Monday Morning Tai Chi Training Tip # 220
In 2008, I was interviewed by Robert O’Block, the Founder and Publisher of The Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association.It is a magazine published quarterly for psychotherapists. The title of the article was “Understanding Tai Chi and Why it is Helpful for Therapists and Clients Alike”. I figured not many would have much knowledge of the history and philosophy of Tai Chi, so I wanted to make my answers simple, yet complete. The article is quite long so I am breaking down into at least two weeks. We’ll see. I look forward to your feedback on these. The article appeared in the Winter 2008 volume.
For those readers who aren’t familiar with Tai Chi, can you briefly explain what exactly it is? 
When I am asked what Tai Chi is, I am reminded about the story of the three blind men who, never having encountered an elephant, are asked to describe what it is. One touches the trunk and says,” An elephant is like a large snake.” Another touches a leg, and says, “No, an elephant is like a tree.” Another, touching the flank says,” No, an elephant is like a wall.”
They are all correct, yet their answer is incomplete due to their not having all the information necessary to make an informed decision.
Talking about Tai Chi Chuan is much like the elephant problem. Tai Chi Chuan is a very complex art, with three main roots that go back hundreds, if not thousands of years into Chinese history. If you ask someone who is interested in martial arts, he might respond that Tai Chi is definitely an effective self-defense system. If a person on a spiritual path were asked, he would probably respond it is a meditative art. And if someone who was involved with health and wellness were asked, he might answer that it is a physical culture/healing practice.
All are correct, yet Tai Chi cannot, and should not, be limited to one field of study. All of the roots are of equal importance and make Tai Chi Chuan one of the most popular physical activities in the world.
The name, Tai Chi Chuan, literally means Supreme Ultimate Martial Art. Today, in order to gain popularity worldwide, the art generally is known as “Tai Chi”, eliminating the word Chuan, which means martial system. I can understand the reason. Most people are not interested in martial arts, and would certainly turn their backs on this marvelous exercise. But to fully understand its evolution, we must include the Chuan aspect.
The first root is the Martial Arts. People have always needed to defend themselves, whether from animals, or other humans. China is a crowded place, with much chance for confrontation. Many martial systems evolved. Tai Chi Chuan, as a martial art, emerged from the Taoist Wudang temple sometime between 500 to 1000 AD. The distant past is clouded, partially because of the idea that mystery and myth will add to its appeal. Because it was very effective, it was passed from father to son, and never shared with strangers. It was not until the introduction of guns that hand-to-hand martial arts lost their effectiveness. At this time, in the early 1800’s, Tai Chi started to move into the general population and gain popularity as a physical exercise.
The oldest root, going back several thousand years, is Traditional Chinese Medicine, or the health and rejuvenation aspect. The Chinese have been using exercise to maintain wellness, cure disease, and strengthen the body for many thousands of years.
TCM theory is based on the idea of balance – balance in all aspects of one’s life. Overall fitness and well-being is not just the absence of disease. It derived by a balance between the physical, mental and spiritual. TCM sees the whole person and uses various modalities as a way to eliminate the blocks in our system which tend to cause excess or deficiency. Balanced, relaxing exercise is one of the ways. I remember one Tai Chi instructor telling the class, “Don’t make your heart sweat.” This relates to the Chinese belief that internal balance is favored over physical appearance. This approach is quite different than the traditional Western idea of fitness.
The third root is Spiritual Development, namely Buddhism, Confucianism, and especially Taoism. These philosophical systems have played a major part in the lives of a majority of Chinese people and their cultural development. The Taoists look to what is natural, a blending with the forces of the Universe, to achieve supreme health, and a long life filled with a strong feeling of contentment. In much the same way that TCM achieves physical health through eliminating tension and extremes, Taoism eliminates beliefs as an obstruction to seeing reality. Meditate, relax, find your inner balance and all will become clear. Decisions will be based on seeing what is, not acting on how one thinks it should be. The Taoist didn’t have a creed, an all-powerful God, or rules. Each person is responsible for his or her own personal achievement.
The Taoists developed the philosophy of Yin and Yang and Tai Chi. By observing nature, the Taoists saw that nature was a manifestation of complimentary opposites – day and night, up and down, hot and cold, sun and moon, male and female, firm and soft, etc. It is this interaction of forces or expressions of energy that cause movement, and movement indicates life.
If we look at the yin and yang of weather, barometric pressure, there are two forces, high (yang) and low (yin) pressure. It is the interaction of these two forces that causes different conditions. For example, a light breeze is caused by only a slight difference between the yang or high pressure and the yin or low pressure. A greater pressure difference might result in high winds or even a hurricane. The greater the difference of pressure, (the higher the high and the lower the low), the greater the resulting movement of air.
The Taoists realized that health and long life was influenced by this yin and yang theory. Chi (life force) and blood moved in the same way and for the same reasons that all the external natural forces do. If their bodies and minds maintained a balanced state and did not bounce between the extremes, health and contentment would result.
Tai Chi Chuan is a blending of relaxed exercise from TCM; non-action and a spiritual goal from Taoism; and finally self-defense skills. It is hard to really separate these various roots, as they are very twisted and co-mingled. The body needs to be strong to fight off disease as well as intruders. The mind must be clear to see the workings of the Universe, as well as beginnings of an emotional problem. The practices, studies, and exercises for good health, martial skill, and spiritual attainment are all the same.
Note: The other questions I responded to are:
*How did you become acquainted with Tai Chi? Please decribe your particular background with the practice and how you got to where you are today.
*Annals reaches out to a large readership of professionals in the psychotherapy field. Can Tai Chi be useful for therapists working with clients?
*What sorts of general health benefits coincide with a scheduled Tai Chi regimen?
*Tai Chi is often seen as a means to achieving overall wellness. Along with the physical health benefits, will Tai Chi help to reduce psychological problems in any way?
*What sorts of participants typically visit the studio? Is Tai Chi for everyone?
*Michael, thank you for your time. Are there any last words you’d like to leave with our readers? How about advice for first-time Tai Chi participants?