What “Tai Chi Chuan” means?
The Chinese term “Tai Chi” corresponds to the celebrated black-and-white circular yin-yang symbol. Conceptually, this term contains a double superlative degree. Thus, it is often translated as “ultimate”, “supreme” or “universe”, because the said symbol pictures the alternation of the contrary-complementary yin-yang principles. According to Taoism, this alternation holds the universe in balance. “Chuan” means “fist”. Thus it is often interpreted as “martial art”, “art” or “technique”.
Considering the above, there have been many efforts to translate into western languages the term “Tai Chi Chuan”. Some of the most acceptable translations are “Supreme Fist”, “Ultimate martial art” etc. These expressions are exaggerative at worst and poetic at best, and shroud Tai Chi Chuan in a veil of exoticism and mystery.
A more balanced approach, compatible with the principles of Tai Chi Chuan is “The martial art that is based on the alternation of yin and yang”. Anyone who has practiced even a little Tai Chi Chuan can understand that this translation is fully realistic and contains no exaggerations.
Why is lineage and family relationship so important in martial arts circles?
Two reasons. First, respect to the teacher and the art becomes, since the art is passed on and taught by family members, respect for the generations that have worked and refined, and passed the art on so that you can learn it. Second, that the lineage and teachers of a person is the best measure, short of actually working with them, of their proficiency in the art. This is because the art can not be learned from a book, it requires hands-on training. Books (e.g. the Tai Chi Chuan classics) can be used to help solidify and promote understanding (“sign-posts on the road”) but no more than that.
Family members traditionally accord the greatest respect and are the ultimate authority on the art. This authority may seem arbitrary to western thinking but it is based on practical facts. Family members learned and practiced Tai Chi Chuan with the greatest masters alive – the older generations. They would start as young as 3 and practice full-time. Furthermore, advanced training and concepts where only available to family members or those very close to it (“disciples”). It is hard for an outside practitioner to achieve that kind of focus or to have that quality and diversity of teachers.
What is Wu Style and how does it relate to “Tai Chi Chuan”?
Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan is one of the 3 major styles of Tai Chi Chuan. The others are Yang and Chen. Each of these 3 styles is named from the family that has practiced, taught, and passed it on to later generations. Traditionally, the study and practice of the art has been “family property”. Family members devote their lives to teaching and practicing the art. They are also considered to be the ultimate authority on their style.
“Tai Chi” is a contraction of the more traditional term “Tai Chi Chuan”. Chuan is a general term that can be translated as “martial discipline”, or “boxing”.
How long shall it take until I become competent in Tai Chi Chuan?
This depends on the time and effort you are willing to dedicate, from your inclination, from your age, from your previous experience and from your expectations. A student who practices daily, progresses very differently from a student who practices once or twice a week. A student 20 years old progresses much faster in comparison with a 50-60 years old person. A student who has previously received training in another martial art, in yoga or another system of exercise or sports, also will progress faster than a person who exercises his body for the first time. And a person who just wishes to learn the form and a few exercises for good health has very different expectations in comparison with a student who wants to become adept in free fighting and the use of traditional weapons. Thus, the reply to this answer depends on multiple factors. However, in order to get an idea about the average time that is required for competence in various areas of Tai Chi Chuan, please see the section Components.
The good news is that no matter who you are, no matter what experience you have, no matter what is your age or inclinations, no matter how much time you can dedicate, you can practice Tai Chi Chuan and benefit from it. So you should not find excuses like “I am too old”, “I do not have time”, “This is too difficult for me” etc. Start now and make Tai Chi Chuan part of your life – and you will be greatly benefited!
How Tai Chi Chuan will benefit my health and what can I expect from my practice?
It is widely accepted that exercise improves one’s physical, mental and emotional health, as well as one’s quality of life. Modern man has realized that health is too precious to leave it on the hands of the experts. We all know that we have to work on the improvement of our health before we get sick and have to go to a doctor. Thus, prevention is one of the great benefits of Tai Chi Chuan.
When we try to actively improve our health, we cease to be passive consumers of medications. We take our life in our hands – of course, this does not mean that we cease to consult a doctor when necessary. This mentality is by itself self-healing!
Generally, Tai Chi Chuan is very different from other systems of exercise, because it its main concern is human health and not any achievements that stress the body. Also, Tai Chi does not care about victory over others. Its exercises are made according to the Hippocrates’ adage “to benefit-not to harm”. Tai Chi Chuan cares only about the improvement of one’s emotional and physical health. When we exercise ourselves with this mentality, we protect our body and maintain our energies.
Students of Tai Chi Chuan produce power and energy, and learn to use it efficiently. They do not exhaust themselves needlessly, as is the case in most sports and systems of exercise. Thus, gradually the body stores great energy reserves and gains a self-healing capability. And when the practitioner changes his diet, his health improves dramatically and manages to overcome many problems.
