Tai Chi Chuan : A Holistic Basic Perspective
By : Zulkipli b Hj Ismail
Tai Chi Chuan (taichi) is an art that is frequently misunderstood by society, including among the Chinese community itself. What more to say among the non-Chinese community.
The most popular view is that taichi is an exercise regime for old people. Even though this view is not wrong per se, it is only one of the benefits and functions of taichi, the most basic function.
In this article I will try to give an overview of the full range of benefits through the practice of taichi, depending of course on the individual’s level of desire and commitment.
This article is based on my experience as a practitioner of Tai Chi Huang, a traditional taichi style that encompasses a comprehensive range of benefits, from fitness to self defense, for more than 12 years.
Exercise Regimen Providing Opportunity For All
At its most basic, with its slow and soft movements, taichi is an exercise regimen that is suitable for all walks of life, especially those with limited range of physical movement like the elderly.
The benefits of taichi can immediately be seen from this basic aspect, where taichi gives “hope” and opportunity for the elderly and those with limited physical movement to continue being active, at least mitigating even if not completely curing, the effects of ageing and chronic physical limitations.
A lot of people practice taichi for this purpose, especially for the elderly who have no alternatives to maintain a bit of fitness and mobility.
Exercise Regimen To Strengthen The Base
Strength and fitness of the legs is the base for comprehensive fitness. This is why military and police basic training involves a lot of running and leg work. In this aspect taichi is an exercise regime that focus on the development of leg strength and eventually more solid and stable footing.
Anybody who has seen a taichi form or routine being performed will definitely notice that throughout the form the legs are kept slightly bent, never straight. This means that the leg muscles, especially the main thigh muscles, are directly bearing the weight of the body at all times without much assistance from the bone structure, at least initially. When combined with the transfer of weight from one leg to another in a slow and controlled manner, it is really challenging and will progressively develop the leg strength, stability and solidity of footing.
In my experience learning and teaching, new taichi practitioners, irrespective of age, will feel “heat” in the leg muscles especially in the thighs and to a certain extent groin area, even those who practiced other martial arts. Normally this sensation will surprised them, especially the young ones who feel that they are still strong enough, because they find it hard to believe such slow and soft movements can bring about such a demanding challenge to the legs.
Exercise Regimen To Strengthen The Base Without Impact
Exercises like jogging and aerobics, although no doubt good for leg strength and cardio-vascular fitness, involves a lot of impact. Every time a foot touches the ground will create an impact that will jolt the body including the joints and internal organs, increasing the wear and tear. Not everybody can withstand this kind of impact and if not handled correctly will result in injuries (including internal injuries) and/or the person will stop doing the exercises because of discomfort.
Related to this, generally the body’s ability to recuperate will decline with age, so the impact as mentioned above will have more adverse effect as we aged compared to when we were still young. Thus it is not easy to maintain this kind of activities until old age.
On the other hand, the practice of taichi will strengthen the legs and make our footing more stable without impact or jolting on the body, joints and organs. Therefore taichi is safe to be practiced by all age groups, thus maintaining fitness and leg conditioning, because it does not depend on a body that can sustain impact or good recuperative rate.
Exercise Regimen To Maintain Mobility
As the body gets older, normally the things that deteriorate fast is mobility especially at the joints. In the context of movement, the main joints are the hips, waist and spine especially lower spine/back. If not regularly exercised through their full range of motion, these areas will gradually become stiff and make it difficult to move to the extent of potentially leading to injuries.
For example, lack of mobility in the hip joints area will make it difficult to take proper and controlled steps. Any slight slip of the footing can cause a fall and result in injury, and is the most common cause of injury in the elderly.
Taichi focus a lot on moving from the hips, waist and lower back areas. Actually most martial arts also focus their movements and derive power from these areas, but the difference is that in taichi the movements are done softly and as such can be practiced continuously, that will maintain mobility, until old age.
In Tai Chi Huang, there are 5 preparatory exercises, normally done before doing the form proper. I always recommend to new students not to neglect practicing these prep exercises, even if they are unable to do the proper form. These prep exercises actually will help a lot in maintaining the flexibility and mobility of the hips, waist and lower back areas, as well as promoting relaxation.
Leg strength and stable footing when combined with this flexibility will maintain the fitness and mobility of the practitioner regardless of age.
Exercise Regimen for Stress Management
Stress leads to tense muscles which then leads to fatigue, body aches and headache as well as contribute to ailments such as high blood pressure and migraine.
The practice of taichi with proper execution of 3 main principles of “sung”, natural deep breathing and “yi” will contribute a great deal to stress management.
Focusing on “sung” (relaxation) will make the muscles relaxed. Blood flows better when muscles are relaxed thus more efficient in supplying oxygen to the muscles and organs.
Natural deep breathing practiced with the movements will have a positive effect in increasing the efficiency of the lungs to supply oxygen to and take away waste products from the bloodstream system.
Thus the combination of “sung” and natural deep breathing will have a positive effect in the sense of supplying oxygen and disposing of toxins more efficiently which will rejuvenate the body.
Apart from that, concentration on “yi” (intention), where every movement is initiated by the intention in the mind, will provide a new focus to the mind, away from the worries, which will relax and refresh it.
When performed properly, the taichi practitioner will feel more at ease physically and mentally after going through the form.
In my teaching experience, there are practitioners who stated that when they can’t sleep they perform the 5 preparatory exercises for 10-15 minutes, after which they feel more relaxed and able to sleep well.
Exercise Regimen To Teach Moving From The Center
I was already an active black belt in another martial art (Japanese) when I started taichi. That martial art in principle require relaxed movements and moving from the center but at that time there was no local master of the art who can teach at that level, thus I still find myself using my muscles mostly. Thus my primary purpose in seeking taichi was to “soften” myself and learn to move from the center for my that martial art. In this I was not disappointed.
