What is Taiji?
Taiji is an ancient Chinese exercise for health improvement, spiritual growth, disease prevention, healing assistance, and self-defense. It involves slow, circular movements; mental concentration; breath control; relaxation; and meditation. It has been proven that the practice of taiji offers great health benefits, including improvements in circulation, metabolism, balance, flexibility, posture, mental focus, immune function, daily energy levels, organ function, emotional balance, self-awareness, and brain health. Taiji is an exercise for all ages and all fitness levels. It is a sophisticated form of exercise that works on internal energy and manifests externally. It is a gift from the Chinese culture.
Taiji is the abridged name of taijiquan. "Tai" in Chinese means "bigger than big," "ji" means "extreme," and "quan" means "boxing." Taiji used to be called "soft boxing." Altogether, taijiquan can be translated as "grand force boxing." Taiji's focus is on inner energy and achieving inner peace through movement.
Taiji has many qualities. It is a form of art that can be observed in its beautiful movements. It intrigues people from all over the world. When you watch people in the park doing taiji, you may feel like they are performing a slow, graceful, fluid dance. You can feel the harmony in the taiji form, but you don't see the power in those graceful movements. There is an ancient Chinese proverb by Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War: "to win without fighting."
Taiji is a form of meditation. It is sometimes called moving meditation or walking meditation. This kind of meditation helps you detach from stress in daily life and allows you to move on and move forward. In addition to stress relief, practicing this meditation also helps you balance your emotions and removes much of the mental "junk" that accumulates in our lives. By "junk" I mean useless thoughts or thoughts that make you unhappy. Some people practice sitting meditation, and others like moving meditation. Both are good; it just depends on how you like to meditate. For people who have arthritis, fibromyalgia, or other circulation problems, taiji and qigong are much better than sitting meditation.
Taiji is an internal practice that builds your strength internally and externally. Taiji is a type of qigong; it is considered the higher level of qigong. Qigong is also an internal practice. In general, qigong is simpler and easier than taiji. Taiji movements are much more difficult, and you will need time to learn and practice.
Taiji is a Martial Art
Taiji is a martial art. In every movement of taiji, you can find a martial arts application that can be used for self-defense. As you practice and proceed to higher levels, you will understand its martial aspect and martial application. Taiji "push hands" is to practice taiji martial skill or taiji martial application. In taiji push hands, we say, "Four ounces can defeat a thousand pounds." In other words, taiji has power if applied.
Taiji and qigong are often called energy medicine or preventive medicine. The term "energy medicine" can be confusing; it has many meanings. In taiji we refer to a real internal energy workout that improves your qi, your vital energy. You can see and feel the results. Through qi practice, your self-healing ability and your immune system both improve. Not only can you heal yourself, but you can also prevent sickness and plateauing in life. In many cases, taiji and qigong can assist in the treatment and healing of chronic illnesses. From my own experience, taiji and qigong have helped with many of my ailments: asthma, arthritis, aches, pains, and negative emotions. It has also made me stronger internally. For people with cancer, both taiji and qigong can be excellent natural healing methods for enhancing organ and immune system function, which is the key to fighting cancer.
Taiji can be a type of social gathering—a "qi group." Taiji can be a group energy workout. The group practice creates a "qi field." The qi field affects individuals in a nurturing and positive way. That is why you feel good every time you practice in a group, even if you do not totally understand taiji or if you have not been doing taiji for long. This does not mean you must practice with other people every time. You still get benefits if you practice by yourself. When you reach a higher level, practicing taiji by yourself can really help you work on your qi, develop your concentration, improve your internal condition, and be grounded.
Taiji is a special type of brain fitness practice. Taiji and qigong can quiet your mind and regulate your breath. Regulating your breath not only allows your brain to rest but also brings more oxygen to the body and brain through deep breathing. In addition, the special movements of taiji stimulate and activate all parts of the brain. This is why people who practice taiji regularly show well-rounded living skills: balanced emotions, intuition, cognitive function, problem-solving skills, ability to learn quickly, logical decision making, and organization. In my book Brain Fitness, I describe in more detail how taiji affects our brains.
The benefits of practicing taiji and qigong are phenomenal. It benefits the entire body from head to toe. It strengthens muscles, tendons, joints, and circulation of blood and energy. It improves the immune system, mental concentration, balance, coordination, alertness, learning ability, and much more. As you start to explore the path of taiji, you will discover many other benefits too.
