Understanding Tai Chi Chuan

Breathe in, breathe out. Let your chest rise, now let it fall. Shift your body weight to your left leg and stretch your arms out to the left, now slowly sway your arms and your body weight over to the right. Complementary movements; mental and physical balance; yin and yang. This is the essence of tai chi.

According to Chinese medicine, the universe is run by a single principle, the Tao, which is made up of the yin and the yang which are two opposing, yet complementary principles. For example, the yin includes femaleness, the moon, cold, and matter; while maleness, the sun, heat, and energy are relatively yang.

"Chi" refers to our energy, vitality, or life force. And "tai chi" is translated as "all encompassing" or "supreme ultimate," because of its embodiment of both the yin and the yang. "Chuan," often used in the name, translates to "fist" or "boxing," and signifies exercise.

Peter Wayne, PhD, director of the Tree of Life Tai Chi Center in Somerville, MA, describes tai chi as "moving meditation." Through the slow and careful movements of tai chi, Dr. Wayne explains, "People learn to focus on each motion, and become aware of the processes in their bodies and mind. We strive for simple and peaceful quality of physical movement and mental thought. During special moments, practice may even generate spiritual insights."

Achieving and Maintaining Good Health

In Chinese medicine, pain or sickness is believed to occur when the flow of the chi is blocked, and yin and yang energies are out of balance. When the chi is circulating freely, physical symptoms disappear. The joints are seen as gates that control the flow of chi; the slow, gentle, swaying movements, deep breathing, and mental focus of tai chi are designed to relieve tension, open up these joints, and allow chi to move effortlessly throughout the body.

Tai chi is purported to be good for all health concerns. A number of renowned tai chi masters are said to have experienced sickness in the past from which they could find no relief until they began to practice tai chi. Such reports, however, are merely anecdotes, and may not represent actual benefit.

The scientific research done thus far has involved small groups of people. But Dr. Wayne notes that these studies are promising and suggest specific benefits. According to many, but not all studies, tai chi can decrease the risk of falling in elderly people.

Learning to Practice

Tai chi involves virtually no impact and no equipment, and requires only your motivation and perseverance. With the supervision of a qualified instructor, people of any physical condition can begin to practice with little concern for injury. Dr. Wayne suggests starting with a group class. To find a teacher you'll be compatible with, ask members of different classes about their teachers.

There is a great variety of styles of tai chi, and an even greater variety of teaching styles. In some traditional classes, there is little verbal communication and the students learn by watching. In other classes, the teacher may speak throughout and often use imagery to describe body movements ("let your spine hang gently like a necklace of pearls") and to guide meditation ("let the energy flow through you like water down a stream").

There is no national certification program for tai chi instructors, rather there is an informal hierarchy. Typically, those who call themselves "masters" have extensive experience, however, anyone can adopt this title. Ask potential instructors about their experience and their specific style, and compare sample classes if possible.

Balancing Your Chi

Whether you have a specific health condition or wish to maintain your current state of health, balancing your yin and yang energies through the practice of tai chi may bring peace and vitality to your mind, your body, and your life.