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The beautiful art of Tai Chi Chuan

When people that are not familiar with Tai Chi Chuan (or Tai Ji Quan) hear about it, they usually ask what it looks like. The answer is easy. If you have ever seen any documentary about China, is for sure that you’ll remember Chinese people practicing at dawn in the parks a kind of very slow dance, with movements that look like fighting with something invisible. This is Tai Chi Chuan, one of the few soft or internal martial arts, together with Hsing Yi Chuan & Pa Kua Chang.

In the name Tai Chi Chuan, Chuan means fist implying a martial art. The term Tai Chi is a very basic Chinese concept from the philosophy of Tao, which is also represented in the well known black and white circular diagram which most people accidentally (and unfortunately) call Yin-Yang. In general and in few words, Tai Chi as a concept symbolizes that when something is coming to its peak, it will generate a new movement towards its opposite. So the whole name of Tai Chi Chuan means the martial art that is based on the concept of Tai Chi.

As the name "soft" or "internal" implies, Tai Chi Chuan is based on a different concept than the hard or external martial arts like Kung Fu, Tae Kwon Do, Judo or Karate. The difference relies on the concept of energy around us known in Chinese as Chi, which someone here tries to control and use in order to be martial effective, in contrast with the outer martial arts which are based on muscle’s, or at their best, in tendons’ strength. To use Chi for any purpose but especially for martial applications is something that needs to be practiced diligently and in a long term. This usually takes many, many years, under able instructors. As the basic movements’ name describes, is as you are trying to "grasp the sparrow’s tail".

So, if it is so hard to really use Tai Chi Chuan as a martial application, then why Tai Chi (as it is called in brief) is becoming so popular? The answer is for many reasons but not for its martial effectiveness, although the martial abilities of great Tai Chi masters would leave anyone convinced about its effectiveness. Tai Chi is most practiced as an alternative form of exercise. Its advantages in comparison with other methods is that through its slow movements you can exercise without making any further damage to bones and joints, especially knees, no matter how old are you or whatever physical problem you might have. Also for the same reason you don’t strain other bodily systems, like the respiratory or the circulatory system, while you still exercise them through gentle movements and deep breathing.

A second reason that people love to practice Tai Chi, is relaxation. In a hectic world, relaxation is basic for health, physically and mentally, but it’s also so hard to find it. Through Tai Chi’s slow and deep breathing while in motion, the body returns to a more natural state of being. Then it’s easier for the body to carry this information with it and function in a more effective way through its daily activities.

When you move in Tai Chi, all the different parts move in cohesion. For example, the hands move because the body moves, not independently, and all this in harmony with the breath. This is also another great thing that somebody learns in Tai Chi, how to move with integrity. Then, this integrity is not only expressed on a person’s physical movements but it is also reflected on the emotional and mental levels.

In learning to feel Chi it doesn’t matter how much you feel it or in which way. What matters is that it is happening. As Chi is what animates our body, is of course also what keeps us alive. Any blockages of Chi circulation through the bodily systems or the organs, is sooner or later manifested as a dis-ease. Restoring a strong flow of Chi or Vital Energy in our bodies is a healing process, or otherwise like doing acupuncture without the needles.

To be able even to feel Chi, is by itself a kind of meditation. This is another reason people like to practice Tai Chi. Although meditation may sound a strange thing to some, it is nothing more than staying as relaxed and calm as you can and try to feel subtle levels of reality, beyond the senses’ realm.

In conclusion, in practicing Tai Chi you are unavoidably concerned with the physical level but not only with it. You start to pay more and more attention to subtle things as you start to observe your emotional, mental and spiritual levels. You care not only to live a healthy but also a happy life, being in harmony with yourself and with anything else around you. Then other terms also start to play important part in your life, like balance, integrity, rooting and compassion. This is what Tai Chi is about in a deeper level, which in other terms is called spiritual cultivation.

Leonidas Papadopoulos