The practice of tai chi, like massage, involves the use of the body to transmit force in a smooth, even, powerful and enduring way.
In massage, the body is the vehicle for touching another person with the purpose of creating healing and relaxation.
The ability to be effective is in direct proportion to the practitioner’s physical and mental skills in moving purposefully and with control over their use of force.
In tai chi, these same skills are used to perform the movements of its various forms. Because of this, there are many tai chi health benefits.
Tai Chi’s History
Tai chi was created in the early 1600s by Chen Wang Ting in Chenjiagou, Henan, China.
It is based upon the ancient Taoist principles of yin and yang, the two polar energies associated with masculine and feminine, night and day.
Tai Chi Chuan, the full name, literally means Great Diagram Boxing.
The well-known tai chi symbol of the two polar energies transforming into each other inside a circle is the diagram of the two principles of yin and yang, depicted as two fishes eternally transforming into the other polarity.
Using his knowledge of Chinese martial arts and blending it with Taoist theory and methods of guiding qi (vital energy), dao yin (exercise) and tuna (deep breathing), Chen Wang Ting created the original forms of tai chi.
They were designed to be a way to develop both martial strength and abundant qi flowing through a flexible body. It was a new way of learning and practicing martial arts, since it developed the skills needed for actual fighting without the injuries created by practicing fighting.
Tai chi has sometimes been called shadow boxing, because the movements in the form are done as if there was a partner present.
A popular legend about the founding of tai chi gives the story of a Taoist monk named Zhang San Feng, who was practicing meditation in the remote mountains and observed a bird and snake fighting.
The snake’s flexible, agile movement enabled it to defeat the bird and avoid becoming dinner. This caused the monk to reflect on the value of flexible strength as opposed to rigid strength, and inspired him to create what became known as tai chi, based on the principle of yin and yang.
Tai Chi Health Benefits
Whatever the true origin of tai chi may be, it has become a popular health practice around the world.
Most people have seen TV documentaries that show groups of elderly Chinese people practicing tai chi in the parks of China.
The health benefits for seniors have been well documented in research, and show regular practice of tai chi can prevent falling, increase postural stability and develop a greater ability to recover from and deal with stress.
Practicing tai chi involves learning a sequence of movements, or postures, and then performing them at a relatively slow rate of speed in a relaxed, graceful manner.
The form is repeated in a choreographed sequence several times. The slow rate of speed allows the practitioner to observe the internal movements of the body and develop balance and timing, as well as lower-body strength.
The upper body is relaxed and fluid as it performs the arm movements of the form. These movements are powered by the legs pushing against the ground.
The emphasis on relaxation enhances the flow of qi through the meridians and allows the nervous system to relax and recover from the stresses of daily life.
Attention is focused on the lower abdomen in an area called the dan tian, which corresponds to the physical center of gravity of the body.
The Chinese believe the dan tian is a major source of qi, and most martial arts systems teach their practitioners to focus on this area to improve performance.
There are often supplementary exercises used to further develop the awareness of the dan tian and increase the flow of qi originating there. These are called standing post meditation and silk reeling exercises.
The standing post meditation uses an upright standing posture with the arms held as if they were embracing a telephone pole or a post. The practitioner stands in meditation for a period of time to develop better balance and a lower center of gravity.
The silk reeling exercises use slow, spiral movement and weight shifts that coordinate the arms and legs to help circulate qi through the meridians and soft tissues of the body.
Strength and Sensitivity
Martial practices are trained in a two-person exercise called pushing hands. The purpose of this exercise is to develop sensitivity to the tension in a partner’s body and movements, and to be able to sense her direction of force.
The force is then redirected and the person’s balance is upset, nullifying his attack. This is the central theme of the martial application of tai chi.
Weapons are also used to further cultivate strength and sensitivity. The sword, broadsword, spear and halberd are the most commonly used weapons in tai chi.
Massage therapists can benefit from practicing tai chi because it can help develop many of the attributes needed to be a strong, long-lasting therapist.
Regular practice of the form helps to revitalize a tired body and mind, preventing the burnout phenomena associated with performing multiple massages in a day.
Through tai chi, the shoulders and arms become more relaxed and sensitive to the flow of qi and to the subtle sensations of the client’s body.
The development of lower-body strength improves the body mechanics of the practitioner. Lower-body strength helps one avoid injury due to repetitive movements, such as when the massage therapist applies different techniques or moves around a table or chair.
The increased flow of qi through the arms helps recover flexibility in wrists and arms that have been overworked from doing massage.
The slow, even weight shift that occurs while practicing tai chi can also be very helpful in performing common massage movements that require a slow, even, smooth stroke that flows along the structure of the body.
Tai chi emphasizes the use of the hands, elbows and shoulders as points of force discharge.
The classical writings on tai chi say “the hand is a hand and the whole body is a hand,” which expresses the goal of developing inner strength which can be applied through several different areas of the body.
This is especially helpful in mastering elbow-massage techniques, since this area is often not developed due to a newer practitioner’s fear of being too insensitive to use it as a technique during massage.
The elbow is a focal point for qi energy to move smoothly through and can become as sensitive as the hands to the qi sensation.
The benefits of tai chi can be developed through regular practice of the solo form and further enhanced by learning the two-person push hands exercises.
To learn tai chi, a teacher is required in order to prevent bad habits from becoming incorporated into the basic form.
DVDs do not give feedback and they do not provide hands-on correction. One would not learn massage originally from a DVD, and as such, one should not learn tai chi from a DVD.
Styles of Tai Chi
The best style of tai chi is one you can find a teacher of, that you like and that you actually practice regularly.
What is consistent from one style to another are the basic principles of straight spine; moving from the lower body; slow, relaxed, coordinated movements; and relaxed breathing.
There are three styles of tai chi that are most common: Chen, Yang and Wu style. The Beijing 24 simplified form is a yang-style form that was synthesized at the request of the Chinese government to make it more accessible to the general public.
The time it takes to learn tai chi depends upon the individual, the length of the form being learned and the availability of classes. There are seminars available where a person can spend a weekend learning a short form and then use a DVD as reference, but this is not ideal.
It is best to find a teacher who is primarily a tai chi practitioner rather than a martial artist who has added tai chi classes as an extra moneymaker, as he will most likely not be representing the tai chi principles as completely as a person who is primarily a tai chi practitioner and teacher.
There are forms of varying length and complexity, ranging from 19 moves to 108 moves. Note that a short form repeated often is just as effective as a long form completed once.
The long-term benefits of tai chi are determined by the amount of time one puts into practicing the form.
Once a form has been memorized, it can be practiced in any flat space and takes from three to 20 minutes to perform.
Generally, the practitioner should wear flat shoes and loose clothing for easy mobility. It is suggested to practice the form at least twice a day for perceptible results.
A Habit of Self-Care
Having a routine of doing tai chi in the morning and evening helps establish a good habit of self-care that will carry forward from day to day and month to month.
The Taoist approach is to harmonize the qi with the seasons in order to prevent disease and facilitate a harmonious unfolding of the life experience. Tai chi is a traditional way to do that.
After 45 years of practicing tai chi and 34 years of practicing massage, I can say tai chi has been the most important tool, along with receiving regular massage, for my longevity of practice.
About the Author
Bill Helm is an ordained Taoist priest and director of the Taoist Sanctuary of San Diego, California.