Tai chi originated in China as a martial art before written history. It is usually described as a mind-body practice that is sometimes referred to as "moving meditation.” Many people say "dance-like" when describing it. In fact, whenever I describe Tai chi and use one of these popular descriptions I inevitably feel that I am doing an injustice to the creators of Tai chi.
Legend has it that the creator of Tai chi, was a Taoist monk called, Chan San Feng. He developed a set of 13 exercises that mimicked animals movements and focused on the cultivation of internal energy, often referred to as "Chi," or "Qi," as opposed to brute strength. According to the legend, Tai chi came to him upon watching an eagle attack a snake. He noticed the snake was coiled and evaded the eagle with an elusive soft power, nothing like the muscular force that the eagle used to attack. Frustrated, the eagle left and from that encounter we have a series of movements and postures that have taught millions around the world that soft power, not brute force, can bring one many benefits.
In 2007, a national survey, found that 2.3 million U.S. adults practiced Tai chi in the past 12 months. One Google search on "how to become certified as a Tai chi instructor?" yielded 490,000 results. The average cost was around $500 to become a Tai chi instructor through an online course and certification. Other organizations require one to attend workshops with many different levels from beginner to advanced. This will cost quite a bit more, especially adding in flights and lodging. To be sure each credentialing body has their own unique spin on the definition of Tai chi.
There are many definitions of Tai chi out there. Below are the most commonly found in the academic literature.
Common definitions of Tai chi:
“an exercise based on slow intentional movements, often coordinated with breathing and imagery, which aims to strengthen and relax the physical body and mind, enhance the natural flow of what the Chinese call qi (a non-translatable word that describes the interpretation and connection of phenomenon, or life energy), and improve health, personal development, and self-defence”
Tai chi is a form of martial arts that combines graceful movements with meditation. Tai chi may have positive effects for those with chronic heart failure.
Tai chi, which originated in China as a martial art, is a mind and body practice. Tai chi is sometimes referred to as “moving meditation”—practitioners move their bodies slowly, gently, and with awareness, while breathing deeply.
I have found over the years of my own practice and teaching others, especially older adults that the above definitions are incomplete.
My definition of Tai chi:
Tai chi is a method of training that was developed thousands of years ago by people who understood how humans fit into their environment. Its main focus is training the body and mind to coordinate, integrate, and synchronize the timing and intensity of body parts to move in unison with a high level of attention paid to gravity and other environmental influences to achieve the highest out put of energy with the least input.
Why propose a new definition?
For me the answer to this question lies in my years of studying the Yang Style Secret Family Transmissions complied by Douglas Wile. I have owned that book for 17 years and often refer to it as a reference. There are many passages I could quote but the two that really inspired me to seek a new definition of Tai Chi are The Meaning of The Civil and The Martial in T’ai Chi, and The treatise on Before and After Acquiring the Ability to Interpret Energy in T’ai Chi.
These two passages explain why Tai Chi holds the place in our society that has been deemed by health professional as an excellent exercise for older adults. It shows that ancient Tai chi practitioners really did understood that aging is imminent and that perfecting biomechanics, and many bodily processes, like kinesthetic senses, breath, internal awareness are essential functions of Tai chi. Those sections also point out that just focusing on the martial aspects or winning fights would be short lived. The earlier definitions speak nothing of the deep internal work and prescient awareness that these masters had of the body. I hope mine offers more of a nod to the early creators of Tai chi.