Movement, meditation and breathing; the ancient Chinese practice of tai chi isn’t about getting faster, stronger or more toned, but it might just help you live better. Here’s why.
It’s technically “t'ai chi ch'uan” but, don’t worry, no one else calls it that either. Tai chi is best known for its slow, fluid movements but the ancient Chinese pastime is technically a martial art with a background in defence training.
There’s a range of reasons that practitioners have kept the discipline alive since the late 16th century: to train pushing techniques for wrestling, for demonstrative purposes and for its associated health benefits.
Why tai chi?
Well, you may not be training for a wrestling bout in rural China, but tai chi – not to be confused with chai tea – has more advantages beyond what meets the eye. While the routines and movements are not designed to get your heart pumping and burn calories, there are definite benefits in terms of circulation, balance and all of the perks you get from a focused meditation.
Most of us picture meditation as being seated with crossed legs and maybe even the need to make an ominous humming sound, but tai chi is a very active form of meditation. The very low-impact movements are great for your posture while allowing you to concentrate on your breathing and slow your heart rate, which in turn is a great opportunity to de-stress and clear your head.
Even elite athletes benefit from slow movement meditation, with more advanced techniques requiring greater balance and muscle control. Postures flow together without pause, which makes for a stunningly graceful dance (if you do it right) with your body moving in constant motion, and you also have the benefit of being able to practice anywhere within reason, either indoor or outdoor and with zero equipment required – you just need space to move.
Online health and wellbeing information platform WebMD has categorized the physical benefits associated with tai chi:
• Core: Your posture will be maintained as you flow from move to move
• Arms: Many of the flowing movements associated with the “gentle martial art” relate to the hands and arms, including some at speed
• Legs, glutes & back: Movements take place standing up, so tai chi do use your leg muscles, often when you have to hold semi crouched positions
Meet Master Can
We went and took a class in Dubai with Master Shi Yan Can, a 34th generation warrior monk who trained at a Shaolin temple in China.
Master Can has trained in wushu (a Chinese martial art) since he was a child and has a deep love and master of kung fu.
The hour-long class consisted of three phases. The initial warm up was all about stretching, getting loose and relaxing our posture. What followed was a standing meditation to clear the mind, with a focus on closed eyes and deep breathing.
The final phase was the actual tai chi element, with slow and steady movements of the arms and body, within the Zen-like state achieved through the standing meditation.
Master Can made sure to explain how the “art of being soft to be strong” involved the idea of strengthening our Chi, another word for the concept of a life force in Chinese tradition.
This also relates to the theory of doing everything in balance, represented by the yin and yang – every movement requiring an opposite movement and motion.
The class was an incredible way to focus the mind and find relaxation through movement and breathing. But what was the key take-home? Master Can joked that typical students in Dubai begin wanting to see immediate results, but the idea of tai chi is consistency and patience – and ironically, that’s also what it teaches.
It’s one thing to pay a kung fu master to teach you the ancient art, but tai chi is surprisingly accessible to anyone able to search for a video tutorial on YouTube.
Unless you’re paying to have special tuition from someone like Master Can, the costs are minimal. It’s also great for beginners since it’s a low cardio, low impact pastime with no equipment required.