Each day, millions of men and women worldwide practice the Chinese martial art Tai Chi Chuan (taijiquan), which has been known for centuries to promote deep relaxation, excellent health, and to prevent injuries and illness. This gentle moving meditation teaches you to find balance between strength and flexibility, increases bone density, while involving all of the various soft tissues in your body: muscles, tendons, ligaments, fasciae, and skin.

Commonly known by its abbreviated name, Tai Chi (taiji) practice improves the circulation of blood and Qi (energy), which enhances the body's natural healing capabilities. In addition to learning fundamental Tai Chi stances and postures, these body-conditioning exercises also help you to increase muscle mass and bone density, while the gentle movements continually massage your internal organs, leading to increased flow of blood and oxygen through every cell in our body.

Tai Chi is an excellent way to improve your quality of life and daily physical performance quickly. You will learn to relax your body and mind, optimize your internal energy use, and allow the energy from your surroundings to be absorbed into your body and boost your energy system to abundant levels. Relaxation is an essential key to successful practice, and should be the primary goal of students new to Tai Chi.

An Ancient Chinese Philosophy

Tai Chi, or taiji, is an ancient Chinese philosophy that dates back at least 5,000 years. Some recent archaeological findings suggest that the Yin-Yang concept may be over 10,000 years old. Yin-Yang theory is based on the idea that everything in the universe is created, developed, and constantly changing due to the interaction, balance, and imbalance of Yin and Yang, which can be described as any two opposing forces, such as light/dark, cold/hot, or force/yielding. This concept of constant change and Yin-Yang balance is an approach to understand the laws of nature, and the universe itself. 

Tai Chi (taiji), which translates as Grand Ultimate, is the creative force that lies between Wuji, the state of No Extremity, and Yin-Yang, the state of Discrimination.  In Tai Chi Chuan (taijiquan), this creative force is the mind, the origin of all Yin-Yang in the body.  This Tai Chi philosophy was later blended with several ancient physical exercises and martial arts forms to create a new martial art style known as Tai Chi Chuan, or Grand Ultimate Fist.  Tai Chi Chuan is often shortened to Tai Chi, but the practitioner should be clear about the distinction between the martial art of Tai Chi Chuan, and the more ancient Tai Chi philosophy.

Lao Tzu, an older contemporary of Confucius, wrote and taught Taoist (Daoist) philosophy in the province of Hunan in the 6th century B.C. His classic book the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing), or The Way of Virtue, offers insightful discussions of Taoist philosophies, which lie in the heart of Tai Chi Chuan.

The essential principles of Tai Chi Chuan can be traced back thousands of years to ancient Chinese health exercises and to Classical Yoga in India. In the 4th century B.C., the Life-Nourishing Techniques (Yangshenfa) were being practiced. These ancient exercises included bending, expanding, condensing, and extending movements, breathing techniques, and Qi circulation methods similar to the later internal aspects of Tai Chi.

Ancient exercises and breathing techniques, known as Dao Yin and Tu Na, were created to adjust the imbalance of Qi energy in the body, to build more energy, and to increase adaptability to the natural changes in the environment. Dao Yin is the art of guiding the energy in the pathways of the body to achieve harmony, and of stretching the body to "massage" the Qi pathways in order to reduce Qi energy stagnation and to attain flexibility. Tu Na is the art of breathing, which was taught and studied in the Buddhist Shaolin and Wudang monasteries.

Other patterns practiced since the Chinese Tang dynasty (600 A.D.), such as Long Fist, Little Nine Heavens, and Five Animal Sports are attributed to the development of Tai Chi. In 800 A.D., a philosopher named Hsu, Hsuan-P'ing developed a long Kung Fu of 37 forms. Of these, certain postures still survive in the contemporary Tai Chi form, including:

  • Play the Guitar
  • Single Whip
  • Step Up to Seven Stars
  • Jade Lady Works the Shuttles
  • High Pat on Horse
  • White Crane (originally Phoenix) Flaps Its Wings

The Legend of Zhang

Many stories tell of the origin of Tai Chi Chuan, but the most popular legend is that of Zhang, San-Feng, a Taoist (Daoist) immortal and Shaolin martial artist. Zhang is described as an eccentric hermit with extraordinary powers, who died once and was reborn, and whose life spanned a period of at least 300 years, though no one is sure exactly when he lived. According to the legend, Zhang, a monk of the Wudang monastery, created Tai Chi Chuan after witnessing a battle between a crane and a snake. Wudang (Wu Tang) or Wudang Shan, refers to a region in China which includes seventy-two different mountains.