For martial artists especially, and sportsmen in general, taichi teaches you to relax and move from the center, moving the arms in tandem with the center and not by themselves, which almost all martial arts and sports advocate for more power. Taichi does not (initially) teaches you techniques but instead train you to move correctly, move from the center, which you can then apply to almost any martial arts or sports.
In my teaching experience, I have students who are golfers stated that they can make longer drives by using the principles or relaxing and moving from the center, basic principles which I emphasis even from the 5 prep exercises.
Exercise Regimen To Stimulate The Internal Energy Flow (“Chi”)
At the next level, taichi is an exercise regime that stimulates the flow of natural internal energy called “chi”. The difference between taichi as a physical exercise and as a chi stimulator is in the focus of mental intention (yi). By applying yi the internal energy is channeled to propel the physical movements, not muscular force.
Unlike physical strength which decreases with age, chi becomes “stronger” with continuous taichi practice regardless of age. The decline in physical strength is “compensated” by the increase in flow of chi, maintaining the health and fitness of the practitioner. It is not surprising to see many elderly taichi practitioners still able to continue this exercise into their 60s and 70s.
A phenomenon which I notice is that the practitioners with good chi flow mostly have a younger complexion than their real age. I can say that chi flow is indeed a natural “elixir of youth”.
Self Defense System That Refuse To Resist
On another level, taichi is a self defense system that is unique and effective.
One of the uniqueness of taichi as a self defense system is its refusal to resist in terms of meeting force with force. This is based on the philosophy that a person’s strength has its limit, and when this limit is reached the person will lose. Instead, taichi take the attitude of “surrendering” in the sense of following the opponents force while redirecting it to a “harmless” direction.
An analogy that is often used is like a big boulder is about to fall on you, you will be crushed if you try to stop it head on (taken to mean as blocking an opponent’s strength), but the chances of being safe will increase if you redirect and slightly change the direction of fall of the boulder (taken to mean as using circular motions to follow and redirect the opponent’s strength).
Another analogy is the difference between a hard concrete slab and rattan (rotan). Rattan is a material which is light and flexible but is extraordinarily “strong”, difficult to break or destroy, compare with a cement slab which is hard but easier to break. (Ponder this : why is it that when martial artists do breaking demo or training, they use bricks, cement slabs or wood, but never rattan?). Thus the strength that the taichi practitioner tries to emulate and obtain is like the rattan, light and flexible but very difficult to destroy.
The peak of taichi as a self defense system is the ability to sense, follow and redirect an opponent’s force. Through the sense of touch, the taichi expert can sense the opponent’s balance, direction and magnitude of force and “counterattack” without being realised by the opponent.
This ability is honed through the diligent partner practice of “tsui sao” (push hand). In my early experience of practicing tsui sao, I was easily unbalanced by my instructor even when physical size and brawn is in my favour. I can imagine in that unbalanced state if the instructor follow up with strikes there is not much I can do to retaliate.
It is important to note that to reach this ability is not easy, needing perseverance and sincerity in seeking knowledge, especially in applying the basic principles of “yi”, “sung” and “jing”. But once this ability is achieved you would have obtained something precious which can be applicable for your whole life because it does not depend on physical strength.
Exercise System To Develop Power Beyond The Physical Size
Chi flow also generates power exceeding what is seemingly possible based on the physical size, when applying chi flow as an internal energy (“jing” atau “peng jing”) concentrated in the area 1-2 inches below the navel (“dan tien”). The unique and difficult part to obtain this power is that the whole upper body, especially the hands, shoulders and chest must be relaxed without any muscular tension or exertion, all force focused on the dan tien. In the early stages this is very difficult to do as we are so used to the concept that power comes from the use of muscular strength in the hands, shoulders and chest muscles.
In my experience as a taichi practitioner, this is not an impossibility as I have personally experienced being pushed and pushing while in sung state applying peng jing.
“Iron Shirt” System
Apart from the abnormal power mentioned above, for a few gifted practitioners, chi especially when combined with breathing practice (“chi kung”), also gives the ability to absorb hits and strikes on the body. In some circles this is also called “iron shirt”.
Again it is imperative to note that to achieve this level of chi flow is not easy and requires high level of commitment and perseverance and, as mentioned above, a bit of gift.
The most important consideration from a Muslim practitioner perspective is that all the above are achievable naturally, through serious, committed and continuous training and study, without any doubtful mantras or mystical ceremonies. This is where our patience, perseverance and sincerity is tested because, like in other areas of life, something valuable is not easy to get.
2 main critics that modern sports science made towards taichi are:
i Lack or no cardio-vascular effect (i.e does not raise the heart and breathing rate)
ii Lack of resistance exercise to maintain tone or strength of the muscles.
These 2 things are considered as important fitness components based on scientific findings.
As someone who has undergone training as a “modern” fitness instructor, I have to admit there are some truth in the criticisms, but we have to understand taichi in the context of the time that it was formulated.
In its formative years several thousand years ago, daily life of the people involved hard physical labour as farmers, hunters etc. Even those who were not farmers still live a life full of motion and physical work like walking and lifting things. Thus what is now known as components of fitness by modern sports science are just part and parcel of daily life back then. Taichi can therefore be looked upon as a complement to this hard life.
But in this modern times we have to admit that most of us go through daily life without using much demand on physical fitness, in other words most of us are “pen pushers”. Thus I would agree that the taichi practitioners, especially the younger ones, do some cross-training in some other exercise forms like jogging, aerobics and calisthenics/weight training to complete our exercise regimen.
I myself still do jogging, aerobics and senaman silat regularly to round off my exercise regimen and complement taichi which I consider as my main activity.