the training.

5. Strengthening & flexibility

The effectiveness of tai chi as a physical exercise can be overlooked. It is easy to dismiss the seemingly mild training as being ineffectual.
However, tai chi provides a very effective workout. It moves the body in a safe, therapeutic, healthy manner and has no known side-effects.
There is a substantial amount of evidence to support tai chi's medical and health claims.


Students who practice the martial art will receive a rigorous aerobic workout when they engage in the many partnered training methods.
Standing qigong, sustained form practice and heavy weapons all lead to the development of muscle mass.
These muscles will not be tensed and bulging, but rather, relaxed and mobile. Considerable power can be generated.
The dynamic stretching that takes place within tai chi results in a comprehensive workout for the entire body.

6. Natural, freer breathing

Improved body use, decreased muscular tension and a more flexible body all result in easier, fuller breathing. The student learns how to slow, lengthen and deepen the breath in everyday life.
This leads to a more calm, emotionally-centred sense of being.

7. Social support

Students in a tai chi school are encouraged to interact with one another in a healthy, friendly manner, free from the competitive norms found in wider society.
There is a supportive atmosphere of trust and care. The training hall is a safe place to be.
Interaction with the instructor is of particular importance, as this commonly entails the passing-on of knowledge, bespoke physical corrections and the exploration of deeper philosophical issues pertinent to the training.
Ideally, a tai chi school should be a good place to be: a pure place. There is no meanness or petty behaviour, no malice or sarcasm.
Good humour, camaraderie, polite manners, consideration, respect and fun result in a pleasant training environment.

8. Embodied spirituality

Tai chi is a vehicle for exploring the many insights offered by the elusive and beguiling study of existence known as 'Taoism'. It is a hands-on approach to spirituality.
There is plenty to read (if this is something you enjoy) but the emphasis is mainly upon doing rather than reading, thinking or talking.
Life is lived through action, not words. The art of tai chi is a physical journey that will lead to an inner search for meaning and understanding within the student.

Complete approach to health

People often refer to tai chi as being a complete exercise.
The word 'complete' refers to the fact that tai chi training covers a very diverse spectrum of concerns that coalesce to form a powerful tool for fitness and wellbeing.
When practiced daily, the benefits of tai chi are truly amazing.

Page created 19 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023