I have written before about the benefits of breathing through the nose (see June 2020's blog entry).
There's an interesting article about why it is beneficial to exercise using breathing through the nose here:
This is basically how we breathe during Chen style tai chi, too.
Lots of people have heard about Tai Chi but don’t know what the name means. (That’s not a problem - most people don’t know what Yoga, Karate or even Kung Fu mean, either.) Some people may have heard of the Chinese concept of Qi (pronounced “chee”), meaning “breath” or “energy” and think that this has got something to do with it. But this is not correct and these mistakes are partly the result of different ways in which the Chinese language is “translated” into English.
The full name for the health and exercise system/martial art known as Tai Chi in the West is “Taijiquan”. The “quan” part means “fist” and by extension “martial art”. Learning Tai Chi partly involves working with movements which actually have martial applications, even though most enthusiasts these days have far more interest in the health benefits than in anything to do with fighting.
So what about the Tai Chi/Taiji part? Well, Tai means “grand” and Chi/Ji means “ultimate”. Does this suggest that Taijiquan is The Grand, Ultimate Martial Art? Again, that’s a misunderstanding. (Anybody who goes around saying that they practise the greatest, most fantastic, cannot-be-bettered martial art is just asking for a beating and traditionally the most skilful masters were expected to be humble and self-effacing, not boastful.)
In fact, the name Taiji refers to an idea from Chinese philosophy which is represented by the well-known diagram below.
The Chinese see the world as working through an interplay of relationships, some of which are Yang (shown as the white portions of the diagram) and some as Yin (in black). Energy, strength, brightness and warmth would be considered Yang qualities, for example, while their opposites, passivity, softness, darkness and cold would be considered Yin.
Some people see the Tai Chi diagram as representing balance, and this is true, but not in the Western sense of something being perfectly balanced and still, like equal weights on a pair of scales. The Chinese view is that there is a constant interplay between the Yin and the Yang, sometimes with one predominating, sometimes the other. This is shown by the way in which the black and white portions get broader as they seem to rotate around the circle. However, it is never a good idea to go to extremes - so when Yang is at its height, there is still a black dot of Yin at its centre (and vice versa), showing that the next phase of the cycle is about to begin.
What has all this got to do with the health or martial aspects of Tai Chi (aka Taijiquan)? Well, it works in all sorts of ways, but one example might be the apparent softness of much tai chi movement, which, being Yin, is designed to counter the chronic tension (excessive Yang) which we tend to hold in the muscles of our bodies. However, it is not a good idea to be excessively Yin all the time, either, so there are times when your tai chi will get you to work on strength and speed. In fighting terms, you might look for an occasion to yield to the opponent (ie you would become Yin) wait for her/him to become overextended or locked and then suddenly and fiercely respond (ie change your Yin into Yang) in order to defeat him/her.
I'm not sure if this is silly, cute or useful - you decide! (NB: the bears are not quite doing the moves as we do them in our school.)
There are many benefits, both physical and mental, to be gained from tai chi practice. Few people know about its ability to improve your morning routine, however, as Grant Snider reveals here:
Or is that just a reminder that you can practise your tai chi at any time and anywhere?
I am pleased to announce that, following our successful relocation to West Dorset, plans are well advanced to begin classes in the New Year. Detailed information can be found elsewhere on this site. Prospective learners will probably not wish, just yet, to browse all of the back-entries of this blog (though by all means feel free to do so!). At some future date, though, my intention is to edit the best of them together into a student handbook which will be available free to everyone who comes to one of our classes. This will be in addition to the growing range of support material which I have been compiling over the course of the "lockdown years". There is never a crisis which does not present an opportunity...
Numbers are important in taijiquan, but not just because of the fact that it helps to count the postures in a form or indeed to break down moves into segments. Numbers are arguably even more important symbolically.
For example, typically, in tai chi theory it is considered that there are eight manifestations of trained energy: the Chinese word is jin. These are Peng (ward off), Lü (roll back), Ji (squeeze), An (push down), Cai (pluck), Lie (split), Zhou (elbow) and Kao (barge). These eight energies are associated with the eight directions and the eight trigram symbols called the bagua. The bagua consist of trigrams made up of three broken (yin) or unbroken (yang) lines, so the bagua themselves symbolize different combinations of these two qualities. The idea of the bagua is very ancient in Chinese culture, being central to the classic text the Yi Jing, or Book of Changes, a fortune-telling and divination text which could be up to 3000 years old and which later came to act as an important expression of Chinese philosophy.
