What is Tai Chi?

Taijiquan, also written as t’ai chi ch’uan, is a martial art or movement practice originating in China. It is usually heavily informed by Daoist philosophy, particularly taiji theory (more widely known as yin yang theory). The origins are muddled with obvious myth. The most widely shared origin of taijiquan involves the probable mythic character Zhang Sanfeng, a Song dynasty Daoist “immortal,” who invented taijiquan in the Wudang mountains after having watched a snake fight a crane.

Originating in the 17th century

Though still shrouded in inaccuracy and lack of official record or documentation, it seems the most likely origin of taijiquan is from Chen village in Hebei province in the 17th century. Chen Wanting, a general at the end of the Ming dynasty, is credited with developing Chen family gongfu from combining elements of Qi Jiguan’s treatise on military practice and daoyin movements (practices to later be codified as qigong). Chen family gongfu was, as the name implies, only taught to members of the family in and around Chen village. And it remained so until the mid-19th century when Chen Changxing took Yang Luchan as a student. Yang, after whom Yang style taijiquan is named, eventually moved to Yung Nien where he taught a form he referred to as Mianquan or cotton fist.

Martial art mixed with philosophy

Historians maintain that among Yang’s first disciples were scholars/magistrates. And that it was one of these individuals, it is conjectured, who composed the “Taijiquan Classic,” attributing its authorship, and thereby taijiquan’s origins, to Zhang Sanfeng 500 years earlier. The work ostensibly discusses martial practice, but more along the lines of Taiji philosophy than along stringently tested weapons and tactics, more concerned with the practical understanding of Daoist philosophy in life in general than as applied to combat, containing phrases such as “four ounces can move 1000 pounds.” The taijiquan classic then, in my opinion, solidifies what was to widely be known as taijiquan from that point on as a scholarly/philosophical activity much more than combat art, though traces of its origin as a martial art are still clearly evident in today’s practice.

Taijiquan today

As practiced today, taijiquan espouses slow relaxed movements, more focused on the cultivation and movement of qi than with combat prowess or excessively athletic or acrobatic ability as other martial arts do. As the name implies, the practice embodies the interplay of yin and yang, emphasizing smooth seamless transitions of weight distribution, arm and leg position, and in some styles (most notably Chen style) the transition between fast and slow movements and hard and soft forces. Taijiquan solo routines constitute a high intensity low impact exercise regimen which, if practiced in their entirety, include movement through the dynamic functional range of motion of most joints, as well as training proper balance, weight distribution, breathing, and mental focus. Over time taijiquan has gained a reputation as a movement practice powerfully beneficial to promoting health. This claim is beginning to objectively bear out within the medical literature as multiple systematic reviews found that it decreased the risk of falls in older people, and effects a decrease in depression and anxiety, quicker recovery times post-surgery, and found favorable effects on the functional exercise capacity in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure, hypertension, and osteoarthritis.

Though I still personally think that the name taijiquan refers to the taijitu (the official name for the yin yang symbol), its direct translation as “grand ultimate fist”, in light of its medical, psychological, and philosophical potential, is also apt.

High Intensity with low impact

Tai Chi is a high-intensity low-impact exercise. High intensity because the benefits to your mind and body are numerous, and low intensity because they are typically not physically strenuous to do. Anyone at any age and at any level of physical ability can benefit from practicing tai chi.

Increase your balance and coordination

The active ingredient to how tai chi can do this is the coordinated shift of weight from one leg to the next. This helps with establishing and strengthening balance. And doing it slowly and deliberately increases this effect. This also makes it manageable for people with weakened or slow physical conditions, but without a slowed or weakened effect. Adding arm movements to the gentle shifting of weight is what really potentiates tai chi’s benefit. First, it helps with increasing physical coordination and proprioception (the body’s ability to sense where it is). Across the whole form, your arm and leg joints will go through a whole healthy range of motion. This will improve mobility and flexibility. Again, if done slowly it doesn’t dampen results. But it does allow individuals with mobility problems to still enjoy the benefits. Coordinating movements across your upper half and lower half or your left side and your right side improves your cognitive function. Even remembering the form, keeping the right moves in the right order, can help your memory.

