Since the recent growth of popularity in Tai Chi Chuan since the 1970’s in the west, much attention has been paid to its’ health benefits. I think at this point it is fair to say that in the west the taiji quan scene is still dominated by health consciousness, which is not a bad thing. Much taijiquan has been associated with the worlds of Yoga and meditation and even the so called “new age” movement. For some it appears that the world of fighting and the world of health are at odds. I personally have seen a lot of practices that sacrifice health for the sake of the martial aspect as well as in other cases sacrificing the martial side with or without knowing it, for the sake of health. Here I want to clarify what really are the health and martial arts benefits of (Chen) taijiquan practice, and address the question of their co-existence.
Tai Ji Quan & Health:
In Chinese medicinal terms a lot of what I will write here just makes sense in terms of Taijiquan and Qi Gong practice, but I am going to break some of this down into western ideas of causation for the sake of understanding.
First it must be made clear that Taijiquan was developed by a retired soldier, a fighter who had knowledge of martial arts as well as Chinese medicinal and cultivational practices. It was primarily developed as a martial art practice with the intention of making the best use of the human body’s cultivational facility while practicing. It originally was not developed with the idea of giving old people a method of moving slowly in the morning to alleviate arthritis although it can be used that way.
Through the development of Chan Si Jin (churning spiraling movement) and stretching and contracting, the art will loosen and strengthen joints and limbs as well as internal organs by way of actual movement and massaging action. This type of physical conditioning can be very helpful in alleviating chronic joint, neck, and back pain due to injury or repetitive stress situations. As taijiquan stresses healthful body alignment, it is like a repetitive healing as opposed to strain if practiced correctly.
Proper practice will also lead to strengthening of the body as a whole through muscle use. Chen Taijiquan if practiced in its’ intended fashion requires high development of leg strength whereas most other branches do not because their stances are quite high in comparison(although Chen can be practiced high as well). Studies have also shown, although I do not have the data here..sorry…that the turning action, standing, and body alignment in practice stimulates bone growth leading to a healthy bone density at any age even with a low impact practice.
Breathing meditation in union with full body movement leads to a very relaxed state of mind that is very helpful in stress reduction and attaining higher states of consciousness. Proper practice leads to healthful blood circulation and it is also said that it leads to richer healthier blood through stimulation of bone marrow. Visualization and opening of Qi pathways through movement leads to increased energy flow and cultivation in the body, which basically brings life giving energy wherever it flows. I cannot really westernize this idea here folks..in western medicine illness is treated on a location and cause and effect basis, (which is very effective and necessary in many applications) but in this traditional Chinese approach illness is viewed in a holistic way.
Local illness is often viewed as a failure of life energy or “Qi” to flow freely or correctly in or to that location. Proper practice creates a stronger immune system and general vitality as well. Also, not a small effect though often overlooked, is SWEATING. Chen taijiquan is not easy and practiced as designed one will break into a sweat in a short time. In China sweating from Gongfu practice is seen as very important as it cleans the toxins from the body, especially during internal arts which also use Qi Gong to clean the body.
Taiji quan is not a cure-all. It may be very helpful in preventing cancers and other life threatening illnesses as well as aide in recovery and treatments, but it is not a magical cure. Taijiquan by itself cannot overcome an unhealthy lifestyle in the fight against illness. In combination with healthy diet, a manageable stress level and the absence of toxins and tragic genetics, it is a great benefit.
There is a lot more to write about the health benefits of taijiquan practice, but the really deep stuff has to be felt to be understood; the most obvious benefit is the amazing feeling of cellular joy that a practitioner feels on a daily basis!
Perhaps due to strange interpretations of ancient taijiquan poetry, or some of the other styles of taijiquan, there is some perception out there that proper Qi cultivation in Taijiquan can only be accomplished when the body is totally soft and according to some, devoid of all tension. That is not my experience, or my view, nor is it how I was taught. Taijiquan as a martial art must include strength training, use of muscular tension and release, and power training as well.
