Authentic Tai Chi - A Holistic Art Or System

A Holistic Discipline

Tai Chi is a holistic discipline - it embraces a philosophy, a martial art, a health practice and a spiritual discipline. It is not just a system of health exercise. It is not just some pseudo-spiritual New Age, mind-body practice. It is a martial art, but it is not only about self-defence, it has broader potential outcomes and benefits.  However, to gain these broader outcomes one must undertake the traditional form of training that underpins the martial side of it. This involves much more than just learning a form of choreographed, dance-like movements. The authentic training involves a systematic exploration of ever-increasing depths. For this one needs a competent teacher who has been trained in the authentic art.

One useful way to look at traditional Tai Chi training is that it provides a method to integrate a set of principles that enable one to harness the body’s natural, internal energy (Qi) to invigorate and strengthen oneself from within, for:

  • health,
  • self-defence and
  • spiritual ends.

In this sense it is a form of Ch’i Kung (Qi Gong) [1], and is sometimes actually referred to as “moving qigong”.

Modern Tai Chi started off as a martial art with the name T’ai Chi Ch’uan (太極拳, Pinyin: Taijiiquan). If you research the origins of the art you will soon discover that it was one of a family of martial arts that combined the techniques of pre-existing health systems with the physical aspects of self-defence or kung fu (gongfu). This made the techniques more powerful, and the schools that did this became known as ‘internal’ as opposed to ‘external’, the latter relying on the strength of muscle power and size.

Two of these health systems were known as Tao Yin (Daoyin) and T’u-na (Tuna). Daoyin is often referred to as Taoist yoga and  consists of a series of exercises (mainly in lying and sitting positions, but also in standing positions) practiced by Taoists to cultivate ch'i (qi) circulation, the internal energy of the body according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, to mobilise movement of the body.Tuna means breathing exercise. Practices like Tao Yin and Tuna are considered the precursors of modern qigong[2], and were practised in Chinese Taoist monasteries for health and spiritual cultivation.

There is also evidence that Tai Chi may have evolved out of the famous Buddhist Shaolin tradition of Chinese martial arts. These were also influenced by Indian yoga respiratory and stretching exercises, introduced by the legendary monk Bodhidharma, known as the “Muscle/Tendon Changing Classic” (Yi Jin Jing) and “Marrow/Brain Washing Classic” (Xi Sui Jing). Tai Chi in turn is considered to have contributed to the further development of these health approaches because its unique spiralling motions in the body stimulate the acupuncture meridians (jingluo) and thus the circulation of qi.

The art also evolved from marrying the principles underlying the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism (Daoism) to its training principles and strategies, such as, the soft (water) can overcome the hardest thing (rock), minimum effort maximum return, giving up the self and following the other. These principles underpinning the art have undeniable spiritual dimensions to them as relevant today as they were in ancient times. Thus there is a clear connection here between health practices, martial arts and spiritual disciplines.


Qi Gong

The simplest definition of qigong is “working on the qi” or simply “qi work”. The Chinese word gong comes from the phrase gong fu in (Chinese: 功夫; pinyin: gōngfu). In the older Wades-Giles system it was written in English as “kung fu” (and qigong as “ch’i kung”). This phrase became popularised in the 1960s because of Bruce Lee and the 1970s TV series “Kung Fu” starring David Carradine. As a result it became equated with martial arts, but actually the phrase means something broader like “inner meritorious work necessary to develop a skill”. The skill might be martial arts, but could also be playing the piano or other musical instrument, sculpting, painting, dancing, gymnastics, etc. If someone has a demonstrably high level of skill in any area he or she is said to have good gongfu (kung fu).

So all types of Qi Gong are about developing skills to harness the qi (ch’i) for various ends, for example, to create music, movement, health, self defence, and all round physical, psychological and spiritual development. Tai Chi uses both static postures (standing and sitting) and moving qigong postures (the famous Tai Chi form). We will not run away from defining the interesting word (or Chinese cultural concept) qi (ch’i) as it can enhance one’s understanding and respect for the origins of these arts. 

As such Tai Chi ultimately is a set of principles that can be translated into everyday life to achieve these goals of health, self defence and spiritual growth. In the end the Tai chi form becomes formless – its principles incorporated seamlessly into everyday life! Through its training methods you can discover your true potential on both the physical and non-physical level - it helps integrate the body, mind and spirit to promote a more complete sense of well being.   



Martial ART

Personally I love the martial side of the art and this website goes to some lengths to clarify the unique flavour of Tai Chi’s approach to combat. However, I was always taught that the sophisticated Chinese martial arts were just that - arts. The original general meaning of the English word art refers to skills acquired by experience, study, and observation, and is still defined as such in dictionaries. As in medieval times the people who trained in these arts, known as artisans, were training in holistic systems.

The Chinese martial art systems [3], and there are many others besides Tai Chi, can provide undeniable health benefits, and they can also aid psychological and spiritual growth, and the gaining of wisdom. The beauty of these arts is that there is so much inter-related knowledge to be gained from them that can be deployed as life skills (even in modern living) to protect, enhance and enrich life, that they can be studied at ever deepening levels for the whole of your lifetime. How many things offer that these days?

So these three aspects of health, self-defence and spirituality have always been present in the art.  However, in the 20th and 21st centuries, it seems the health aspect (and to a lesser extent the spiritual) have been overemphasised, and the martial side underemphasised. A main theme of this site is that it is only through using the Tai Chi Principles that underpin all three dimensions - Health, Martial and Spiritual Cultivation - will you be able to fully tap into the art’s real benefits, and explore the depth that tai chi has to offer. The martial training is central to this.

So, Tai Chi is a form of exercise or health art, a self-defence system, and ultimately a spiritual discipline. It is not just one of these things - it is all of them! It thus represents a wonderfully full art that you can spend your whole lifetime delving into and being rewarded at ever increasing depths. Master Chu King-hung (my teacher) once said to our class: “It takes whole lifetime to learn Tai Chi. No! More than one lifetime!”

[1] The first spelling of Chinese words in the text uses the older Wades Giles system of transliteration into English; the second (in brackets) is using the more modern Chinese system known as pinyin. Later, hopefully once the reader is more used to them, the spellings will be used interchangeably.

[2] In fact the words qi and gong can also be translated to mean “breathing exercise” because qi is considered closely related to air.

[3] There were/are European equivalent martial arts developed, for example, in Italy and Spain around weapons such as fencing and dating back to Medieval times.

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