Tai chi chuan is an internal Chinese martial art often practiced with the aim of promoting health and longevity. Tai chi chuan’s training forms are well known as the slow motion routines that groups of people practice together every morning in parks around the world, particularly in China. Some medical studies support its effectiveness as an alternative exercise and a form of martial arts therapy.

Tai chi chuan is considered a soft style martial art — an art applied with internal power — to distinguish its theory and application from that of the hard martial art styles. There are many different styles of tai chi chuan, but most modern schools can trace their development to the system originally taught by the Chen family to the Yang family starting in 1820.

There are five major styles of tai chi chuan, each named after the Chinese family from which it originated:

  • Chen style
  • Yang style
  • Wu or Wu/Hao style of Wu Yu-hsiang (Wu Yuxiang)
  • Wu style of Wu Ch’uan-yü (Wu Quanyuo) and Wu Chien-ch’uan (Wu Jianquan)
  • Sun style

The order of verifiable age is as listed above. The order of popularity (in terms of number of practitioners) is Yang, Wu, Chen, Sun, and Wu/Hao. The first five major family styles share much underlying theory, but differ in their approaches to training.

There are now dozens of new styles, hybrid styles and offshoots of the main styles, but the five family schools are the groups recognised by the international community as being orthodox.

Zhaobao Tai Chi, a close cousin of Chen style, has been newly recognised by Western practitioners as a distinct style.

The designation internal or nei chia martial arts is also used to broadly distinguish what are known as the external or wai chia styles based on the Shaolinquan styles, although that distinction is sometimes disputed by modern schools.

The physical techniques of tai chi chuan are described in the tai chi classics (a set of writings by traditional masters) as being characterized by the use of leverage through the joints based on coordination in relaxation, rather than muscular tension, in order to neutralize or initiate attacks. The slow, repetitive work involved in the process of learning how that leverage is generated gently and measurably increases and opens the internal circulation (breath, body heat, blood, lymph, peristalsis, etc.).

The study of tai chi chuan primarily involves three subjects. Traditional schools cover these aspects of tai chi practice simultaneously, while many modern schools focus on a single aspect, depending on their goal in practicing the art. These subjects are:

Health:
An unhealthy or otherwise uncomfortable person may find it difficult to meditate to a state of calmness or to use tai chi as a martial art. Tai chi’s health training therefore concentrates on relieving the physical effects of stress on the body and mind. For those focused on tai chi’s martial application, good physical fitness is an important step towards effective self-defense.

Meditation:
The focus and calmness cultivated by the meditative aspect of tai chi is seen as necessary in maintaining optimum health (in the sense of relieving stress and maintaining homeostasis) and in application of the form as a soft style martial art.

Martial art:
The ability to use tai chi as a form of self-defense in combat is said to be the most effective proof of a student’s understanding of the principles of good Tai Chi. The study of tai chi chuan martially is the study of appropriate change in response to outside forces; the study of yielding and blending with outside force rather than attempting to meet it with opposing force.

The Mandarin term "tai chi chuan" literally translates as "supreme ultimate boxing" or "boundless fist," but may better translate to "great extremes boxing," with an emphasis on finding balance between two great extremes. The concept of the "supreme ultimate" is the symbol of the Taijitu meant to show the principles of Yin and Yang duality of Taoist philosophy.

Thus, tai chi theory and practice evolved in agreement with many of the principles of Chinese philosophy and Taoism in particular. Tai chi training first and foremost involves learning solo routines, known as forms (套路 taolu). While the image of tai chi chuan in popular culture is typified by exceedingly slow movement, many tai chi styles (including the three most popular, Yang, Wu and Chen) have secondary forms of a faster pace. The other half of traditional tai chi training (though many modern schools disregard it entirely) consists of partner exercises known as push hands, and martial applications of the postures of the form.

Tai chi chuan was created as a form of traditional Chinese martial arts of the Neijia (soft or internal) branch. Since the first widespread promotion of tai chi’s health benefits by Yang Shaohou, Yang Chengfu, Wu Chien-ch’uan and Sun Lutang in the early twentieth century, it has developed a worldwide following among people with little or no interest in martial training for its benefit to health and health maintenance. Some call it a form of moving meditation, as focusing the mind solely on the movements of the form purportedly helps to bring about a state of mental calm and clarity. Besides general health benefits and stress management attributed to tai chi training, aspects of Traditional Chinese medicine are taught to advanced tai chi students in some traditional schools. Some martial arts, especially the Japanese martial arts, use a uniform for students during practice. Tai chi chuan schools do not generally require a uniform, but both traditional and modern teachers often advocate loose, comfortable clothing and flat-soled shoes.

More than 300 different known martial arts styles are practiced in China. There are two Chinese Martial Art systems, the internal and the external systems. The internal system includes Tai Chi, Sheng-I and Pa-Qua styles. The emphasize stability and have limited jumps and kicks. The external system includes Shao Lin, Long Fist, Southern Fist, and other styles. They emphasize linear movements, breathing combined with sound, strength, speed and hard power impact contact, jumps, and kicks.

There are many different styles or families of Tai Chi Chuan. The five which are practiced most commonly today are the Yang, Chen, Wu , Sun, and Woo styles. All Tai Chi styles, however, are derived from the original Chen family style.

Some people believe that Tai Chi was developed by a Taoist Priest from a temple in China’s Wu Dong Mountains. It is said that he once observed a white crane preying on a snake, and mimiced their movements to create the unique Tai Chi martial art style. Initially, Tai Chi was practiced as a fighting form, emphasizing strength, balance, flexibility, and speed. Through time it has evolved into a soft, slow, and gentle form of exercise which can be practiced by people of all ages.

The physical techniques of tai chi chuan are described in the tai chi classics (a set of writings by traditional masters) as being characterized by the use of leverage through the joints based on coordination in relaxation, rather than muscular tension, in order to neutralize or initiate attacks. The slow, repetitive work involved in the process of learning how that leverage is generated gently and measurably increases and opens the internal circulation (breath, body heat, blood, lymph, peristalsis, etc.).

Before tai chi’s introduction to Western students, the health benefits of tai chi chuan were largely explained through the lens of traditional Chinese medicine; which is based on a view of the body and healing mechanisms not always studied or supported by modern science. Today, some prominent tai chi teachers have advocated subjecting tai chi to rigorous scientific studies to gain acceptance in the West.

Researchers have found that long-term tai chi practice shows some favorable but statistically insignificant effects on the promotion of balance control, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness and reduced the risk of falls in elderly patients. The studies also show some reduced pain, stress and anxiety in healthy subjects. Other studies have indicated improved cardiovascular and respiratory function in healthy subjects as well as those who had undergone coronary artery bypass surgery. Patients that suffer from heart failure, high blood pressure, heart attacks, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s may also benefit from tai chi. Tai chi, along with yoga, has reduced levels of LDLs 20-26 milligrams when practiced for 12-14 weeks.

However, a thorough review of most of these studies showed limitations or biases that made it difficult to draw firm conclusions on the benefits of tai chi. There have also been indications that tai chi might have some effect on noradrenaline and cortisol production with an effect on mood and heart rate. However, as with many of these studies, the effect may be no different than those derived from other types of physical exercise.

Filed under: Martial Arts Styles

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