What Is Tai Chi? Why Is It So Good For You?

Photo: Mike Taylor

Michael Taylor is a mind-body movement expert, martial artist, and the co-founder of Strala Yoga. In his new mbg class, The Complete Guide To Tai Chi: Everyday Practices To Drop Stress, Release Pain & Create Whole-Body Harmony, you’ll learn not only the basics of tai chi but how to use it to achieve your goals and dreams with ease. 

Tai chi provides a wonderful way to connect with your whole body, come into harmony with yourself, and learn to move more easily through all kinds of challenges. It also works to release stress, unblock energy where it's stuck, and heal everything from inflammation and chronic pain to digestive and immune disorders.

Here's a quick summary guide to the principles, approach, and practice. This will get you started if you're new and keep you progressing from wherever you are.

Tai chi begins with a mindset that has two parts.

The first is that most of the obstacles we face are inside us, and the second is that our greatest achievements are found in harmony and peace rather than struggle and aggression. The practice of tai chi unblocks energy that becomes blocked when we move unnaturally, out of alignment with ourselves. It creates the right conditions for healing by releasing stress and bringing our whole self into harmony—every part working well with every other part. And it allows us to move more powerfully in our lives by releasing the excess tension we carry, that keeps us working much harder than we need to to accomplish much less than we can.

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There are the practicable elements of tai chi.

1. Softness, or a mind practice, for mobilizing yourself.

2. Breath, or an energy practice, that begins with accessing what you already have. It can also be used to increase the energy available to you.

3. Natural movement, or a body practice, for coming into harmony with yourself. You learn to move with grace and coordination, in everything you do.

The tai chi form, known as tai chi chuan, is used to give structure for practicing these elements. Without a structure for progress, we tend to carry all our old life habits along for the ride, even when we're engaged in our health and healing practices. This form allows us to trade the old habits that don't help us for new ones that do.

Each element must work properly, or our energy is blocked. In Western terms, this means we're inhibited on mechanical, chemical, and neurological levels when we carry excess tension and move without whole-body coordination.

How to train: three strategies.

1. We can train our muscles, first to overcome resistance in our own bodies. Following this method, we are at war with ourselves before we go anywhere at all. So there must be a better way, which we find in tai chi practice.

2. We can train our brain, to memorize the forms of tai chi. This externally oriented approach has its beginning in what something looks like, which can lead to many decades of learning how to copy someone else's form. My instructor once commented that this approach is the favorite of clever Westerners, who keep collecting more and more information while becoming increasingly distant from themselves. He had a better way in mind.

3. We can train in softness, connection, and natural movement. This internally oriented approach has its beginning in what something feels like while also providing a structure for useful response to feeling. We learn first to get out of our own way, so all of our energy is available to us. From here, form is no longer a problem. It can arise naturally out of what we are, always in response to where we are, right now.

What is natural movement, and why DOESN'T it come naturally to us?

Natural movement is our most efficient and effective way to move. It brings your whole self into harmony, every part working happily with every other part.

It has become unnatural for us to be natural, because what we practice for much of our lives is guided by a belief that if we're not suffering, we probably won't get anywhere good. Feeling good is for vacation! This is a tough world, and it takes push and struggle to achieve anything real. Call it no pain no gain, or no victory without battle, this belief is an extremely self-limiting myth.

Guided by this myth, we disconnect from our feeling and intuition, isolate one part of our body from another, and carry a great deal of excess stress and tension into everything we do. This leads to a loss of whole-self coordination and greatly increases the effort required to accomplish even simple things. It also makes truly challenging things, and achieving our real potential, impossible.

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How to begin: The first five principles of natural movement.

Natural movement can be practiced with a number of principles in mind. Here are a few to get you started.

1. Softness. Become movable before you try to move. This practice begins with softening in your mind. Your body follows your mind.

2. Breath-body connection. Tie your breath and body together, so they move in agreement.

3. Move from your center. Be relaxed enough in your arms and legs, hands and feet, that movement from your middle carries the rest of you easily along for the ride.

4. Body position. The relationship of one part of your body to every other is important. Begin by creating a stable base, remaining in balance, and unweighting what you are about to move before you move it.

5. Whole body. Move with your entire body at all times, with no part immobilized or isolated from any other part.

We all have this potential to let stress go from our bodies and our minds. We all have this potential to do much more, with much less. It’s inside of us. It’s in our nature to be more than we imagine. Begin at the beginning. Tai chi can help.

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