What is the purpose of Tai Chi?

What is the purpose of Tai ChiWhen I think of Tai Chi, I typically think of elderly Chinese practicing slow graceful movements in a park as the sun rises.  However, Tai Chi has now gained worldwide popularity and is performed by people of all ages.  I’ve often looked at the slow graceful movements that make up this art and have wondered ‘what is the purpose of Tai Chi?’.


What is Tai Chi?

First, things first.  For those that don’t know, Tai Chi is a martial art that consists of prescribed patterns of different techniques and stances called forms.  These are performed in a slow, graceful fashion which gives their performance a dance-like quality.  Embedded within these moves are punches, kicks and other strikes, as well as defensive blocking movements.  It is therefore considered a martial art.

What are Tai Chi’s origins?

Tai Chi has a rich history and it is very difficult to separate the actual history of the art from the legends, so we cannot be certain exactly when and how it originated.

Tai Chi developed in China and it is believed that an early form of this martial art was practised and developed as early as 500 BC by followers of Taoist philosophy.  This doctrine has a particular approach to health and exercise that emphasizes improving one’s physical health in order to extend the life span.

Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, famously wrote ““The soft and the pliable will defeat the hard and strong.”

This is very much the philosophy of Tai Chi which aims to keep Yin and Yang, softness and harness, in constant flux. 

Its modern form can be historically traced to Cheng Wang Ting as the originator of the Chen Tai Chi style in the 1600s.

What was the original purpose of Tai Chi?

Tai Chi was originally very much a fighting art.  This is evident from looking at the individual techniques in the forms.  

Whilst it may look like an ornate dance routine, it actually consists of a number of offensive attacking movements: kicks, punches, strikes.  It also features defensive blocks, throws and leg sweeps, some of which are illustrated in the video below..  

The philosophy behind the art is that hard attacks should be met with softness, whereby the blocks actually absorb the power of the oncoming strike.  For this reason, Tai Chi is known as a “soft” martial art.  This is in contrast, to a martial art like Karate, where blocks are delivered with as much force as the oncoming attack – force is met with force.

The patterns of movement or forms, as they are called, were developed as a means to practice the techniques when alone.  They also enable the techniques to be passed on to others and down generations.

The patterns of movement also formed a sort of moving meditation allowing the practitioner to focus solely on the techniques being performed.  The movements were also combined with breathing techniques which resulted in a very relaxed and calm state of mind.  

Having a still mind is also related to its fighting origins as it was felt that in order to be successful in combat, it was important to have a mind like still water; undisturbed by distractions or emotion.  This enabled the fighter to instantly respond to their attackers moves and counter as appropriate.

There is also a spiritual aspect to Tai Chi.  

Some practitioners believe in Qi (Chi), a life force that flows through all living things and the Universe.  It is believed that this Qi flows through meridians in the human body and that when this is blocked or impeded, it could result in ill health.  The practice of Tai Chi supposedly helps to ensure the smooth flow of Qi through the body. 

Today, Tai Chi is mainly practiced for it’s mental and physical benefits.  It provides a gentle exercise that helps maintain both flexibility and lower body strength.  Its slow movements and deep breathing techniques help to create a sense of wellbeing and calmness.  For these reasons, it’s unsurprising that is so popular amongst the elderly.

Does Tai Chi actually work?

Today very few schools actively teach Tai Chi’s combat techniques and it would be rare indeed to find one that practices sparring.  In some ways, it’s practitioners are simply performing the movements and going through the forms as though it was a kind of aerobics routine.

It’s therefore not surprising that very few individuals chose Tai Chi as a self defense system.  It’s lack of application to a combat situation is perhaps most evident when you consider that there isn’t an MMA fighter than incorporated Tai Chi into his fighting arsenal.

MMA fighters will typically adopt several martial arts styles to deal with opponents at different ranges.  The might practice Muay Thai kicking techniques to attack their adversary at long  range, boxing combinations for the mid-range and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for ground work.  Tai Chi is never consider in this make up.

Of course, there are Tai Chi masters who actively challenge the notion that this martial art is not an effective combat system.  They have even gone so far as to challenge MMA fighters in an attempt to demonstrate the arts legitimacy.  This typically does not work out well as the following video illustrates.

Summary:  What is the purpose of Tai Chi?

Tai Chi was originally designed to achieve a number of objectives: a fighting art that would allow you to defend yourself against an aggressive opponent;  a form of moving meditation, and finally a system that would improve the health of the practitioner by aiding the smooth flow of Qi (Chi) through the body.   



Which is better yoga or tai chi?

Yoga is form of physical exercise, rather than a martial art, consisting of gymnastic movements that are connect together in patterns called vinyasas.  It also incorporate breathing exercises and meditation.  Whilst there are parallels between Tai Chi and Yoga, it’s impossible to say which is better as this is a matter of personal choice.  

What are the disadvantages of Tai Chi?

One possible disadvantage of Tai Chi is that some practitioners may be over confident in its ability to provide effective self-defense or combat training.  Whilst Tai Chi is a martial art, very few schools actually teach the application of the movements they are performing and very few schools practice sparring.  Individual therefore have little to no understanding of what it is like to be in a physical confrontation.

As a result, it’s possible that rather the flee from an escalating physical threat scenario, a Tai Chi practitioner may be tempted to try to use their Tai Chi techniques.

Is Tai Chi too slow?

Tai Chi practice consists of slow, prescribed patterns of movements known as “forms”. It is a “soft” martial art whereby the force of an attack is absorbed and dispersed through the relaxed blocking techniques of Tai Chi.  

Whilst the actual forms are practiced in ‘slow-motion’, in an actual combat situation it’s not envisaged that the fight takes place at the same speed.   Rather the slow, deliberate movement allows the practitioner to really hone and master their technique when practicing.

One very effective way of improving any physical skill is to start off performing it very slowly, before speeding up over time.  Tai Chi capitalises on this 

Can Tai Chi be self taught?

Tai Chi can be self taught.  Learning from a book might be difficult since it is very difficult to describe the movements involved, much less the speed at which they should be performed.  Learning from a DVD or video is probably a better option.  It would be a good idea to record yourself performing the forms so you can compare your attempts with how they are actually supposed to be performed.

However, you’ll probably get most benefit from attending a class where the instructor can quickly correct any mistakes in your movement or posture before they become habit.

Is Tai Chi suitable for seniors?

Tai Chi is a very gentle form of exercise that provides both physical and mental benefits.  Physically it helps to maintain leg strength and flexibility.  Mentally,it helps to foster an overall feeling of calm.  Learning the various forms also helps to exercise the memory.  If Tai Chi is being performed as part of a group then it also has a social aspect to it as well.  

Overall Tai Chi is highly suitable for elderly individuals and is perhaps why so many retired Chinese  practice this art form.

Can you do Tai Chi for weight loss?

Tai Chi burns 273 calories an hour, as opposed to jumping rope, which will burn 1,074 calories in an hour.  It’s therefore not the ideal exercise to perform if you’re looking to lose weight.  However, it might be a way to transition into an exercise programme if you’ve never exercised before or are too obese to cope with other more physically demanding tasks.

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.


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Featured Image:

“Tai Chi in Chengdu 成都, China” flickr photo by Kristoffer Trolle https://flickr.com/photos/kristoffer-trolle/49114094427 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license