Tai Chi exercise and how it works

by Robert Wulforst

Tai Chi (tai Ji), a moving meditation

The other day, someone asked me for a more specific way to describe how Tai Chi (TàiJí Quán -太極拳) works. This is an interesting question, because we all hear about how Tai Chi is a “moving meditation”, but no one ever seems to explain the physical method behind it. When we watch Tai Chi, it looks like a slow moving combination of stances and postures. When we do Tai Chi, it feels more like a mess of movements. I’d like to discuss a little about what is really happening behind the scenes when practicing Tai Chi.

tai ji tai chi

Breathing + Resistance exercise

The Tai Chi form is an exercise that combines your breathing with resistance exercise. If you’re unfamiliar with resistance exercise, it’s the method of contracting skeletal muscle by some form of resistance. This resistance can be found and increased through body weight, free weights, or by weight machines. Pushups, kettlebell exercises, and using resistance bands are all examples of resistance exercise. So, where is the resistance in Tai Chi coming from?

"Rooting" of Tai Chi

The resistance found in Tai Chi is coming from your own body weight. There’s a “trick” to Tai Chi that people don’t realize and it’s you need to fully relax. This is where breathing comes into play. It’s used as a meditation technique to help relax the muscles and focus on coordination. As you relax, your body feels as if it’s “sinking” into the ground. Martial artists explain this as “rooting” or your ability to lower your center of gravity. As you release the tension applied to your muscles, they feel heavier and that resistance is used in holding the movement and/or postures. In turn, the muscles have to work harder to do so.

Steps of learning Tai Chi

If that sounds difficult to do, it is. That’s why when we teach Tai Chi, we do it in small steps. First, we teach just the movements and postures. This helps the student learn the basic steps and stances. Second, we introduce the breathing, where the students learn how the movements coordinate with each other. Lastly, we make corrections and point out where the students aren’t relaxing and still have tension in the body. Most Tai Chi schools never progress past the second step, so if you look carefully in some videos, you can see where people have stiff shoulders or over extended knee bends.

Tai Chi Push hands

Now that you’ve learned the form, what comes next? That would be Tai Chi push hands!

Learning the Tai Chi form and its exercise method is a Yīn aspect of the martial Art. Tai Chi push hands is the Yáng aspect. Now you’re taking everything you’ve learned about the Tai Chi form and apply it along with another person. This will increase the amount of resistance used in the exercise, because you’re working against your body weight and someone else’s.

At first glance, push hand exercises appear to be scary, as your working with another person. However, push hands can be quite fun and there’s no competitive feeling behind it. You’re doing push hands to increase your Tai Chi skill and learn more about how the body moves in certain situations. As an added benefit, your form will also improve with the experience.

Any method of exercise will benefit the body. It helps strengthen the muscles and invigorate blood through the body. In TCM, it’s also said it strengthens the Qì (氣), but you don’t need to worry much about explaining that to people. There’s a saying in TCM that “Qì moves the Blood” and “Blood carries Qì”. They have a Yīn Yáng relationship, just like the Tai Chi form and push hands. Any activity that strengthens one will also benefit the other.

If you like to learn more in Tai Ji Push hands, check out my book "Root Within the Wind" from Amazon.

Practice everyday

I hope this article helps you understand Tai Chi a little better about how it works as an exercise. You can make it as easy or difficult as you like, which allows everyone to benefit from it. It can teach focusing in children and strengthening the body in old ages. Of course, you just have to remember to do it every day, which can be just as difficult as doing the form itself! Share your experience with Tai Chi or Push hands in the comment below.