Q. What are the health benefits of learning Tai Chi?
A. An early Tai Chi master once wrote that the ultimate purpose of learning Tai Chi was to live forever in the spring season of your life. Tai Chi is not just for longevity, but also for robustness, even at an old age. The health benefits of Classical Tai Chi may be viewed from several different angles and at different levels, all of which tie in strongly with the practice of Internal Discipline.
When examining the movements of very young children, we see that their movements of arms and legs often originate from their torso, their movements are relaxed and without tension. As we grow older our movements tend to concentrate on our arms, legs and shoulders and less on our torso: also, tension and stiffness start to creep into our movements. Gradually, we loose touch with the torso. We can only do simple movements such as the popular ab exercises but cannot perform the subtle, intricate, and powerful movements that the torso inherently is capable of. We talk about the dexterity of hands or feet, not knowing that the torso can be developed to have just as much dexterity, but think of the torso as a dull part of the body.
Eventually, stagnation in the torso sets in. We often see the elderly walking with a shuffle—the walking movement no longer extends into the torso. With all the major organs and complex circulatory system residing in the torso, it's easy to understand the adverse effect of inaction and stagnation of the torso on the health of the body. One may assert that the onset of internal rigor mortis actually precedes death!
Classical Tai Chi may be considered as a means to return to childhood. The Internal Discipline of the Form movements first tunes the nervous system in the body so that the complex and powerful internal movements will become natural and spontaneous. In China, a healthy and well-tuned nervous system is considered to be paramount to a healthy body. That is the importance of Qi, see more discussion of Qi in the next question. Physically, the internal movements penetrate to the deep recesses of the torso, stimulating and invigorating the organs and the circulation systems in the torso. Enhancement of the function of the intestine and kidney are immediate when tai chi is played with Internal Discipline. Other benefits are more long term.
Modern exercise routines, including martial arts, are long on external movements and short on internal movements, in other words, exercising the parts of the body which are already over-used for an active person while neglecting the portion of the body which needs exercise. Worse yet, these routines often subject the shoulder, knee, the back and other joints with ill-conceived repetitive, unnatural movements. No wonder many active people eventually develop joint problems. Classical Tai Chi, through the experience of multi-generations of practitioners who practice from a young age until the end of life, fully grasp the importance of proper postures and movements to protect and strengthening the practitioner’s joints for long term, repetitive practice. Such considerations are pointed out throughout the DVD set, particularly in the segments titled “Insight into Body Mechanics” Vol. I Tai Chi Overview, “Tai Chi Walk” Vol. II, “Stance of the Feet” and “Step Size” Vol. II. These considerations are only understood recently with current understanding of body mechanics and often used by modern physical therapists. Yet, it was put into rigorous practice in Classical Tai Chi centuries ago. As a result, beginning practitioners often cite reduced or eliminated back pain and weakness as the first benefits of practicing Classical Tai Chi.
In the movement of pushing the arm forward, as shown at the beginning of this site, the elbow points downward and stays in front of the body. In this way, the arm is solidly braced so it can deliver the powerful internal energy to opponent without buckling during martial art application. The position of the elbow also protects the mid portion of the body. From a health viewpoint, this movement fully stretches and relaxes the upper back, tuning and strengthening it. Those who have pain in their upper back often find that playing the Tai Chi form alleviates their problem. Throughout the Tai Chi form movements, the synergy between martial art and health is spontaneous and natural without coercion.
Every aspect of Tai Chi has to satisfy two requirements simultaneously; 1) it has to be useful for martial art applications. 2) useful for health benefits. Classical Tai Chi accomplishes these goals superbly. For example, playing the Tai Chi with Internal Discipline fully utilizes the powerful core of the body, the abdomen and the back, in its motion. It is also a uniquely effective means of invigorating the internal organs, circulatory systems and nervous systems.
Q. What are the mental aspects of Tai Chi?
A. Tai Chi, or Taiji, is known as meditation in motion and is closely related to Qi Gong. Both meditation and certain types of Qi Gong follow a "top-down" approach, with the mind initiating the meditative state or the mind initiating the Qi flow.
Tai Chi follows more of a "bottom up" approach. It is the movement with the Internal Discipline that plays an important role in influencing the mental state of the practitioner. In order to perform the internal movements, the beginner must focus intensely inward trying to communicate with the long neglected nervous system in the torso. When the student becomes a proficient practitioner, playing the form becomes subconscious without the need to think. The mind is clear, except for the enjoyable sensation of internal energy flowing and stretching at the yin and yang junction. It is important to learn the Tai Chi form rigorously, so this sensation can circulate continuously in the body without break. Any fault in the form will break the continuity of the circulating Qi.
Q. How long and how often should I practice?
A. You should practice formally for at least 30 minutes every day. One of the advantages of Tai Chi is that it requires very little space to practice. You can do it anywhere. You should also supplement with informal practice. During your spare time, like waiting in a line, you can practice lifting and setting down your foot using Internal Discipline. Or, you can practice the quarter- body movement of the arm while sitting in the car. By taking advantage of these moments for informal practice, you can integrate Tai Chi’s internal movements into your everyday life, improving your skills and reaping the health benefits.
Q. Why do you emphasize "classical" Tai Chi; and not "Wu" Tai Chi?
A. According to my teacher Grand Master Young Wabu, he heard his teacher, the legendary master Wu Chian Chuan said that Wu did not change the Yang Tai Chi learned from the Yang’s. In fact, Wu Chian Chuan emphatically said, "It can not be changed".
The fact is that the knowledge cycle of learning the classical Tai Chi to understand its eventual consequences is very long. To learn the Tai Chi form takes several years to be proficient. To test the effectiveness of what has been learned in actual martial art application takes another few years. To confirm what the health implications are, especially during older age, requires a human generation. Here we have the classical Tai Chi with its numerous components meticulously optimized to satisfy both the requirements of martial art application and health benefits. It must be a multi-generation effort. When Wu Chian Chuan taught my teacher, Tai Chi was already in such an advanced state. One can fully appreciate what he said, "It can not be changed".
Q. The four internal movements shown at the beginning of this web site seem complicated and difficult to learn. How can I learn the entire long form within a reasonable time?
A. The instructional DVD makes the learning process easier. It explains the intent of the movement, both for health or martial art purposes, helping you to understand why a move has to be executed in certain way. The instruction emphasizes the consistencies and common thread among different moves throughout the lessons. You may be able to grasp the essentials of a movement before you can actually perform the move correctly and you can work toward perfecting the move at your own pace.
Once the body is accustomed to several internal moves, it becomes easier to learn other moves. After all, the goal of learning Tai Chi in such rigorous way is to achieve eventual freedom in ones movement, as any movement will naturally and instinctively following the principle of Tai Chi.
I do not want to minimize the time and effort required to learn Classical Tai Chi, but beginners and advanced students alike can see immediate benefits and cherish the enjoyable sensations from internal movements. Although the path of learning may be long and challenging, it is stimulating and rewarding all the way.