I’ve been asked this question often: Why study Tai Chi? What’s the point of dedicating countless hours to a practice that brings no obvious benefits beyond what you would get from a yoga class or a mild exercise routine.
It’s a fair question. And I think most of us Tai Chi practitioners have poor answers. Most of us would mention that it just FEELS good to do it. But then again, so does yoga, and it has some of the same health benefits without requiring the added hours dedicated to memorizing sequences of movement.
There is also a definite romantic element to it. It’s fun to practice a martial art. Start doing the sword form and tell me years of watching swashbuckling movies don’t come up. Tai Chi is gentle enough that we can fantasize about the adventures without living the reality of bruises and over-sized egos found in hard martial arts.
But the real reason is, I think, found in the historical crucible that created Tai Chi in the first place.
The principles behind Tai Chi have existed for a very long time. Ancient martial arts like the Long Fist are ancestors of Tai Chi, and have existed for millennia’s. The idea of combining Taoist principles and martial arts is not new to China. But Tai Chi is the form that suddenly exploded in the Chinese consciousness and stayed there.
If you look at when Tai Chi became famous, the dominant mood in China was fear. The world was changing very fast, and not for the better. The crumbling Qing Dynasty and the invading Western powers were a double blow to Chinese self-esteem and physical safety. China was the Sick Man of Asia, and many must have felt powerless to change the situation.
Tai Chi starts to spread during this period of instability because, in my opinion, it offers a way to regain control over one’s life. To those in turn-of-the-Century China, it reinforced Chinese identity while teaching how to become safe in the face of physical threats. To us in turn-of-the-Century Earth, facing the chaos of a global economic crisis and the acid bath of globalization on cultural identity, it offers a similar safe haven.
Tai Chi washed upon the American shores smack in the middle of the 60s. A young population eager for something different immediately took to it. The 60s in America felt as chaotic as China must have felt. Between Kent State, the Civil Rights marches, the Hippie movement and the Weather Underground, it must have felt like the country was tearing itself apart.
And this new century is not much better, with threats of new extremisms rising from all sides and an economic situation getting more fragile by the day, we are all in dire need of a way to cope.
And that is where Tai Chi comes in.
Tai Chi, by declaring itself a martial art, uses conflict as the main metaphor for our relationship with the outside world. Everything can be understood as two opposing forces meeting at the point of contact: opening a door (your mass vs. the inertia of the door), stepping out of the way on a crowded sidewalk (vectors of force colliding), or even a conversation (ideas, goals, clashing in a dialog).
The next question Tai Chi addresses is therefore, in the face of conflict, what is the best response? And it comes up with two answers.
From the outside view, where other martial arts teach active resistance, Tai Chi teaches flexibility. In Tai Chi you don’t block, you Roll Back. You don’t impose your will on the other, you flow with him or her, disappear from under the push. And the truth is that in most of our lives, we have very little power to change our circumstances. You cannot use hard martial art principles on your boss, but you can use Tai Chi.
From the inside view, Tai Chi trains us to relax in the middle of the storm. It creates a self-contained center, a core which belongs to us, which cannot be affected by external events, our connection to a greater whole. No matter what happens in the outside world, we connect to our dantian and through it to the vast Oneness of the Universe itself. “Find stillness in the movement, and movement in the stillness” the Tai Chi Classics tell us.
And that’s what makes Tai Chi different than Yoga, or a mild exercise routine. Whether you are conscious of it or not, Tai Chi teaches you tools to cope with the modern world. It creates a set of mental habits that shield you from the daily horror of modern life.