Tai Chi is very beneficial to your health, particularly in today's often stressful society. It is practiced for various reasons, for the numerous health benefits, such as greater relaxation, improved immune system, increased suppleness and flexibility, to help muscular problems, to increase energy, the meditative aspects and also for martial art applications.
Tai Chi originated over 500 years ago in Chen Village, Hunan province, China. For a long time it was kept secret and not practiced outside the village, until several generations back, when it was brought more out into the open. The current 19th generation head of the Chen family is grandmaster Chen Xiaowang.
There are several different styles of Tai Chi, Chen the original style, from which came Yang, then Wu, Sun and a few derivatives of these styles, each with their own forms, but following the same basic principles.
Chi Kung is believed to be even older than Tai Chi, at least 1,000 years old and generally means the cultivation of energy.
Tai Chi is based on the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), with the theory of yin and yang and the concept of 12 main meridians or pathways, corresponding to the internal organs running through the body. According to TCM the balance in these meridians is intrinsically linked to our overall health and if the Chi, or internal energy, is interrupted then this is detrimental to our health.
Tai Chi and Chi Kung help to stimulate and balance the flow of Chi. By performing the exercises and the movements of the form, with co-ordinated, relaxed natural breathing and a focussed mind (intent), this helps to rebalance our internal energy.
This is not a concept that we are used to in the western world and is often described as internal energy or our life force. Sensations of warmth or tingling are signs, when practicing, that we are becoming more relaxed and our posture is improving, allowing the Chi to flow more naturally.
This area around the lower abdomen and about two to three finger widths below the navel, is very important in Tai Chi. It is where our Chi or internal energy is stored and is our centre of gravity from which movements start, with the arms following.
This is the basis for learning to allow the body to become less stiff and more relaxed. It helps us to become aware of where there is stiffness and tension and to learn to soften and relax. When we are practicing this exercise we should try to empty the mind and body and focus inside on deeper relaxed breathing. It also helps to develop whole body movement, strength and internal power.
These movements are said to form a bridge between doing the static standing postures and the movements of the form. They help to relax and soften the body and to learn to move the body from the centre (dantien), as one. We learn to shift the weight form one side to the other and the spiralling (or twining) movements help the circulation, joint mobility, digestion and functioning of internal organs.
Beginners need to spend a lot of time just thinking about being and feeling relaxed. For a lot of people bad postural habits have, over time, resulted in muscular tension being held in the body (typically neck, shoulders and back). You need to unlearn these and develop good postural habits, and be aware of this, not only when practicing your Tai Chi, but also in your everyday life (e.g. sitting, driving, walking).
Students need to learn how to become centred and use their mind to help their bodies become more relaxed. It is only by regular practice of the slow, graceful movements, that we develop this awareness of how to soften our muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints. As this happens our movements gradually become more fluid.
Chen style Tai Chi is a highly developed exercise system for harmonizing the external body with internal energy. Its external movements stretch and strengthen the muscles, tendons and ligaments, while the unique spiralling and twining movements massage the internal organs as well as circulating Chi energy throughout the body.
The health benefits of both Tai Chi and Chi Kung are becoming more widely acknowledged. Research by Western scientists has documented numerous health benefits enjoyed by people regularly engaging in Tai Chi, such as reduced blood pressure, increased bone density, improved functioning of the immune system, increased leg strength and a lower incidence of falls among the elderly. It provides a much needed means to quieten the mind and relax the body. Practicing Chen style Tai Chi encourages deep, regulated, natural breathing and a calm mind.
After a period of regular committed practice, you should start to see an improvement in your sense of physical, emotional and mental well-being.