To start with, standing up requires muscular tension to begin with, no one is totally relaxed until death anyhow. I don’t like to get involved with using obtuse mystical terms to explain taijiquan, so when people tell me they are using internal power to practice and no muscular strength…I cannot accept that. I am a firm believer in internal cultivation, but I don’t subscribe to the idea that the word internal can be attributed to the cause of every action we do simply because the inexperienced cannot understand it, and it is vague.
This very vagueness serves the vague agendas of those who want to mystify others with skills that are at least partly physical realities. If you train with a 13 ft. spear with a solid steel tip, most humans will find that they begin sweating, and straining muscularly. I am not saying “Qi” is not used, but so are a lot of other physical realities.
To practice martial arts while practicing Qi Gong one must maintain the use of strength and muscle tension without locking the joints or stiffening the muscles…hardness without stiffness, well I am not going to attempt to explain that here. However, this original method allows for both hard and soft (fine and coarse) Qi cultivation at the same time as training for fighting.
Some taijiquan practitioners believe that taijiquan is supposed to be only a soft relaxing art and should never use strength etc…practiced this way, taijiquan actually delivers only partial health benefits (though may be necessary for some physical conditions) though still beneficial, but offers seriously lacking martial benefits. Even a totally soft taijiquan curriculum can offer some useful self defense training, but it is not going to be very realistically applicable in a dangerous situation.
Taijiquan while differing obviously and unobviously from other arts, also uses many strikes, kicks and other methods that would require power and strength in any martial art, however particular the application method may be. Hard practice without soft is just coarse, but soft without hard is fantasy land for a martial artist.
If one’s focus is strictly Qi gong or physical injury requires, a mostly soft curriculum can be practiced, but the much publicized idea that soft practice (like Zheng Man Ching style) is more beneficial to health is untrue. I would have to say that the intensity of harder practice adds an additional layer of benefit while retaining the benefits of purely soft practice (if done correctly.)
If practiced mindfully and correctly, a martial practice should nurture the vital energy and maintain the physical body. It is important to be aware, though, that even small imprecision in martial practice can lead to severe injury over a long or even short time basis. In the lineage of Chen Zhao Kui through Chen Yu that I practice, the physical rules and limits are more strict and precise than some lineages I have seen, and must be adhered to in a very vigilant manner. this level of physical mindfulness is not only a lot of work mentally cultivating a very focused level of concentration, but also leads to a very strong form and strong healthy joints as well.
In terms of health versus martial aspects, it is important to remember that the ancient heroes that we think of who created and made internal arts famous were warriors. They were rough and tumble fighters who sustained injuries and protected others. they were often spoken of as being very strong, and ferocious, intimidating fighters. Some of the teachers I have studied with still maintain these qualities. These martial artists had high levels of skill, but they also had power and strength. It is important to understand that it is this type of strenuous Gongfu that became famous for its’ health benefits. It was both functional and beneficial.
Practice for health and martial arts notes:
Taiji quan is often said to be counter-intuitive. It is a practice of revereses, inverses, and paradoxes. The classics state that to go one direction one must first go towards its’ oposite, and “overcome hardness with softness” and such…Simlar to Buddhist and Daoist philosophies, deep taiijiquan practice makes no apologies for its’ mind-bending contradictions.
To become a fighter one must train hard and be ambitious in practice, yet ambition is the obstacle of deep development in internal arts. The willful ambitious student in their lust for achievement is not able to receive the subtle teachings that are offered. However, the blind followers, who do not push themselves and try their hardest make little achievement.
To develop TaijiQuan as a martial art, one must first forget about fighting and focus on developing the internal. To develop the health and internal side of TaijiQuan one must maintain a focus on fighting application in structure and visualization to push the Qi along. At more advanced levels, once the practitioner is not able to move without using the internal, to develop useful higher level fighting skills, they must forget about the internal and focus on utility. You could say that in the beginning it is a study of mindfulness so as to unify mind, body, spirit, and qi. Once they are unified, one strives for mindlessness.