Eastern exercises always emphasize wholeness—the mind, the body, and the spirit. By contrast, most Western-style exercises are mainly focused on developing the body.
Why are our mind, body, and spirit important?
Our mind is the thinking part of our existence and determines how we walk, how we read and analyze data, how we communicate, how we make decisions, and how we solve problems. The body is the physical part of our existence, doing the eating, sleeping, walking, jogging, cooking, using tools, driving, and other physiological activities. The spirit is the meaningful part of our existence. It is where our hopes, our dreams, our beliefs, our passions, our fears, our love, and our hate are expressed. All of these parts are equally important. Taiji has the potential to bridge these parts by putting the practitioner in a state of mind where the connections among them are clear. When the three parts are in harmony, our body is strong, our mind is clear, and our spirit is pure and superior. This is what we call reaching the peak of qi.
Taiji touches all aspects of the person at the same time, reinforcing the perception that these so-called separate parts are but different aspects of the whole person. Taiji helps to open the body's energy pathways when practiced with mind, body, and spirit. It is not enough to simply copy the physical movements. By practicing taiji, you must incorporate all three parts through relaxation, meditation, concentration, study of ancient texts, and taiji theory.
In Chinese medicine, there are three fundamental substances called jing, qi, and shen. They are close in meaning to our Western terms body, mind, and spirit. These fundamental substances work side by side to keep us healthy.
Jing is usually translated as "original essence" and has a very close relationship to the Western term gene, or genetic material. Jing is stored in the kidneys. It is crucial to the development of the individual throughout life. Inherited at birth, jing allows us to develop from childhood to adulthood and then to old age. It governs growth, reproduction, and development; promotes kidney qi; and works with qi to help protect the body from external pathogens. Any developmental disorder such as learning difficulties or physical disabilities in children may be due to a deficiency of jing from birth. Other disorders such as infertility, poor memory, a tendency to get sick or catch colds, and allergies may also be due to deficiency of jing.
Qi refers to vital energy or life-force flow in the body. It is like the electric currents moving through a wire. There are various types of qi in the body working together to keep the physical and mental parts of our body in harmony. Qi has a very close relationship to human metabolism, immune function, digestion, absorption, emotion, breathing, mental clarity, and more. Qi is present internally and externally and controls the function of all parts of the body. Qi is like the motor in a car. Qi keeps us moving and functioning, keeps us warm, and protects us against sickness. Everything we do involves qi. Walking, eating, laughing, crying, playing sports, working, hiking, and writing are all related to qi. Qi affects our life every day. We cannot see the qi in the body, but we can feel it. We can feel when our energy is low and when it is high. We can sense if we are optimistic or depressed, if we are negative or positive; we can feel if our bodies are out of balance. Qi affects our health mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Shen refers to our spiritual energy, our highest consciousness, our connection with universal energies. Shen can also mean mental strength.
The English word spirit has many different meanings and connotations but commonly refers to a supernatural being or essence that is transcendent and therefore metaphysical. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "the non-physical part of a person." For many people, however, spirit, like soul, forms a natural part of a being, not a transcendent one. Such people may identify spirit with mind or with consciousness or with the brain. But in Chinese, shen is more than just the mind. You can have lots of mental activity but lack shen; conversely, you can have excellent shen but have less mental activity because shen can make you focused.
Some people refer to shen as a soul. But in Chinese medicine theory, shen and soul are two different things though with some similarities. Soul is the immaterial or eternal part of a living being, commonly held to be separable from the body. Shen in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is the higher or energized eternal part of a living being.
Jing, qi, and shen are built on one another. Proficient jing leads to balanced qi. Balanced creates better shen. Improving the circulation of qi enhances and strengthens jing, as well as lifting shen. Good shen can control and connect to qi and be a guide to create more balanced qi. The cycle goes on and on, each substance affecting the others in both positive and negative ways.
By practicing taiji and qigong, you can strengthen the storage of jing, smooth the flow of qi, and build better shen. You can improve physical health, psychological well-being, and expand and enhance the spirit.
I have been teaching taiji and qigong for more than thirty years. I have seen students succeed in decreasing their stress level, improving physical strength, balancing their emotions, and increasing their overall health. They have gained in flexibility, stamina, balance, poise, skill in interpersonal interactions, and mental focus.
The above is an excerpt from Dr. Aihan Kuhn's new book, Tai Chi in 10 Weeks: Beginners Guide.