Improve your mind

But Tai Chi’s benefit to your brain goes even further. Mindfulness can be defined as putting all of your focus on what you’re sensing and doing at the moment. Doing the form slowly and deliberately is one of the better examples of getting this done. In this, Tai Chi is also a great mindfulness meditation and stress reliever. Aside from being part of a community, there are cognitive benefits of a group of people working together to move in unison. Adding push hands to your practice will help train your mind and body to be sensitive, adaptable, and creative. Both figuratively and literally, you will learn the benefit of “give and take”. As the name implies, a philosophy of an approach to life is encoded in tai chi practice.

Frequently asked questions about tai chi

Is tai chi really good for you?

Over time, tai chi has gained a reputation as a movement practice powerfully beneficial to promoting health. This claim is beginning to objectively bear out within the medical literature as multiple systematic reviews found that it decreased the risk of falls in older people, and effects a decrease in depression and anxiety, quicker recovery times post-surgery, and found favorable effects on functional exercise capacity in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure, hypertension, and osteoarthritis.

Can I lose weight with tai chi?

Tai chi in and of itself does not burn any more calories than any other similar movement practice. But often a barrier to weight loss are other health issues a person might have, such as mobility issues, joint pain, general fatigue, and even things such as lack of motivation and lack of self-empowerment. Tai chi can certainly aid in solving these issues and making a path towards effective weight loss more achievable and should be considered a valuable assent among all other tools in a weight loss journey.

How long should you do tai chi for?

Once the solo routine is fully learned, depending on which routine, it takes between 3-15 minutes to do. If a person did that once a day, that would be enough to begin to see the benefits the studies are talking about. The more you do, the more it will benefit.

Is Tai Chi good for self-defense/Is Tai Chi effective in a street fight?

As normally practiced in the modern West, tai chi is more geared towards health promotion than combat arts. Understanding history, taijiquan originated from moves designed to be done on a pre-modern battlefield with a sword in your right and a shield in your left. But, even so, if someone was motivated to, then tai chi concepts can certainly be incorporated into effective combat training strategies. It’s not the art, but the training strategies that matter when it comes to fighting ability.

Can I learn tai chi on my own?/How can I practice tai chi at home?

It is not advisable that you learn tai chi on your own without an adequate instructor. However, once some moves and concepts are learned, even without knowing a full routine, these moves can be practiced at home on your own as long as you wish. Just be sure to check in with your instructor for deeper corrections. Remember, tai chi is never mastered. There is always another layer deeper in.

Is tai chi difficult to learn?

None of the moves in tai chi are difficult to perform, nor are they difficult to learn to do. But the more you learn tai chi, the more involved and integrated you discover the movements to be. They build on each other layer by layer. So tai chi is not difficult to learn, but it is also not quick to learn. That being said, the benefits of doing tai chi can begin very soon after starting.

Which is better, yoga or tai chi?

While they are both high-intensity low-impact routines steeped in Eastern traditions with modern reputations for mind and body benefits, they are dissimilar enough that comparing tai chi and yoga is like comparing apples and oranges. But to compare them very briefly, tai chi is about increasing mobility with mindful movements, and yoga is about increasing flexibility through mindful stretching and focused breathing. Which is better? That would depend on the individual doing it. But why choose? Do both!

What are the 5 styles of tai chi?

There are many many styles of tai chi, all of them can be traced to Yang style, and that is traced back to Chen family kung fu, and that is traced back to Ming dynasty battlefield tactics. Each of the five main styles (Chen, Yang, Wu, Sun, and Hao) are named after their particular originator and they differ from each other in how that originator focused and used tai chi. Yang style is the most common and popular form in the United States.

What are the 13 principles/postures of tai chi?

Every move in tai chi is a mix of 1 or more of 13 “postures”. The first eight are: expand, push, roll, press, grasp, split, shoulder power, and elbow power. And the last five are, quite simply, move forward, back, left, right, and stand still. The routines vary in length and they range from 24 to 108 movements.

How do I start learning tai chi?

The Yi Guan Clinic offers weekly Tai Chi classes at its clinic in Austin. To join a class, or for more information, contact us.


Mayo Clinic, Tai Chi: A Gentle Way to Fight Stress

PubMed, A Comprehensive Review of Health Benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi

PubMed, The effects of tai chi on depression, anxiety, and psychological well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis

PubMed, Tai Chi and Pulmonary Rehabilitation Compared for Treatment-Naive Patients With COPD: A Randomized Controlled Trial

Davis, Barbara. “The Taijiquan Classics”. Blue Snake Books, Berkeley California, 2004

Wayne, Peter. “The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi”. Shambhala Publications, Boston, Massachusetts