What Is Tai Chi?

The Different Forms and Many Benefits

Tai Chi in the Park
Tim Platt / Getty Images

What Is Tai Chi?

Short for t'ai chi chüan, Tai Chi is rooted in Chinese medicine — qigong to be exact — and is thousands of years old. The practice fuses both martial arts and meditation, which might seem like an unlikely combination. However, the idea is to slow down both your mind and body by repeating rhythmic choreography and breath work for about 30 to 60 minutes.

Ideally, this culminates in finding a sense of inner peace and tranquility. In addition, the art of Tai Chi is used to help improve your physical health.

If you were to look at someone practicing Tai Chi, it would appear almost as if they were moving in slow motion, and it would also be very clear that they were quite focused on the task at hand.

The Five Different Types of Tai Chi

There are five primary forms or “styles” of Tai Chi: Chen, Yang, Hao, Wu, Chen, and Sun. Each follows the same premise, which is to combine meditation and martial arts, but there are some slight variations.

Chen

Developed in the 1600s, Chen is the oldest (and therefore the original) form of tai chi. According to Taichi.ca, it was developed by the Chen family in the Chen Village, and is characterized by a combination of slow and then quick movements, including jumping, kicking, and striking.

Chen also utilizes a movement called "silk reeling" which is essentially a spiral-esque, flowing movement that starts at the feet and moves into the hands. 

Yang

Yang is often considered the most popular form of Tai Chi and is the most widely practiced across the globe today. It was founded by Yang Lu-Ch’an in the mid-1800s and builds off the original Chen style.

The difference is that it focuses more on improving flexibility via grand, sweeping movements that are executed in a slow and graceful motion. Because it doesn't use the quick fast movements of Chen, it's considered more accessible and ideal for all ages and fitness levels, which is likely why it's so popular.

Wu

Also one of the most popular versions of Tai Chi, the Wu version was developed by Wu Ch'uan-yu who was actually trained under Yang. What sets it apart from other forms of Tai Chi is that it focuses on extending the body by leaning forward and backward versus standing in a centered position. In that sense, it very much focuses on improving balance.

Sun

The Sun form of Tai Chi was developed by Sun Lutang, a Confucian and Taoist scholar who was also an expert in several different forms of Chinese martial arts.

This version involves more footwork compared to the others, which is paired with soft and silk-reeling hand movements. When you see it performed from beginning to end, it very much resembles a beautiful choreographed dance.

Hao

Hao is considered the least popular of all five forms of Tai Chi, largely because it is quite nuanced and requires a more advanced skill level. This form places a strong emphasis on "controlling the movement of qi (internal force)" and isn't recommended for those who are new to the art.

The Benefits of Tai Chi

Tai Chi boasts many benefits to both your inner and outer health. The below are the most notable, but this is not an exhaustive list.

  • Relieves Stress and Anxiety: the meditative aspect of Tai Chi combined with the physical movement can help calm your mind, improve focus, and can even help trigger the release of feel-good endorphins.
  • Boosts Cognitive Abilities: In addition to improving your mental wellbeing, Tai Chi has also been found to boost cognitive abilities. A 2013 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science stated that physical exercise, in general, improves cognitive function and researchers specifically recommended Tai Chi for elderly people since it’s a gentler and more accessible form of physical exercise that also combines mental exercises via repeated “choreography.”
  • Increases Flexibility and Agility: Similar to yoga, Tai Chi often involves extensions of the body that can generally improve upon your flexibility and agility. This comes in handy in your day-to-day life but can also make you more agile and capable in other sports.
  • Improves Balance and Coordination Skills: In addition to improving flexibility and agility, the intricate “yin and yang” of Tai Chi movements can help you with balance and coordination. Again, this skill is useful in your daily life (those fine motor skills can even help prevent trips, stumbles, and falls) and in other sports.
  • Enhances Strength and Stamina: As with any form of physical exercise, Tai Chi can build upon your existing strength and stamina. With ongoing practice, you might find you’re leaner, that your muscles are more defined, and that you’re able to exercise for longer periods of time.

Who Can Benefit Most from Tai Chi?

Anyone can benefit from incorporating tai chi into their life. Specifically, the Yang, Wu, and Sun forms are arguably the most accessible since they utilize slow and steady movements that even beginners can learn.

Given Tai Chi’s gentle and graceful nature, it’s often considered an excellent “sport” of choice for elderly.

There are even modern-day alternative versions that you can do sitting in a chair! Also, because Tai Chi involves a mental aspect, it serves as a beautiful way to meditate and find inner peace.

How to Learn and Practice Tai Chi

While Tai Chi might seem out of your comfort zone if you are unfamiliar with it, there are many clubs, fitness studios, and even volunteer organizations across the globe that offer classes and sessions. You can even learn how to do Tai Chi virtually with a 1:1 instructor or even a pre-recorded lesson via social media, including Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.

Once you’ve learned the choreography, you’ll be able to practice from anywhere from your bedroom to your backyard.

A Word From Verywell

Tai Chi uniquely fuses physical exercise with meditation. This rare combination provides numerous benefits to both your physical and mental health, and because of the slow and steady movements it’s accessible to almost everyone who’s interested in learning and practicing the art.

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