What is Tai Chi?

Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese system of exercise that promotes a range of physical and mental benefits. It originated as a self-defence system, but is now primarily practised as a form of ‘moving meditation’ with the aim of increasing the flow of Qi, or energy, around the body. The slow, rhythmic movements of Tai Chi promote flexibility, bodily control, correct breathing and relaxation.

The concepts of ancient Chinese philosophy gave rise to the discipline of Tai Chi, which has its origins in the 12th century. Many styles and practices evolved as it spread throughout China. Tai Chi has many benefits and is beneficial for the mind as well as the body. Getting started is easy, as it requires no specialist equipment and can be practised by people of all ages and levels of fitness. Although Tai Chi is best learned with the guidance of a teacher, some of the opening postures of ‘the Form’ (an ordered sequence of movements) can be practised at home and are a good introduction to the art.


Tai Chi is one of the ‘soft’ martial arts – its full name, Tai Chi Chuan, means ‘fist of the supreme ultimate’. Tai Chi is a slow-moving, meditative art. Although it can be used solely as a form of physical exercise, Tai Chi also incorporates very sophisticated fighting techniques. However, these can only be employed effectively at an advanced level of study.

Tai Chi is firmly rooted in the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism. Taoist philosophers observed the importance of learning from animals, such as the tiger, horse or dragon, and they imitated the movements of these creatures. Like other Eastern disciplines, Tai Chi focuses on the flow of Qi and the balance of the relative qualities of Yin and Yang in the body.


Legend has it that the martial art of Tai Chi was developed in the early part of the 12th century by a Taoist called Chang San-Feng who had studied the ‘hard’ style of martial arts, as well as Buddhism and Taoism, at the Shaolin Temples in the Henan and Fujian provinces of China. He was reputed to have had a vivid dream in which a crane made swooping attacks on a snake. And the snake eluded the crane with loose evasive movements. Chang San-Feng saw this interplay in terms of Yin and Yang – the crane making very Yang pecking movements with its beak, and the snake making very Yin slippery and smooth movements. Neither creature had a definite advantage, and he interpreted this to be a result of the balance of Yin and Yang. Having already trained in the hard style of martial arts, Chang San-Feng developed the softer martial art of Tai Chi to provide balance and a more harmonious Yin-Yang equilibrium.

Styles and practices

Tai Chi spread rapidly through China in the 19th century with the evolution of five major styles, created by family groups in different areas of China. These major styles – Chen, Yang, Wu, Sun and Hao – all share basic similarities in terms of movement, general principles and their main practices. Chen, the oldest style of Tai Chi, aimed to develop fighting skills and fluid power; the Yang style took the basis of the Chen style and added the elements of exercise and health, and spiritual development. It incorporates slow, rhythmic and flowing movements, and is the most popular style studied in both China and the West. The Wu,

Sun and Hao styles also incorporate elements that are related to physical health and spiritual development.

There are three main practices in Tai Chi: solo practices, partner practices and the use of weapons. The solo practice, known as ‘the Form’, is a sequence of postures or steps that link up to make one continuous flowing movement. (Each posture is usually a small series of linked moves.) A Long Form can take more than 30 minutes to complete; a modified version, or Short Form, can be performed in about 10 minutes. The number of postures included in a Form may vary from 24 to 108, depending on the particular style of Tai Chi.

Although Tai Chi is usually a solitary practice, there are exercises that can be performed with a partner, such as the Pushing Hands exercise. Partner exercises concentrate on harmonizing the energy flow between two people.

The use of weapons in Tai Chi is relatively rare today, although spear and broadsword forms are still taught, especially in the Wu style of Tai Chi. Weapon forms are not usually practised until the student has more than one year’s experience of Tai Chi and is able to clearly feel the movement of Qi around the body. The weapon should become an extension of the individual’s Qi; it has mystical properties and should be treated with respect.