Intrigued by the yielding, smooth evasion, and darting counterattacks of both animals, Zhang's insight in the practice of martial arts are expressed according to four basic principles:

  • Use calm against action
  • Soft against hard
  • Slow against fast
  • Single against a group

He stressed the "internal" aspects of the exercises, and he is credited with creating the fundamental Thirteen Postures of Tai Chi that correspond to the eight basic trigrams of the I Ching and the five elements. The eight postures or doors are:

  1. Peng–Ward-off
  2. Lu–Rollback
  3. Ji–Press/squeeze
  4. An–Push
  5. Cai–Pull/pluck
  6. Lie–Rend/split
  7. Zhou–Elbow (striking or neutralizing)
  8. Kao–Bump (shoulder, hip, knee)

The five attitudes or steppings refer to the five strategic directional movements. They are:

  1. Advance (step forward)–Jin Bu
  2. Retreat (step back)–Tui Bu
  3. Look left–Zuo Gu
  4. Gaze right–You Pan
  5. Firm the center (central equilibrium)–Zhong Ding

Tai Chi Chuan stresses suppleness and elasticity and is opposed to hardness and force. It incorporates philosophy, physiology, psychology, geometry, and the laws of dynamics. It promotes highly raised awareness of self and surroundings, both physical and mental.

More recent history with reliable historical documentation traces the lineage of modern-day Tai Chi Chuan back to the Chen family village, Chenjiagou. This style was founded by the legendary Chen, Bu. The Chen family kept its Tai Chi Chuan a secret for fourteen generations. It was forbidden for anyone to teach it outside the family or to anyone untrustworthy. During the early eighteenth century, a young martial artist named Yang, Lu-Chan with stomach problems studied Tai Chi with Chen, Chang-Xing to help heal his ailment. Studying for several years while working as a servant in the Chen household, Yang deciphered many of the secret fighting aspects of the Chen style Tai Chi Chuan. One night, Yang, Lu-Chan was discovered practicing in secret and Master Chen was so impressed by Yang's enthusiasm and level of fighting skill that he broke a four hundred year tradition by accepting Yang as a student. This relationship lasted 18 years until Yang returned to his hometown to teach where he became known as Yan Wu Di—the man who cannot be defeated.

Yang, Pan-Hou (1837–1892) was the eldest son of Yang, Lu-Chan and the teacher of Wu, Quan-You, who went on to create Wu Style Tai Chi. He developed the advanced, small-circle Tai Chi Chuan form which emphasizes the rotation of the waist, coiling of the body, and the development of Qi and Spirit. The form of Yang, Pan-Hou is the lineage from which the short Sunrise Tai Chi form was derived.

There are five major styles of Tai Chi Chuan, and many lesser-known styles, each named after the Chinese family or teacher that passed it on, in order of antiquity:

  • Chen style
  • Yang style
  • Wu or Wu/Hao style of Wu, Yu-Hsiang
  • Wu style of Wu, Ch'uan—Yu and Wu, Chien—Ch'uan
  • Sun style

Yang Style Most Popular

Today, Yang style is most popular worldwide, followed by Wu, Chen, Sun, and Wu/Hao.
In Tai Chi combat, if one uses hardness to resist force then both sides may be injured to some degree. Such injury, according to Tai Chi theory, is a natural consequence of meeting force with force, known as weighting." Instead, Tai Chi students are taught to meet incoming force with softness and to "stick" to it, "adhering" to the attacking limb or force and following its motion by remaining in subtle physical contact until the incoming force of attack exhausts itself or can be safely lead and redirected. Achieving balance between Yin and Yang is a primary goal of Tai Chi Chuan, in your interactions, and within yourself.

As Lao Tzu said in the Tao Te Ching over 2,500 years ago, "The soft and the pliable will defeat the hard and strong."

Though the major traditional styles of Tai Chi have forms that differ somewhat on the surface, especially depending upon the performer, there are many obvious similarities, especially in the internal principles, which point to their common origin. Unfortunately, a thorough understanding of the internal aspects of Tai Chi, the energetic circulatory system, and the martial applications, have not been passed down by teachers to many students over the last century, and these important subjects are not commonly practiced in Tai Chi society today.

Of course, Tai Chi can be an excellent health regimen for today's busy lifestyle. The slow, repetitive practice of Tai Chi gently increases and opens the internal circulation (breath, body heat, blood, peristalsis, metabolism, Qi energy, etc.). As you progress in the training, this enhancement develops a lasting effect, reversing the physical effects of stress on the body, improving physical health and longevity, and allowing abundant Qi energy to be stored and circulated in the body. This repetition also feeds the body's memory, or reflexes, which is stored in the spine, eventually leading to perfectly-tuned body mechanics, alignment, and posture during the Tai Chi form, and at all other times during the day.

(The above excerpt is from Sunrise Tai Chi: Simplified Tai Chi for Health & Longevity by Ramel Rones with David Silver.)