The calm movement, the gentle stretching and the memorization of the Form’s techniques, the combination of motion and breathing exercises during Chi Kung, the explosive techniques during the exercises for power production, the mental concentration, the interaction with the other students during Pushing Hands, and the many more elements of Tai Chi Chuan, make it a complete system of exercise that fulfils all the physical, mental and emotional needs of modern man.
This complete system of exercise strengthens the whole body, improves blood circulation and respiratory function, has a beneficial effect on the nervous system, eases stress and anxiety, sharpens the memory etc. It is through these beneficial changes and through the consistent practice that one’s health improves, and not through some kind of magic formula!
Are there age restrictions concerning Tai Chi Chuan?
It is believed that Tai Chi Chuan is suitable mainly for the elderly or the sick. Although these people can practice some aspects of Tai Chi Chuan until their body gets stronger, actually this is another Western (or even Chinese) myth. Tai Chi Chuan is demanding and requires time and effort.
It includes a great variety of exercises. Some are very gentle and anyone can perform them. However, in a more advanced level, these exercises demand – and at the same time promote – physical strength. Tai Chi Chuan includes many exercises and forms that demand strength, explosiveness, endurance etc. A practitioner must either be already physically fit or he must be willing to become physically fit.
In actuality, Tai Chi Chuan contains endless techniques. Thus, a trainer may organize his lesson according to the level, the age and the physical fitness of his students. A good teacher can teach equally well children, teenagers, adults or the elderly, healthy and weak people alike, people who just seek a gentle system of exercise or those who wish to gain martial competence.
I have seen some people dressed in Chinese uniforms, while others just wear everyday clothes during their Tai Chi Chuan practice. Some wear special shoes, while others practice barefoot. What must I wear during my practice?
Actually, there are no fixed rules for these matters. In Western countries, as well as in China, Tai Chi Chuan practitioners wear everyday clothes during exercise. However, many choose to wear the traditional Chinese martial arts uniform (the one with the characteristic buttons, satin or cotton). Many practitioners choose to wear simple gym clothes or just loose trousers and a T-shirt.
As for the shoes, after Tai Chi Chuan became popular in New Age followers and hippies, many people came to believe that during its exercise, the practitioner should be barefoot in order to come in contact with the powers of Nature. This belief was well received in Greece, mainly because of the first book on Tai Chi Chuan that was translated in Greek (Yang Jwing Ming, Kedros Publications, transl. by Petros Kouropoulos, the “father” of Tai Chi Chuan in Greece). In this book, the author demonstrates the Tai Chi exercises in Karate uniform and barefoot, probably because he lived and taught in Japan and was a Karate student. However, as a rule of thumb, students of Chinese martial arts practice wearing shoes. Of course, if you happen to find yourself in a nice beach or in a forest and want to practice barefoot, you can do so if you wish.
In our training centers we usually wear loose black trousers and a white T-shirt, and soft shoes (look for them as “Tae Kwon Do shoes”). Students do not wear this outfit outside of the training centre. However, we are not strict on this. In our classes, we accept student who wear any loose and comfortable clothes.
How can the slow motions we see in the park be considered as “martial art”?
The slow motions one usually identifies as Tai Chi Chuan are known as “The Form” or “The Chuan”. This is a series of movements that may last from 10 minutes to 1/2 hour. The Form is very important and is the basis for training in Tai Chi Chuan. The form has aspects of health, martial arts and meditation. However it is still only a part of the complete training in the art. The martial aspect of The Form is not readily apparent to the uninitiated. A simple answer could be “You must be able to do it slow before you can expect to do it fast”, but there is much more to it than that. Besides the obvious martial benefits of balance, co-ordination, and looseness The Form also cultivates qualities like a relaxed focused mind and healthy resilient body. It trains the core motion and reactions of the practitioner, increasing the person’s martial potential. The Form also contains, in its movements, a myriad of martial applications and the elements of power generation. These are hidden from an untrained observer in much the same way that fine poetry will not be revealed to someone who has not learned the language yet.
The Form is the basis of Tai Chi Chuan but “Push Hands” is considered the “gateway into martial arts”. There are also other martial exercises beyond Push Hands. The confusion about Tai chi Chuan being a martial art has probably arisen in part because many Tai Chi Chuan schools only practice The Form and exercises focused on health and meditation. This may be because the founder of the school has not learned the martial practices or that the students do not have the desire or have progressed far enough to learn them.
Why do I have to learn fighting applications? I am a peaceful person and I actually dislike fighting.
Tai Chi Chuan is a holistic system and it is not advisable to omit parts of it. Of course many schools and trainers teach a Form and some Chi Kungs, without analyzing their fighting applications. In many cases, the trainer does not even know that there are fighting applications. All trainers deserve respect, but we believe that these kinds of omissions are undesirable.
