Tai Chi (also Tai Chi Chuan and Taijiquan) is a martial art. The martial arts of China are numerous and can be categorised in almost as many different ways as there are individual styles – but one popular way of delineating between different types of martial arts are to look at the internal and external methods. Traditionally Tai Chi concerns itself with combat and self defence, but like other internal martial arts, the primary focus has pretty much always been on improving the health of the practitioner first, and developing combat skills second.
It’s difficult to write with certainty about the history of martial arts in China. There’s a lot of mythology and fantasy that you need to wade through, and mostly we’re writing about things that were oral traditions. Before the last hundred years or so, very little was written about martial arts – I’m under the impression the study of the history and culture of martial arts was not seen as a particularly worthwhile pursuit by the literate minority. These days, people like to tie martial arts culture in with religious and spiritual philosophy, and medicine, and all kinds of things – and I think there’s certainly an argument for it, but it’s difficult to verify the stories.
People talk about traditional and modern styles, and go to classes, and like to be training in something authentic – but if you look at most traditional styles, until very recently they were taught only to family members or a very limited and specific group of people – so if you’re going to a class, full of people you don’t know – as traditional as the style might be, this isn’t really how it was done. You wouldn’t have attended a class for an hour – maybe your teacher was with you for five minutes or three hours – I don’t know, transmitting techniques – and then it was up to you to practice.
So I always find it odd when people talk about a Tai Chi class and talk about the traditional methods they’re learning – maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but it’s not a traditional way to transmit the methods. But more than traditional practices, I value appropriate and practical ones. As such, I like to recognise the tradition of adaptation, and observe how forms change over generations. You can’t really tell what a form or technique was like prior to the invention of the motion picture, but one reason I value YouTube so much is because you can see how different people all over the world practice the same forms and styles. You can get a feel for how authentic practices change over time, and you can see a completely different approach from person to person – all who have been trained in the most traditional and respectful of methods.
What I like about Tai Chi, that an old master once said – is that even when you’re practicing perfectly, it’ll look different from when your teacher is practicing. This is because in Tai Chi, it’s very important to focus on the internal feeling, rather than the way it looks. You need to understand leverage and the application of power while being relaxed and calm. It’s about power in stillness, balance and uninhibited motion, and cool stuff like that.
This is thoroughly practical, and explains how a traditional form can evolve and adapt over time. I used to get quite hung-up on doing it all ‘right’. But when what’s right is determined by feelings and a state of relaxed attentiveness, what does right look like? Unforced, graceful, powerful?
In 1956 I think it was, the “Tai Chi 24 Forms” was created. A small bunch of Tai Chi masters got together and adapted traditional long forms into a relatively short routine – the idea was to make Tai Chi accessible to the masses in an attempt to improve public health. A great idea, methinks – I’m a big fan of accessibility. As such, the 24 Forms is the most widely practiced Tai Chi routine to this day. It’s based on Yang style, named after the Yang family, which is one of the five most prevalent styles of Tai Chi.
Cheng Man Ch’ing is sorta kinda credited with bringing Tai Chi to the west, or to America at any rate. He also had a simplified method, and was a doctor. In his excellent book, he made a couple of observations about Tai Chi and why it’s so good for people. In animals, quadrupeds – the organs hang down from the spine, and in daily activity they bump and rub up against each other, and so the connective tissues grow strong – in humans however, who stand on our hind legs, the organs sit on top of each other, and don’t move, so the connective tissues remain squished and weak. Tai Chi is great for your organs because it always comes back to turning through the waist – this action strengthens the connective tissues of the organs and helps to improve their function. He also described that when you practice – or perhaps after years of practice – the qi (internal energy) that you develop forms a sticky substance and hardens in the bones. He said his arm was much heavier than an average arm, and his master’s arm was significantly heavier than his was.
I always thought I had heavy and dense bones, especially since I started Tai Chi.
Personally, it always seemed that practicing Tai Chi – more than any other activity – helped my diabetes to remain stable. This is particularly interesting because insulin (which I inject) basically functions to get sugar out of the blood and into the skeletal muscle. That’s kinda the main function, anyway. So the conventional mode of thinking is that resistance training – strength training with weights or some other form of resistance – is about the best thing you can do for increasing insulin sensitivity and improving insulin function. Or other high-intensity conditioning methods too. I lift weights a lot, and I enjoy it, but still – Tai Chi practice, where the point is to be as relaxed and calm and to move as effortlessly as possible, Tai Chi practice has a stronger positive impact on my insulin sensitivity than weightlifting.
It seems to me that the health benefits of exercise come down to pretty much two aspects: improved circulation and natural hormonal optimisation. Improving insulin function, stimulating the natural production of growth hormone, etc. – these benefits have to do with hormonal and metabolic function.
Of course, I was seduced by the fantasy that Tai Chi (and qigong practice) could cure me of sickness, which is a slippery slope. After a decade or more of practice, I grew resentful because I still had diabetes, and I took for granted the immediate benefits that Tai Chi delivered. And I stopped practicing for a time. If you like Tai Chi, it makes you feel good – calm, centred, focused, relaxed and powerful – and like anything else, if you don’t like it or aren’t in the mood, it makes you feel bored. Balance in all things.