Switch onto any documentary about China’s culture and you’re likely to see scenes of parks filled with elderly Chinese residents performing slow, graceful movements in unison. They are performing an ancient martial art called Tai Chi which consists of highly structured patterns of movement that transition from prescribed stances and positions. There is a huge amount of mysticism associated with Tai Chi and it’s practitioners frequently seem like they’re in a meditative state; I’ve often wondered whether Tai Chi is actually a religion.
What is Tai Chi?
Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that is practiced with slow, graceful movements and stances. It is categorised as a “soft” fighting style: strong attacks should be met by yielding defensive movements: hardness is met with softness. It’s like a tall tree bending in the wind; the tree yields to the force of the wind. If the tree remained rigid then it would be in danger of snapping. Tai Chi’s blocks are designed to absorb and deflect the power of any strikes rather than meet it head on.
Today, the original fighting techniques of Tai Chi have been largely lost. It is mainly practised for its health improving benefits. As a result, it has seen a rapid increase in popularity and has spread Worldwide.
What religion is Tai Chi associated with?
Tai Chi developed in China and an early form of this martial art was practised and developed as early as 500 BC by followers of Taoist philosophy which was developed from the teachings of Lao Tzu.
Central to Taoism is the belief in Qi (Chi) which translates as “breath”, air” or “gas”. It has a much deeper meaning than this and describes a life force that permeates all living things and the Universe. According to this system, this life force flows through meridians in the human body and if these are blocked in any way then it can result in health conditions developing.
For some practitioners of Tai Chi, the slow graceful movements help to open up the meridians of the body and allow Qi to flow freely through it thereby maintaining good health.
Another principle tenet of Taoism is to live in accordance with the natural order of the universe. In Chinese the word Tao means ‘the Way’. The main goal is to achieve balance and to reach immortality by following ‘the Way’.
Is Tai Chi forbidden by the Catholic Church?
Because of its association with Taoism, one may be forgiven for thinking that the Catholic Church frowns upon the practice of Tai Chi by its followers.
The belief in Qi seems alien to the teachings of the Bible. Perhaps the closest phenomena in the Christian doctrine would be the ‘Holy Spirit’, but this is still very different to the concept of Qi in Tai Chi. For instance, the ‘Holy Spirit’ is regarded as God’s power and not something that individuals themselves can control. In contrast, Qi (or Chi) can be directed and controlled through the human body.
Some Tai Chi practitioners maintain that by controlling Qi and ensuring that it is able to flow freely through the body, it has a beneficial effect on the body.
Many Kung Fu practitioners have a similar belief in Qi. Perhaps the most famous of these are those that train at the Shaolin temple. Experienced practitioners perform various physical feats such as breaking iron bars over their heads, and being held aloft on the points of spears.
The individuals believe that their bodies are able to endure these demonstrations because they are able to redirect their internal Qi to form a sort of protective shield.
However, it is possible to practise Tai Chi without any religious or spiritual connection. It is, afterall, practised by moving in slow, steady patterns and no one religion has a monopoly on how the human form can move.
If you want to practise Tai Chi without religious connotations, then you can view it simply as a type of slow dance. The practitioner will still gain health benefits from doing so.
The low stances and slow movement will develop lower body strength and balance. It can also be regarded as a form of gentle cardio. It won’t exactly set your heart pounding but it could be considered the equivalent of a brisk walk.
Tai Chi also incorporates slow breathing techniques as you transition from stance to stance. This type of breathing has a natural calming effect on the body and mind. It’s therefore a great way to relax and unwind at the end of a busy day. This is why practitioners often seem to be in a meditative state when they’re performing Tai Chi.
Tai Chi is not banned or forbidden by the Catholic Church provided that it is regarded and practiced purely as a form of physical exercise. There’s no need to incorporate any of the religious or supernatural aspects of Tai Chi in order to reap the physical and mental benefits of this martial art.
Those wanting to practise this art may want to find a teacher that emphasises the physical performance of the movements and stances, as opposed to its spiritual philosophy.
Summary: Is Tai Chi a religion?
Tai Chi in itself is not a religion. It is simply a prescribed pattern of movements that transition from punches, kicks and stances in a slow and deliberate fashion. It does have associations with Taoism but it is possible to practice it in a secular manner and still take advantage of the physical and mental benefits.
Is Tai Chi Buddhist?
Tai Chi is not Buddhist but rather has associations with Taoism, a completely different religion. However, it is possible to practice Tai Chi in a completely secular manner and benefit from it.
What are the dangers of Tai Chi?
Tai Chi is a very gentle and safe martial art and there are very few dangers associated with this form of exercise. The only potential danger is possibly thinking that Tai Chi is an effective combat system and relying on it in a self-defense scenario. The combat aspect of this martial art has largely been forgotten and people practise Tai Chi largely for its physical and mental benefits.
What are the religious influences on Tai Chi?
Tai Chi has been heavily influenced by the Taoist religion and the belief of Qi (Chi), the life force that permeates all living things and the Universe. Some practitioners believe that Tai Chi enhances the flow of Qi through the body and this results in health benefits.
What do you wear for Tai Chi?
No special uniform is required for Tai Chi and most schools will allow you to train in any loose fitting clothes that allow you to move freely without restriction. In time, you may want to purchase one of the traditional uniforms such as the one here (link to Amazon).
It’s important to use non-slip shoes for Tai Chi. Some of the stances can be quite wide and you certainly don’t want to slip and lose your balance. The types of shoes below are particularly comfortable – more details are available here on Amazon.