Tai Chi, without the woo, is a great way to reduce stress and improve flexibility and balance
Tai chi is a soft-style of kung fu (or Chinese martial art) in the Wutang family of styles — which includes Pa kua and Hsing I — and is practiced widely today in the West as a form of exercise or (less frequently) as defensive (combat) training. Unfortunately, it is also often associated with “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), spirituality, and other supernatural beliefs and magical thinking. In this article, I will try to separate the wheat from the chaff and critically review the practice and mythology based on my own research and experience practicing the art for almost thirty years — formally for three or four years under the instruction of a black belt student of Lee Kwong Ming.
Origins of tai chi
“Though the media often portrays Tai Chi as an ‘ancient Chinese art,’ it is in reality a profoundly modern martial art, developed during the Chinese martial renaissance of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Put simply, there is nothing ancient about Tai Chi. Its postures, movements, and theories are products of a distinctly modern ethos: economy of movement, efficiency of application, and sophistication within seemingly simple techniques.” - Lee Kwong Ming
Contrary to the mythology popular among some practitioners, tai chi was not created by a legendary Taoist monk (Zhang Sanfeng) in the 12th century. Its eighteenth and nineteenth century roots can be traced back to the Chen village in central China. Wu-style, the style I practice, dates to the mid-to-late nineteenth century and was only introduced to the general public in 1920 in Beijing. Yang-style, purported to be the most popular and widely practiced form today, traces its origins to the early nineteenth century when it was taught to the Imperial Guards responsible for protecting the Chinese emperor and imperial palace.
Major influences and written tradition
Tai chi is believed to be influenced by Taoism (indigenous to China) whereas the Shaolin, or hard-styles, which emphasize fast, explosive movements and a focus on physical strength, is influenced by Buddhism (indigenous to India but imported to China prior to the Common Era). The primary written tradition associated with tai chi is found in the Tai Chi Chuan Classics: If you never hear any of these ideas from your tai chi instructor then you’re probably doing it wrong.
Tai chi as martial art
As its origins suggest tai chi is first and foremost a martial art — a codified system and tradition of combat practices. Tai chi practitioners attempt to counter force by yielding (instead of opposing), sticking (instead of repelling), and deflecting an opponent with the minimal amount of force required to neutralize the threat. They practice calmness, relaxation, and deep breathing, and their forms are typically characterized by slow and continuous body movements. As with other styles of kung fu, tai chi — when taught as a martial art — may also include two-person routines and utilize a variety of weapons including swords, spears, hooks, and poles.
However, most people today practice tai chi as exercise or relaxation — either for the perceived or real health benefits — instead of for its combat applications. Even martial arts masters and students trained in both soft and hard-styles of kung fu will often rely on their hard-style techniques in real combat situations given the close proximity of tai chi combat and an unwillingness — when push comes to shove — to “invest in loss” (regardless of what that dictum really means).
Health and wellness benefits
The health benefits of tai chi are often wildly exaggerated — particularly by those selling product. For example, one local instructor in my area claims it can control Tourette’s Syndrome (without medications), enhance the immune system, and regulate your diabetes! Another boasts that philosophically it is “believed to help develop human potential, allow access to higher realms of awareness, and awaken ones ‘true nature.’” The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, known for its success in polishing the turd of CAM, is more cautious:
“Practicing tai chi may help to improve balance and stability in older people and in those with Parkinson’s disease, reduce back pain and pain from knee osteoarthritis, and improve quality of life in people with heart disease, cancer, and other chronic illnesses. Tai chi and qi gong may ease fibromyalgia pain and promote general quality of life. Qi gong may reduce chronic neck pain, but study results are mixed. Tai chi also may improve reasoning ability in older people.”
However, the medical literature appears to be mixed. For example, one comprehensive review of the medical literature in 2010 suggested that medical “research has demonstrated consistent, significant results for a number of health benefits” with some limitations:
“This review has identified numerous outcomes with varying levels of evidence for the efficacy for Qigong and Tai Chi, including bone health, cardiopulmonary fitness and related biomarkers, physical function, falls prevention and balance, general quality of life and patient reported outcomes, immunity, and psychological factors such as anxiety, depression and self-efficacy.”
However, an 2001 overview of systematic reviews of qigong — a practice very similar to tai chi which was included in the 2010 review just mentioned — concluded that the “effectiveness of qigong is based mostly on poor quality research. Therefore, it would be unwise to draw firm conclusions at this stage.” And an Australian government review of natural products covered by private health insurance “concluded [in 2015] that there was low-quality evidence to suggest that tai chi may have some beneficial health effects compared to control for some conditions. However, owing to the dearth of good data, the magnitude of any benefit was not clear.”
So why do Mayo Clinic staff and other “experts” recommend tai chi? Its efficacy in the treatment of fibromyalgia (a disorder of unknown etiology characterized by widespread pain, abnormal pain processing, sleep disturbance, fatigue and often psychological distress) likely makes for an instructive case study in the health benefits of tai chi more generally:
“Stripped to its essence and particularly stripped of its woo elements about qi, all tai chi is is exercise and relaxation, and we already know that exercise can be useful for fibromyalgia! The only question is what type, intensity, and regimen does the most good, and this study answers that question to the extent that it tells us that an exercise regimen resembling tai chi seems to work pretty well.” - David Gorski
In other words, tai chi is exercise, and exercise is helpful in many situations. The same applies to yoga, biking, jogging, physical therapy, and a wide range of other activities. In fact, if all you do is tai chi (which is not usually aerobic) then you might want to consider adding a brisk walk or take up jogging or biking (or an external kung fu style) for additional cardiopulmonary benefits.
The woo of tai chi
Unfortunately tai chi is often associated with various forms of pseudoscience and magical thinking. Some of the more common examples include:
- Chi, internal energy, or energy cultivation.
•Semen retention — the “magic in your man-juice” (dhat, coitus reservatus).
•Acupressure, acupuncture, and energy meridians.
•Aromatherapy (essential oils).
•Traditional Chinese medicine.
•Vitamins, minerals, and herbs.
•Divination (I Ching).
Tai chi is a martial art that is difficult (for non-experts) to apply in combat, but it is also a generally safe and effective form of (non-aerobic) exercise and relaxation with health benefits similar to other forms of mental and physical activity. Stripped of the woo, it can also be a lot of fun! If you’re interesting in learning tai chi, I recommend finding a good teacher who reflects the classics in their instruction and is woo-free — or at least doesn’t push their woo on you! Sorry, pun intended…push hands is lots of fun — and it might actually work…for experts!