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25 September 2007

Tai Chi Chuan : a way of life

Tai Chi draws upon the simplest of principles, but mastery does not come as easily

By Stephanie Fowler

Anyone who has visited China and found themselves on the streets in the early morning will be familiar with the sight of people practicing the slow and graceful movements of Tai Chi in unison. Tai Chi Chuan or Taijiquan is an internal Chinese martial art, and literally translates as “supreme ultimate fist”.

All styles that have emerged over the past 100 years can trace their roots back to a family boxing, or fighting, style developed in a small village in the Henan province of China during the 17th century, although where the exercises came from before then, is somewhat open to conjecture.

More recently, Tai Chi has found global fame due to its health-enhancing benefits. However, while many people today may practise Tai Chi solely for its physical benefits, it has at its core the ancient philosophy of Taoism, a philosophy that goes back around 6,000 years.

Tai Chi works on the principles of Yin and Yang – which in Taoist philosophy represent the two opposite forces in action in the Universe, from which all things stem. The Taoists believe that the human body is a reflection of the Universe, and it can be used as a gateway to understanding and achieving the Tao— which means the ‘path’ or the ‘way’.

This interplay of opposites within the Universe is reflected in every movement within traditional Tai Chi Chuan, as you change constantly from Yin to Yang — from closed to open, passive to active, empty to full, soft to hard, slow to quick, each part, each side of the body is engaged in this dance that mirrors the nature of our internal ‘selves’ as well as the Universe outside.

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The more you practice, the more these opposite forces of Yin and Yang become balanced and a part of yourself, leading to a greater sense of harmony and fulfillment.

Seems simple? In a sense, it couldn’t be easier — you are following the natural laws of the Universe, forging balance and harmony out of performing seemingly simple physical movements. But it may seem contradictory that this supposedly easy ‘path of least resistance’, as many people think of Tai Chi training, actually requires considerable effort and dedication to follow.

To become proficient at Tai Chi, the training requires the student to practice daily, and the skills don’t come easily. Despite the primary principle being to just relax and move comfortably, it takes considerable work to achieve this!

Just as a proper foundation has to be laid for a house to stand firm, so must a proper foundation be laid within the body for a solid practice to take shape. And just as it is physically hard for us to re-learn how to relax and follow our natural way of moving, so it can be just as difficult to find the ‘way’, and find balance and harmony within life.