You can see from the above diagram that there are also five "steps" or ways of moving which are combined with these eight forces: maintaining a central equilibrium, moving forwards, backwards, to the left or to the right. Again, the number five is deeply symbolic in Chinese culture because the Chinese considered the world to be composed of five elements (wood, earth, metal, fire and water) - or, more correctly, considered these elements to be in a constant state of flux, so the idea should really be called the Five Phase theory.
By adding the eight to the five, we arrive at the number thirteen, and tai chi is indeed sometimes called the art of the Thirteen Postures. It is therefore deeply connected to Chinese ideas about the universe and how it functions - ie to Chinese cosmology.
But why only eight energies? As what jin, for example, should we classify a punch or a kick? Both are surely at least as important as the other kinds of strike which are mentioned in the theory (the elbow strike and the body-barge or "shoulder" techniques). And, indeed, why only five directions? Potentially there are dozens, perhaps even an infinite number of fighting angles, so why reduce them only to five?
The answer, it seems to me, lies in the nature of Chinese culture itself and I will say now that what follows will seem controversial, even heretical, to some in the tai chi world. Chinese culture at the time that tai chi was developing was characterized by a strongly dominant Confucian philosophy. This school of thought tended to consider that the past was far superior to the degenerate present and therefore the older something was, the better it must be. Confucianism was also the philosophy of the literate, in a society in which the vast majority of people could not read or write; it therefore placed a huge emphasis on learning and studying ancient, "classic" texts. Finally, it was a rule-bound philosophy, in which adherence to correct ways of thinking and behaving was essential.
It should come as no surprise, then, if tai chi were to align itself with these ways of seeing the world. In order to be comprehensible and perhaps even taken seriously, it would have to present itself as having its roots in ancient Chinese cosmology and patterns of thinking. And it would have to have its own set of classical texts in which such theories could be expounded.
When tai chi emerged from the Chen village in remote and rural Henan province in the nineteenth century, it was taken to Beijing, the capital of the empire, by Yang Luchan (the originator of the Yang style of taijiquan). It is not entirely clear which tai chi classic texts were already extant at this time, but some of the major ones had supposedly been "lost". These were then rediscovered, in what seems to be an astonishing coincidence, by the brother of one of Yang Luchan's students, Wu Yuxiang. This brother discovered the documents in a salt shop in the town where he had been posted as an imperial magistrate. The Wu brothers were both educated men - in other words, they were Confucians.
In a book on a more recent Chen-style text, Mark Chen has suggested that the codifying of tai chi techniques into the eight jin and the notion of the five directions was a gradual process and not originally fundamental to the art. (See an interesting review of this book here.) It was a case of making the techniques fit the established patterns, rather than the having the skills arise from some preordained cosmic truth. It is, in addition, my suspicion that Wu Yuxiang might actually have been responsible for the writing of the salt-shop texts, attributing them to mysterious and, of course, much more ancient authors in an attempt to create a sense of historical depth for a style of martial skill which had in fact only begun to be developed a couple of hundred years previously. This would also explain why I feel that there are aspects of tai chi practice which do not fit very well with the strictures of the theory. Of course, this could be a result of my own woeful ignorance, but I am not alone in this feeling and I have not always had very satisfactory answers when I have asked about such matters. In fact, many in the tai chi world seem to claim that there is great importance to the theory but spend very little time on it when actually teaching the movement and practical skills; in other words, it is something to which, in reality, only a degree of lip-service is paid.
This is not, however, to say that there are no ideas of value in tai chi patterns, diagrams and classic texts; I think there are, and every seriously interested student should have a knowledge of them, not least because they express so much of the poetry of the art. I am just suggesting that we should read them with a critical eye, consider the context in which they were composed and be alive to the notion that they are not holy writ, but endeavours to get a grip on the complex nature and variety of reality, which, like all such human attempts, are probably somewhat partial and flawed.
Here is one of the best articles I think I have ever read which explains why we do what we do (and how) in the early stages of learning taijiquan: "Basic Movement Patterns and Body Coherence", by Sam Moor.. The article is also noteworthy because it is able to explain the basics of tai chi in non-mystical terms. If you go to the Resources page (see the links above), you can also download a copy.