However, all movements of the Form serve a particular purpose – they are not merely chorography. And this purpose is a competence that is gained through practice in sparring. Thus, when a student analyzes the Form and recognizes its deeper purposes, manages to “unlock” its secrets. Then, not only his practice is lifted to another dimension, but he gains far greater health benefits. Moreover, the student learns to practice the Form with great precision. In this way, the authenticity of the Form is maintained – its movements will not be “diluted” during the teaching process. A student who practices the fighting applications of the Form will not perform the Form mechanically or superficially.
In conclusion, we believe that even if a student does not want to practice the fighting applications and the free sparring techniques, it is good at least to have an idea about them. In this way, the student will be able to understand the true purpose of the movements of the Form, even if he will not perform the fighting applications. However, we encourage students to train in a school that teaches fighting applications, even if he is unwilling to perform them, because a trainer who teaches fighting applications will have a deep knowledge of the Form.
Can I learn Tai Chi Chuan without practicing fighting applications and Pushing Hands?
Definitely! Anyway, the vast majority of Tai Chi Chuan schools and trainers do not teach Pushing Hands or fighting applications. Many trainers ignore their very existence! However, the Tai Chi Chuan you will learn if you do omit these practices will not be of high quality, since its core, which is no other than martial training – will be missing. For further details on this topic, we refer the reader to the Question Why do I have to learn fighting applications? I am a peaceful person and I actually dislike fighting.
To those who do dislike the martial aspect of Tai Chi Chuan, we recommend at least to be informed about it. Thus, they will be able to comprehend deeper what they do. We also recommend students to enroll to a school that teaches fighting applications (if of course this is possible for them) because this means that the trainer will have a deeper knowledge of the Forms.
I have heard that Tai Chi Chuan is very mystical, is shrouded in a veil of mystery and pertains to metaphysical powers. I do not think it suits a “down to earth” person like myself!
Many trainers and students try to present Tai Chi Chuan (especially Chi Kung) as a form of magic, open only to few chosen ones. Thus, the people who practice it pass themselves off as “the chosen ones” and attract confiding students (or those who also want to become members of the “chosen” team)! These people boast about the supernatural powers you gain when you practice this “secret art” or claim (or even proclaim) that they are masters of amazing powers which they can transmit to you (if of course you pay the sky-high fees they demand). These “secrets” most often pertain to decisive blows from a distance, to qi projection into people and objects, to immortality etc.
As a rule, these trainers use exotic Chinese words (sometimes these are not Chinese, sometimes not even words!) for everything, they say that physical exercise is inessential or useless, and what counts is initiation into the “secret” Chi Kung, breathing exercises and meditation. Almost always, these trainers are disciples of a “hermit” or a “sage”, who decided to share his secrets with a Western student he met suddenly on a Chinese mountain…. !
We cannot know the truth of such statements. What we do know is that Tai Chi Chuan is a holistic system of exercise, very logic and concrete. It does not differ from any system of physical exercise and it demands dedication. It is suitable for any student who wishes to exercise his body in a gentle way and does not wish to renounce his logical thinking before enrolling to a school. As Master Wu states in the beginning of each course, “We do not need nonsense here. If you seek mystery and supernatural powers please leave this room now. Here you will find only exercises that demand logical thinking, dedication and sweat”.
What is this “Chi Kung”? I have heard so much about it!
There are many myths, misunderstandings (sometimes even conscious lies) and delusions about Chi Kung. It is often shrouded in a veil of mystery from the trainers who wish to deceive naïve, confiding students that may have watched too many Hollywood movies. Add to this the fact that Chi Kung should be practiced only under the guidance of an experienced, serious teacher, otherwise it can be dangerous for one’s health, and it becomes clear that its practice must be done with great attention. Students should never practice Chi Kung from books or under the guidance of an unreliable teacher. Please make sure that the teacher you choose is indeed reliable! Trainers who are “disciples of a Taoist sage”, who use many Chinese words and try to pass off as saints are usually untrustworthy.
Chi Kung exercises combine movement, stillness, breath control and concentration. The energy that is produced and stored in the body through Chi Kung is very beneficial, as it awakens the body’s self-healing potential. The same process takes place with all systems of exercise. The rest is just marketing.
It is said that Tai Chi Chuan has many similarities with Yoga, and that both systems have similar benefits. Is this true?
