What is Tai Chi?
One day the Daoist monk Chang San-feng was disturbed by the sounds of a snake and a crane fighting in his courtyard. Each time the crane’s rapierlike beak stabbed, the flexible snake twisted out of reach. And the crane’s wings, like shields, protected its long neck from the snake’s striking head. According to the myth, from observing this battle, Chang San-feng developed the art of Tai-Chi Chuan (Grand Ultimate or Supreme Fist), which is based on the concept of yielding in the face of aggression.
The study of Tai-Chi Chuan is unique in the sense that it marks the historical meeting of many centuries of Daoist study known as Chi Kung ("Excellence of Energy"), which was primarily dedicated to physical health and spiritual growth, with the need at the time (approximately 1,000 A.D.) for monks to defend themselves against bandits and warlords. The result was an unusual blend of healing art/martial art/meditation which has been referred to as the internal practice of Tai-Chi Chuan.
In each of these expressions, this emphasis on the internal aspect of the study is primary. This indicates that the true focus of the study is not solely, nor even primarily, on the physical level, but places the emphasis of the practice more on the mental and energetic levels. The mental component is really most important since the number one condition that inhibits an individual from achieving excellence in anything, including one’s own health, is a state that Traditional Chinese Medicine refers to as being "weak-minded". This "weak-minded" state indicates one who is easily confused or distracted. So the first quality to be developed in Tai-Chi is that of strengthening one’s concentration, or what is referred to in the martial arts as being centered.
The ability to center the mind is really that of keeping the mind interested and involved in the experience of the present moment. This is understood to be the foundation of Tai-Chi because from this state of attention comes the possibility to change, correct, and heal. To facilitate this process Tai-Chi uses a physical location, the lower abdomen/pelvis, which is called the Dan Tien in Chinese. This represents the true body center in the sense that it’s the natural movement and feeling center. With this specific body awareness we can begin the process of distributing the attention more evenly and equally throughout the body. The ability to spread attention throughout the body is understood in Chinese medicine to be one of the most important elements of good health because it’s indicative of the relationship between the mind and the body. Unlike the prevailing Western view that one must work hard for the experience we call being healthy, in Tai Chi health is understood to be natural (and therefore effortless) to that individual who has achieved balance and harmony between body and mind.
Change and Discovery
Tai-Chi has, during it’s 1000 years of development, been considered to be a movement art. This implies much more than just physical or even energetic movement. It denotes a relationship with the experience of change. The attitude which Tai-Chi seeks to cultivate is an understanding of change as a natural life process. One is asked to look at tendencies in which we resist change, possibly even fear it. Through the practice of Tai-Chi one allows oneself to become a more willing participant in the process of change, understanding that it is inevitable anyway. The practice begins primarily as a physical experience, but given time, applies the qualities that we seek to develop physically, including balance, good timing, and integration, to the emotional, mental, and spiritual levels as well.
The essence of Tai-Chi practice is not to learn a set of movements, nor to become talented in a system of self-defense, although these abilities may occur during the course of practice. The intention of Tai-Chi is to allow one the opportunity to become more aware of the natural laws which govern change; not just change in the body as affects physical, structural movement, but rather principles of change and movement that govern every aspect of our lives and the world around us. The exercises of the practice simply provide us with an opportunity to explore that process of discovery.