What is Tai Chi?
Is it a mystical ancient art? Is it a health panacea? Is it a black and white circular symbol? How about an ultimate fighting system? What about a philosophy or conceptual framework? Depending on who you ask, tai chi could be any one of the above mentioned possibilities. There is a joke that goes “How many tai chi practitioners does it take to screw in a light bulb? 100. One to screw it in, and 99 to say ‘that’s not how I was taught to do that.'” Similarly, if you ask 100 different people what tai chi is, you’re liable to get nearly as many different answers.
To simplify the question, we need to differentiate between tai chi as a health practice, tai chi chuan (taijiquan) as martial art, and tai chi as a concept. At the most fundamental level, tai chi is a concept; it is the state of harmony between yin and yang. The yin-yang symbol is an illustration of this idea. The whole is neither yin, nor yang. Rather, tai chi encompasses both yin and yang. It is the balance between yin and yang such that both are present and can evolve one into the other. Tai chi chuan, in all its glorious variants, encompasses martial arts based on the principle of tai chi. Tai chi as a health practice borrows pre-choreographed forms from tai chi chuan and removes most of the martial aspects of training. Tai chi practiced for health instead focuses on improving health through a blend of body movement, qigong, and meditative exercises.
With the multitude of tai chi practices in the world, there are some common misconceptions. A complete list would be impractically long, but we can explore a few examples:
Tai chi is not defined by circular movement. Circular movement is a natural consequence of the joints of the human body. No joint in the body allows linear motion. Every joint works by allowing movement in arcs. Harmonizing the yin and yang in the body makes the circular movement more obvious and links the arc across multiple joints. Integrated and curved movement result from applying the principle of tai chi to body movement. However, it is entirely possible to perform circular movements which do not manifest the yin-yang tai chi harmony. Curved movement is an effect rather than a prerequisite of tai chi.
Tai chi is not just softly yielding to force. “Four ounces deflects a thousand pounds” is a common tai chi saying. Unfortunately, a lot of people misinterpret this as meaning that you must use no force and become limp to deal with incoming force. Dealing with a force by just yielding and dropping back is just a yin movement. Directly fighting back against a force is a purely yang movement. The tai chi occurs when the force is met and dealt with using simultaneous yin and yang movements. (note: “meeting” the force is matching the force and not fighting back against it) If there is yielding to the force at one section, there must be an advancing force elsewhere for balance. A common example of this is absorbing a force with one hand to project force with the other. The concept also applies equally well to a single point of contact. If one side of the point of contact yields, then the other side of the of the point of contacts advances–much like moving on a pivot. When this harmony of yin and yang occurs, then the force can be deflected as a “rollback” where the opponent feels like they are touching a spinning sphere.
Tai chi is not shifting weight. Shifting the weight is a training tool to understand movement at the hips. Just shifting the weight translates the body weight from one leg to another. Some people claim that making one leg empty and the other leg full is manifesting yin and yang. That’s true in a sense, but that doesn’t make the weight shift tai chi; it makes the weight shifting either a yin or yang movement. The tai chi occurs when the yin and yang are both present and harmonized. It is more important to understand the coordination between flexors and extensors and between the anterior and posterior chain. This yin-yang harmony can happen just as readily from an equal-weighted stance as from a split-weight stance.
Ultimately, tai chi as either a martial or health practice must manifest a harmonization of yin and yang. The yin and yang in the body structure and body movements must be balanced to truly practice “tai chi.” Tai chi practiced for health, taijiquan practiced as a martial art, or any art based on tai chi must be guided by this principle of harmonizing the yin and yang.