By Adityamadhav83 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Tai Chi began as a fully-functional martial art though nowadays it is more frequently practised as a form of health-related exercise. So why is Tai Chi sometimes described as being a type of "moving meditation"?
In my view, meditation, properly considered, is a form of spiritual practice normally connected to one of the major religious traditions. It tends to involve intense mental training or a profound contemplation of the divine. This is not what we practise when we are doing Tai Chi. (However, for a slightly different view of this topic, see here.)
In fact, in the early stages of learning any aspect of tai chi (whether you are a beginner or more advanced), it can seem that there is a good deal of mental work involved and sometimes it can seem anything but calming! Techniques have to be analysed and sequences of moves remembered, all of which present quite a cognitive challenge and give the brain a pretty good workout - which, of course, is itself of great benefit.
However, get beyond this stage, to the point where a particular move, sequence or technique has been mastered (even to a partial degree), and it is possible to enter into a mindful state of awareness which is deeply satisfying and restorative. It is possible simply to be present in the moment with your body and the way that it is moving - you come to embody the idea of stillness in movement. You do not need to think about anything in particular, you simply are the Tai Chi that you are practising.
This feeling of being "in the zone" with your Tai Chi seems similar to the idea of "flow" proposed by the psychologist who has the most apparently unpronouncable name for English speakers: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (approximately "Me-high Cheek-sent-me-high"). You can find quite a good explanation of his concept here.
Getting to this point does, it has to be said, take some work and time. The rewards, however, are considerable. You don't need to turn out for a Tai Chi class or push yourself out (hopefully into a suitably tranquil and pleasant place) to do some practice in order to relax: you only need to crash on the sofa with your favourite music and a glass of whatever takes your fancy. What Tai Chi can help you work towards, however, is a sense of mental centredness and open awareness in the midst of doing something complex which, once experienced, can be cultivated on other occasions in life as well.
Try not to be put off, then, if at the start of your training learning Tai Chi can seem more demanding than you thought, even frustrating at times. These are obstacles that simply have to be gently and persistently worked through. It is a good idea, though, to make sure that your practice is balanced, so that you spend some time challenging yourself with learning new skills or refining what you find difficult - but also give some time to enjoying what you have learnt pretty well. And sometimes it is can be fun just to give up, do an exercise or a form any old how, not caring whether you get it right or not. Tai Chi is not a religion and there is no rule that says you have to be puritanical about it!
Andrew Howard is a Chen-style Tai Chi Instructor teaching in West Dorset, UK.