Here is an interesting film of a Chen village practitioner who remained in the village practising the forms of Master Chen Zhaopi, who was responsible for reinvigorating taijiquan in its birthplace after the Second World War. Other well-known teachers left in order to spread Chen tai chi world wide and also studied with other teachers, so this is video gives arguably gives an insight into what the form that Chen Zhaopi taught looked like in its purest form.
I have written before about the effect of tai chi practice on the mind. However, not everybody might immediately associate taijiquan with the development of the actual physical brain, though most, of course, will recognise that there is an element of physical exercise in the tai chi movements which will affect, for example, the muscles, bones and organs of the body. (On the other hand, there are many who are surprised by how physically demanding taijiquan can be, especially if they have only been exposed to images of floaty, extremely slow tai chi performed in costumes of silk and diaphanous chiffon.)
A recent study using MRI scanning technology, Tai Chi Training Evokes Significant Changes in Brain White Matter Network in Older Women, has suggested that tai chi is better than simple walking exercise at improving the structure of the brain, particularly in the way that clusters of cells are able to interconnect and function efficiently. (The actual paper is pretty hard to follow, but the conclusion puts its results in reasonably plain language.) The study suffers from the limitation that the sample groups are quite small and are all older women, while the exact nature of the tai chi training is, moreover, not specified - but a major advantage of it is that it compared groups who had been practising tai chi or walking regularly for quite a long time, more than six years. (Too often, studies only look at short-term tai chi interventions of only a few weeks or months.) It is to be hoped that, as the scientific evidence for the effects of tai chi training grows, similar studies might look at both sexes and a wider cross section of the population, not least to avoid reinforcing the popular and mistaken perception that taijiquan is only suitable for the more senior citizen.
It will come as no surprise to those who have trained in taijiquan for any significant period of time that tai chi can have an impact on the brain. For a start, the practising of tai chi forms (ie sequences of movements) requires quite a feat of memory: some forms can be as long as 108 postures, for example, and take up to 25 minutes to perform. These days, it seems to me, we are not often required to remember large amounts of anything after we leave school; we can too easily just look something up on the internet or make a note on our smartphone. In addition, the sheer concentration required to carry out a sequence of complex movements over a period of time places considerable demands on the tai chi player. This complexity and the attention to detail that is required to perform tai chi well and with full understanding also point to the fact that one does not simply "do" tai chi; one has to learn it, even study it in some depth. Again, this is not always something what we adults need to do once we leave school, and therefore has the potential to reawaken mental faculties that we may not have used for some time.
Furthermore, there is unsurprising evidence that tai chi can have a considerable effect on motor control, an aspect of fitness which is closely linked to the health of the brain. Motor fitness is seen as the counterpart to cardiovascular fitness (ie the strength of your heart and lungs). While cardiovascular exercise can also have a beneficial effect on brain health (because of better blood flow and the production of chemicals which enhance brain growth and performance), better motor fitness will result in improvements in coordination, balance, speed and power.
Many people take up tai chi because they hope it will help them cope with the chronic stress which is endemic in contemporary society. The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi is a little equivocal about the evidence that tai chi can help you deal with stressful situations: "results are mixed on whether tai chi helps improve executive function - that is cognitive skills related to multitasking, managing time effectively, and making decisions or doing a challenging mental task while maintaining one's balance," the authors say. However, it is possible that tai chi training is able to reduce stress levels generally and given that stress hormones such as cortisol are known to be damaging to the brain, this may be another way in which tai chi can contribute to the preservation of mental faculties.
As our population ages, it is natural that we should want to retain our mental capacity as long as possible and avoid what is termed "cognitive decline". It is now well known that physical well-being, social interaction, participation in leisure activities and learning of new skills can have a protective effect in this regard. We also know that the brain is capable of growth and change over the course of the greater part of its life, so the multifaceted nature of tai chi training would seem to offer much that is of benefit both physically and mentally as we grow older. However, I believe that it has much to offer those who are younger as well, even those who are already quite sporty but who might benefit from a deeper awareness of how the body is functioning and how the mind can influence performance, as well as those who could do with being generally sharper and more confident in their ability to keep learning well beyond the end of their formal education.
As ever in the field of the study of tai chi and its effectiveness, more research is needed!
Andrew Howard is a Chen-style Tai Chi Instructor teaching in West Dorset, UK.