Sunday, March 23, 2014

Trying to understand taichi

A reader made a comment in my previous post about taichi/taiji chuan, asking how much of it is legit. I have to say I know extremely little about taichi to be qualified to answer fully. Historically, it is one of the Chinese martial arts styles. With the wish to spread the art to more people, some of the lineages started downplaying the martial arts aspects and started emphasizing developing the "chi" and the health aspects, and now the art is known as an activity for seniors and for non-fit people, or at least that was how I saw taichi before I started it :)

So the lineages of taichi are much easier to trace than yoga, since yoga was developed by a lot of lone swamis and cave yogis (the most systematized lineage would be from Sri. T. Krishnamacharya). Taichi started with the chen family, and then developed into several main styles: Chen style, Yang style, Wu (Hao) style, Wu style, Sun style, and combo styles. Some styles emphasized the martial arts (eg. Chen), some became more focused on the meditative and health aspects (eg. Wu style).

I thought it would be really complicated to research taichi, but I got what I was looking for after only a bit of googling. It's interesting that after typing in "Tai chi is" I get an autocomplete of "tai chi is bullshit". Here's an interview with a martial arts masters, who studied taiji chuan along with a ton of other Chinese martial art styles. From a martial arts aspect, I think studying taiji helps, but one needs to practice it a ton and drill the principles as well as the actual movements into one's body until one can perform those martial arts techniques with minimal thinking.

From a health aspect, what I get so far (from very few classes, mind you, so don't take my word as an expert's explanation) is that this long form of movements works many parts of the body, emphasizes the grounding of the body weight and changing of balance/center of gravity, moves the body in a way that maximizes chi flow (I still don't know exactly what chi is but I'm going to guess it has something to do with minimizing blockage in the body. My guess is that the forms place the body parts in ergonomic angles to optimize smooth flowing of air into the lungs, as well as for blood, lymphatic and other fluids to circulate more comprehensively, and perhaps even improve the nerve signaling in some way).

Here's one explanation of taichi, where the teacher found a focus on a muscle in the inner thigh which seems to trigger the whole body. Here's a list of 10 essentials of taiji chuan, which to me sounds like learning to relax, find your center of gravity, connect your upper and lower body to allow the delivery of synchronized signals from your pelvic region (power center) to the rest of the body to maximize power. I think most people move their bodies in an inefficient way. We are tense in the neck and shoulder region; we carry heavy stuff using our arms + lower back too much and not enough legs, pelvis, and the whole back. If some of our muscles are already partially contracted, it probably traps some waste materials from the cells, dead tissues, stagnant blood flow, etc. If we can learn to fully relax and then contract our muscles, we can improve fluid and cellular renewal in our bodies and also to improve muscle power generation. There are few other activities that emphasize so much on relaxation.

By comparison, yoga achieves relaxation through holding a pose for a relatively long period of time (5-20 breaths). When you contract your muscles for that long (most yang yoga poses require isotonic contraction of muscles), once you come out of the pose, your muscles inevitably relax, because they are exhausted :) Same goal achieved through different means.

There's undoubtedly more to taichi than what I've mentioned in this post. Please do not leave me angry comments saying how I explained it all wrong and how the chi is more than just bodily fluids. We yogis have a word for chi too -- it's called prana in Sanskrit. Yoga practice also has the purpose of increasing prana and improve its flow in the body. The purpose of this post is to try to demystify taichi. Whether or not the elusive "chi" exists, if the body is properly grounded, the joints and organs are in non-compromising positions, and the muscles relaxed (or not more tense than needed to hold the body upright), this is generally good for the body because it reduces unnecessary tension and improves circulation. For me, I just think the moves look cool and wanted to learn them. If you check out the wikipedia pages for the different taichi styles, you'll see the ages of various taichi masters. You'll notice that many of them didn't live that long (there are people who barely exercised and have lived longer). So I would say that taichi isn't something totally mystical. It does have its benefits (relaxation feels good). You should learn it because you just want to learn it, not because it gives you magical powers or will add 10 years to your life.

I sound like a horrible spokesperson. Nobody will ever ask me to sell anything for them now, LOL.


  1. It is well known that the armed forces have used the stress position to interrogate prisoners the idea is to inflict pain without leaving any damage or visible marks. In Taichi training the some of the same principles are applied.

    1. Really? I didn't know that. Our teacher did show us the intended purpose of a lot of the seemingly harmless moves though, so I can see the martial arts (attack and defense) aspects of taichi.