Tai-chi is held in esteem for promoting both mental and physical well being. It is regarded as having a preventative effect on illness and thought to increase longevity. Scientific studies have found that tai-chi can lower blood pressure, improve balance and improve circulation.
Tai-chi is esteemed for developing and improving the circulation of "chi" ("qi"). The Chinese believe that "chi" is an energy that drives the universe and all living things. They believe that "chi" exists in our bodies in the breath and the blood and is absorbed into the body from the universe. It is the central underlying principle in traditional Chinese medicine.
"Chi" training is an important part of all Chinese martial arts and the concept of "chi" is deeply embedded throughout Chinese culture. In China, traditional medicine and martial arts have developed in parallel over a very long period of time and health, "chi" and martial arts are as synonymous in China as health and physical fitness are in the west. It is widely accepted however that the relaxed movements and exact postures of the internal martial arts permit "chi" to flow more readily and are better for you than the hard styles of the external martial arts; the slow movements in tai-chi said are to be of particular benefit.
There is a strong correlation between the meridian of channels through which "chi" is said to circulate and the muscle/tendon groups and fascial tissue that run horizontally and vertically through the body and which are used in different combinations to achieve the various movements in the internal martial arts. Moving in this way has the effect of stretching and contracting these pathways and together with a relaxed body structure, helps to remove any internal blockages of "chi" which are regarded as being a cause of imbalance in the body that can lead to disharmony and disease.
As with any esoteric concept there are many different interpretations as to the exact nature of "chi" and how to develop it. Definitions of "chi" range from a single life giving energy (unproven by science), to an electromagnetic energy which sustains the configuration and integrity of matter and regulates the vitality of living things, to a combination of natural energies that can affect our existence, to energies and phenomena that are not fully understood. In its broadest sense "chi" can be considered to energy as stuff is to matter; its exact meaning being dependent on the context in which it is used. The concept of "chi" therefore is difficult to explain and is frequently misunderstood; it may even appear as a spiritual or magical element of tai-chi that imparts a sense of mystique.
Breath development in tai-chi is a gradual process. It is important to breathe naturally at all times and not to force the breath either in the movements or in one’s overall development. The body naturally regulates the correct rate of respiration. Typically we only use about a third of our lung capacity in everyday life and habitually this tends to be the top third of the lungs, only drawing in air deeper at times of greater physical demand. In tai-chi we gradually re-train the breath such that the lower parts of the lungs are employed at all times (using abdominal muscles rather than chest muscles) even when taking shallow breaths. This is referred to as breathing into the "tan-tien" and is said to facilitate the production of "chi". More advanced techniques such as reverse or abdominal breathing further develop this ability.
The breath is naturally coordinated with the movements of the form. Normally, but not exclusively, this means inhaling during an upward movement or when yielding and exhaling when moving downward or during an envisaged application of power. However focusing on the breath while practicing the complex and varied movements of a tai-chi form can be deleterious and it is generally better to only focus on the breath during specific points in the form, such as at the beginning during preparation and in the opening movement. The breath can also be trained through specific "chi kung" ("qi-gong") neigong or 'silk reeling' exercises that harmonise the breath with the movement. Over time the breath will then naturally begin to follow the movements of the form.
The slow movements of the foundation forms in tai-chi promote calmness and allow the mind to focus on the details of the mechanics of the movements. Tai-chi movements are controlled from the centre of the body ("tan-tien") which can also be the focal point of meditation techniques. As the mind directs the movements and the movements are controlled by the "tan tien", the slow movements of tai-chi naturally have a meditative quality.
Tai-chi is also praised for developing 'listening energy' or the ability to sense and interpret someone else's energy, primarily through the medium of touch. This is achieved through 'pushing hands' and other two person exercises. Practitioners of alternative therapies often find this invaluable but it has ramifications in everyday life too.
A principle objective of tai-chi and all other internal martial arts is the development of "peng-jin" ('ward-off' energy) which is more commonly referred to as "neijing" (internal strength) in the other internal arts. Confusingly though it is sometimes referred to as "chi". "Peng-jin" is associated more with the bones and collagen based connective tissue of the body than with the muscles, though muscles inevitably do play a part in maintaining the optimal body shape and powering the movement from the legs and midriff. Modern anatomical understanding has proven that the collagen based fascial tissues are able to store and release kinetic energy. This goes a long way to explaining fa-jin, the legendary explosive energy release for which tai-chi is famous.
"Peng-jin" requires a mind led skill which is achieved by using the intention ("yi" 意) to align the body in a manner which creates a pathway from any given point of contact with an opponent to the ground via the tan-tien. In movement the route of this pathway continually changes so the mind must constantly be involved. Furthermore the body structure must remain completely relaxed to avoid the pathway segmenting; at which point local muscle strength takes over and the pathway will no longer function. This 'ground path' can then be manipulated by two mechanisms that develop core strength. The first is the ability to rotate the tan-tien on any axis and the second is the ability to open and close any joint or combination of joints by connecting the whole body through the midriff.
Understanding internal strength improves ones capacity to relax while upright. Relaxation facilitates internal strength.
Correct understanding of the nature of "peng-jin" and a good training method are essential requirements for the development of the eight tai-chi energies or 'moving jins'. When correctly practiced the relaxed body feels connected and strong and over time develops an elastic quality.
Fundamental to it all is the ability to maintain a loose pathway by remaining completely relaxed. To do this the body must be trained to support a load (initially its own load) through its structure and connective tissue rather than by using local muscle groups.
Sinking the "chi" to the "tan-tien", or breathing slowly and deeply is also conducive to calming the mind which in turn aids relaxation.
These attributes have given tai-chi an excellent reputation for imparting good health and longevity. For this reason the practice of tai-chi has become more popular for its health benefits than for the attainment of fighting skills, though the route is essentially the same if all of the potential benefits are to be fully realised. It stands to reason that any gain is very much dependent on what is practiced, how well it is done, how often and for how long. Attending a class once a week is not enough. Daily practice is highly recommended and the more you do the greater the benefit.
It takes considerable time, effort and a good understanding to attain all the benefits that can be derived from tai-chi but some health benefits come about quite quickly. These are the combined result of whole body exercise, relaxation, balance, posture and calming the mind; resulting in improved circulation, reduced tension, better concentration and increased awareness. Quality daily practice develops core body strength and gradually develops the body’s collagen based connective tissues, strengthening tendons, ligaments and fasciae. Extensive quality practice can strengthen the internal organs (which are surrounded by fascia) and is said to increase bone density. If done from an early age it can also lead to some special abilities.