T’ai Chi (or more precisely T’ai Chi Ch’uan) was originally developed primarily as a martial art that proved to have great health benefits. In later years it has come to be viewed as primarily a health art that has a loose link with martial practices. This is why the art is commonly referred to as “Tai Chi” (the ch’uan or “fist” being conveniently dropped from the description). lt is my personal opinion that the art cannot be fully understood or the full panoply of benefits experienced without a thorough knowledge and place of this martial side.

Therefore, although I will use the term “Tai Chi” throughout this article for reasons of brevity I am implying the full breadth of the art.

Tai Chi is much more than “Pretty dancing” It is a complex art that works on a variety of levels.

At its most basic, it is a superb exercise programme It promotes relaxation of muscles, proper joint alignment, correct posture, and teaches the body to move in wholly different ways that give it great strength with little effort. It increases blood flow, massages the internal organs and strengthens muscles, joints and bones. It encourages correct breathing to enhance vitality.

Many people have the mistaken idea that Tai Chi is only the sequence of slow movements known as “the form” but this is only part of it. There are many other forms (e.g. “Flying Hand, Sword, Silk, Stick, Fan”) that are performed at a faster pace. In this way, practising Tai Chi can also contribute to Cardio-vascular fitness One of the major principles of Tai Chi is understanding the concept of “getting behind the pressure”. The practitioner first becomes aware of this when practising “Sticky or “Pushing Hands” . It is a martial practice from which Tai Chi originated. The idea is that it is preferable to meet force with yielding and use misdirection to overcome an opponent rather then strength. This has great implications for governing your health as well as your life. It is about “going with the flow”, doing “what is right by you”, but also, more profoundly, getting the timing right. It is about acting early and making the job easy rather than acting late when the problem has grown. It is about not embarking on a path before you are ready and exhausting your strength, but relaxing and being patient before Judging the moment.

This applies of course to the cultivation of internal energy (“Chi”) Possibly the most compelling argument for practicing the art. It is the prime mover of all things. Simplistically, where there is chi there is life, where there is not there is death.

However, this cultivation cannot be forced. It must be allowed to grow naturally by correct practice. It is possible to harm yourself both physically and mentally by practical in the wrong way by forcing progress before the body is ready. Tai Chi is about patience, a gradual unfolding. Being humble.

To my mind, this is where the real benefits of Tai Chi arise. The spiritual and mental dimensions Tai Chi is not an easy option. It demands a high degree of discipline and perseverance. It is a whetstone against which you daily sharpen yourself. To fully understand the form is a near impossible task. It is meant to be. It is a discipline that demands mental, physical and spiritual effort every time you try to perform it. Add to this the fact that, as it opens up the “gates” within the body, all manner of unpleasant side effects can arise. Old injuries flare up, psychological problems manifest themselves. (The syllabus of at least one major Tai Chi organisation, advises what to do when a student bursts into tears and runs out of the room in frustration. (Not that uncommon in my experience!) Why continue to practice then? Quite simply, Tai Chi changes your life.

It brings to the surface what must be dealt with. It does not give you the easy option, but it teaches you about the body in phenomenal depth. (I have been fortunate to teach three physiotherapists, all of whom said that the study of Tai Chi fundamentally changed the way they practiced their skill!) It is also great fun. Despite the downside, there is always something to keep your mind and body fresh and excited. It frees you from the macho posturing of having to be aggressive to be strong, and allows you to love your body for being a perfect machine, whatever the shape, size, age or sex. It is a great equaliser.

You can do as much or as like as you wish, you can be gentle with yourself and still benefit. My late master, Chee Soo stated that “do five moves well and you can do Tai Chi, do 140 moves badly and you can’t” But don’t take my word for it. Find a good, well qualified teacher (the

style doesn’t matter), and see for yourself. It could just change your life! B Westley 2006 Barry Westley has studied Tai Chi and the related arts for over 25 years and is an instructor (3rd Tengji) in T’ai Chi Ch’uan and Taoist Yoga, an instructor 1st Tengji) in Feng Shou Kung Fu, a qualified Shiatsu Practitioner and associate member of the Malvern College of Healing.

Barry has won both Gold and Bronze medals in National Tui Shou (“Tai Chi Pushing Hands”) Competitions. He is also an ex Power-lifting champion and lnventor of the Tai Rod Exercise System.

Website: barrywestley.mysite.wanadoo-members.co.uk