Tai Chi became popular in Western societies. However, this Tai Chi was “diluted”, as it lacked its martial core. Tai Chi was linked with New Age movement and became a form of gentle, meditative exercise. Many called it “Meditation in movement” and identified it with yoga. In actuality, these two systems have little in common, apart from the fact that both are very beautiful, ancient, holistic Eastern systems of exercise. However, their philosophy of exercise is very different and they are suitable for different types. Also, each system addresses different needs and goals. Beyond the most obvious difference, which is the fact that Yoga is stationary and Tai Chi mobile (meaning that the one is best for more “mobile” types and the other for more “static” types), there are some other ones too:
Pertaining to the way of physical exercise, Yoga concentrates on stretching. We believe that this stretching sometimes is brought to extremes, ignoring the sense of moderation and balance. Generally speaking, the physical aspect of Yoga is focused on stretching, relaxing the body and controlling the breath. The spiritual aspect of Yoga focuses on the unification of man and God (Yoga means “unification”), and its practices aim to this unification, regardless of its cost. Yoga believes in the eternal battle between Good and Evil. Of course, Yoga practitioners support the Good. Thus, many Yoga practitioners feel detached from the material world and believe that the material human body is inessential (and thus “Evil”), and at the same time concentrate on the cultivation of the spirit (considering it “Good”). Many Yoga practitioners become disciples of a guru (alive or dead) who is their spiritual father or even an embodiment of God.
The main goal of Tai Chi Chuan is martial competence and the accumulation of energy and power. This is achieved through practice in a variety of exercises that train the body in multiple ways. Tai Chi starts from relaxation, and believes that suppleness springs from relaxation (the contrary from the Yoga belief). Also, Tai Chi focuses on power, endurance, explosiveness, jumping ability and other parameters of physical exercise that are absent from Yoga. The main feature of Tai Chi is that is always takes into consideration the principle of moderation and respects the human body.
Tai Chi Chuan includes exercises like Pushing Hands, the fighting applications and the use of traditional weapons. These practices are far from just a “Meditation in Movement” and of course have little in common with the practices of Yoga. The philosophy of Tai Chi is based on the eternal interdependence of the two contrary and at the same time complementary universal forces of yin and yang. The main goal of a Tai Chi practitioner is to harmonize himself with the natural flow of these forces. Thus, he does not believe that his physical body or his material needs are of lesser value than his spiritual ones. Tai Chi Chuan does not seek unification with the Divine and nobody tries to guide anyone on spiritual or religious matters. In the world of Tai Chi there are no gurus. The term “Master” is given only to teachers who have reached a very high level of competence and mastery thanks to their hard work, and has no metaphysical connections.
In summary, if we look at the two systems purely from a physical point of view, on the one hand we are basically dealing with a system of physical stretches based on relaxation, while on the other hand we are dealing with a complete system of martial arts.
In conclusion, we wish to emphasize that we do not say that Tai Chi Chuan is better than Yoga. We believe that both disciplines are valid since they exist from antiquity. However, we believe that they have different goals, philosophies and methodology. Thus, each one of us should do his investigation and see what suits his needs best.
Why should I prefer Tai Chi Chuan over a typical gym work-out or a common sport?
The typical gym work-outs are one thing and the learning of an art quite another. The main difference lies to the level of dedication. Usually, in the gym we are taught the basics and the use of gym machines and equipment. Then, we repeat endlessly the same exercises (sometimes with slight variations), in order to lift heavier weights, to become more flexible or to improve our endurance in stretching or aerobics.
Tai Chi Chuan, like all serious disciplines, demands many years of sufficient practice in order to gain mastery. It contains many techniques, forms and movements a student must memorize. A Tai Chi student must learn to perform a great number of techniques with uttermost precision, to combine breath with movement, to cultivate mental concentration and to use the traditional weapons. Thus, his interest is sustained for many years, until he is able to perform satisfactorily the Tai Chi techniques. And when a student reaches this level, his interest is kindled even more.
We do not say that the practice of Tai Chi Chuan is exciting 100% of the time – we believe that this is impossible for any serious system of exercise. Tai Chi Chuan mastery is achieved through the dedicated repetition of the basic and advanced exercises. However, during these repetitions, the student gains a deeper understanding of the techniques. Thus, he becomes an adept in these techniques and learns more aspects of Tai Chi.
Also, the physical exercise in Tai Chi Chuan is intense right from the beginning, and improves all aspects of athletic activity (physical strength, flexibility, agility, coordination, balance, jumping ability etc.). During this long process, strong bonds are developed between group members (trainers and students). This cannot happen in the gyms world, where people come and go in a very fast pace.
In the gym people exercise repeating movements, without ever delving deeper to the exercises, and without committing themselves to any process. However, Tai Chi Chuan and the other holistic arts demand many years of dedicated study. Of course, this is not obligatory and it does not mean that students are obliged to continue until they gain mastery. A student can stay as long as he wishes, and can stop when he feels that he does not want to go on. It is certain that he will have already learned many beneficial skills. In contrast with what takes place in the faceless gym environment, students of Tai Chi develop their personality in a warm atmosphere.