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The Chinese public first became aware of taijiquan in about 1750. Until then it had been practiced in secret for hundreds (if not thousands) of years.
Taijiquan offered many of the same skills as other styles of Chinese martial art, but with a twist. It contained none of the strenuous training methods and proved to be exceptionally good for your health.
In the 1950's China was facing a major health crisis and turned to taijiquan for a solution. The system was stripped of it's martial component and made accessible for the general public.
A new, simplified method was developed: tai chi for health.
Why did Chinese Government choose tai chi?
Tai chi uses principles and insights that originate in ancient China. These are concerned with 'naturalness'. The aim is to use the human body in a manner that is harmonious and not forced.
The exercise is gentle and feels quite easy to perform. It is more about coordination and motor skills rather than what most people associate with 'exercise' (e.g. sweat, aching muscles, fatigue).
No doctor required
The purpose of using tai chi was to reduce the likelihood of people needing medical intervention. No doctors. No medication. An improved lifestyle and mild exercise regime were preferable. And cheaper.
The Chinese Government introduced tai chi to schools nationwide. It was taught to people of all ages. The aim was to improve the national health without creating new problems.
If we didn't tense our muscles, we're in good balance, not interfering with
our breathing, and if we're free, tall and expansive in stature, and used a
minimum of effort, then we could say we had done the job really well.
Not all forms of exercise are necessarily good for you. Exercise usually has pros and cons; especially sport e.g. you get fit but your joints suffer... 'No pain, no gain' is a common attitude when exercising.
Runners often suffer from bad knees, weight lifting can distort the skeleton and impede joint movement. In fact, most forms of exercise can lead to muscular tension.
But we need to exercise. Not exercising leads to many health problems...
Tai chi is different. It works the body without exertion, physical stress or taxing the joints. There is very little risk of injury. You will not get out of breath.
In tai chi, much of the work will be performed by the mind. Students must improve their memory, perception, awareness, insights, mindfulness, presence, nervous system, acuity and intelligence.
To perform the art correctly, you must engage your whole being. Tai chi is a fun, balanced way to exercise.
People typically don't use their body in a 'natural' way. They move in a familiar manner and exert strength in a habitual fashion. It may feel 'natural' but is in fact simply what they are accustomed to doing.
Have you ever watched a cat move? Does a cat look 'pumped-up'? Is it ever stiff or inflexible? Do animals ever perform activities that are unnatural or strenuous? People do. All the time.
Although many modern people seek to use tai chi as a means of curing illness, this is not where its strength lies. Tai chi is best employed whilst healthy, not sick.
When a healthy person does tai chi they are more apt to remain healthy. It takes far less effort to prevent something than to cure it...
It is important to use the muscles for strength rather than the bones. Tensing the body makes the joints immobile and causes stress on the skeleton. Animals are strong without tensing-up. You can be too.
Modern life saps energy. People are often exhausted, unhappy, frustrated... They are frequently emotionally, physically and psychologically unbalanced. Feeling drained is commonplace.
Getting angry is normal. This is not a healthy way to live... Tai chi teaches people how to find balance in their lives and use their mind/body in a manner that is conducive to being energised.
Being strong is fine, but mobility and coordination are way more important. How often do you really need to use your strength? You coordinate your body from the moment you get out of bed.
Tai chi teaches: healthy skeletal alignment, balance, agility, ambidextrous use of the limbs, gait (manner of walking), leverage and ergonomic body use.
You learn how to move freely, spontaneously and comfortably.
More to life?
There is more to life than shopping, fashion, politics, news, the internet, mobile phones, TV, work, gossip. Many things in life can make you feel empty and alone.
Undertaking a personal journey of self-discovery can be a wonderful way to step-out from your everyday concerns and embark on a quest that promises mystery, wonders and even danger.
Mind, body, spirit
Tai chi practice possesses a spiritual component. This may be enhanced through Taoism and Zen, along with meditating, qigong, form and application.
An earnest student of tai chi becomes calmer, more harmonious. They have a sense of deep connection with all things. People seek to move in accord with events, rather than against.
Tai chi makes people feel happy. This is important in our stressed out society. The philosophical background and attitudes employed in tai chi practice are good for mental health.
They develop resilience, patience, friendliness and fun.
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 class 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.
Dr Michael Greger (author of How Not To Die) recommends 90 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every day.
The three doctors who wrote The Okinawa Program maintain that tai chi - with its ancient origins and incredible health benefits - is the ideal form of exercise for modern people.
It doesn't have to be in one go. Little and often is better...
18 April 2005
Last updated 21 June 2020