Not all tai chi is equal. Just as there are different models of cars, makes of computers and universities of varying calibers, so too are there different kinds of tai chi. In this post, I focus on what makes tai chi styles unique, from two points of view: what it does for your physical body, and what it does for your energy and mind.
Let me start by saying I’ve done tai chi since I was a teenager. I’m now in my 60’s, so that is roughly 45 years of practicing tai chi. I was the first foreigner to be certified by the Chinese government in 1981 to teach traditional Yang Style Tai Chi and I have studied extensively with Wu and Chen lineage masters. This has all been written before in several of my books (for those new to my blog there is a brief summary of my training history at the bottom of this post).
I’ve done tai chi to be super healthy and I’ve done it after being smashed up in major car accidents. I’ve done tai chi when I was sick to heal my body from near fatal illnesses and in martial arts competitions to gain an advantage over my opponents. In my personal tai chi practice I have gone through many phases and have experienced the benefits and drawbacks of each tai chi style that is out there.
I tell you this for no other reason than to let you know that I have gone about as deep you can go into the tai chi world. My desire now is to help anyone learning tai chi for the first time, and even more importantly to guide those who already do tai chi to take their practice to a higher level, regardless of whether you study with me or another qualified teacher.
Let me start by saying when it comes to the main tai chi styles, I think it is rather foolish to say that there is a “best” style of tai chi. It would be like looking in a mechanic’s tool box and saying that a hammer is better than a screw driver. Or that a flat-head screwdriver is better than a Phillips screwdriver. Each has a specific purpose and application.
At different points of a person's life, there may be one style that is their primary practice and at another time in their life a different style may fit their needs better. This was the case for me as I learned the various tai chi styles over the years. Often when you know more than one style you modulate what you teach or practice based on both your personal needs and your students needs.
Before going into the various tai chi styles from the physical, energetic and mind components, I want to first share some interesting results from our recent tai chi survey, which almost 1,000 people took part in. Thanks again to all the readers of this blog who participated in the survey.
What Style of Tai Chi Do You Practice?
In our recent survey, we asked what style of tai chi our readers practice. We got some surprising information.
We found that around 35% study or practice MORE THAN ONE tai chi style. This makes sense, considering the growing number of teachers and the many different styles that students can choose from. It also makes a lot of sense because each tai chi style works on the body differently. My own path began with the Yang style, then the Chen style and later the Wu style. Each time I learned a new style, I drew upon my previous learning and, working with qi, incorporated each style into my practice.
Just as a carpenter or craftsman has a full toolbox, many high level teachers eventually learn more than one style of tai chi. Then they modulate what they teach to who they are teaching. If teaching a younger person interested in martial arts, they might focus on one style, but if they are teaching the elderly, they might choose an easier and shorter style.
I also would make the point that after you practice one style for a while and cross-train in another style, you will learn different aspects of the inner workings of how your body, mind and qi work together. Even while you keep the two styles distinctly different, you can learn aspects that can be folded into or integrate both styles. This was definitely the case when I learned the Wu style, which is a smaller frame which emphasizes all the internal neigong. Once I got the neigong components online, I could integrate those components into all my other forms.
The other interesting thing from our tai chi survey is that there were some who were practicing tai chi but didn’t know what style they were doing or where the style had come from. There are a lot of people teaching these days. In this way I am a traditionalist; I think that knowing the root of what you teach or learn is very important and by doing so you can understand how the form you are learning came into being, why and what its benefits are. Maybe even more important is what you can put inside your tai chi form.
What is Inside Tai Chi Different Styles?
Some styles of tai chi contain all of the information about how the physical body works so that the sophistication of the movements can really go deep into your body. But other styles of tai chi lack this component. Their movements are very loose and are not very sophisticated when looked at from a purely physical perspective. This usually happens because the people who learned did so just by watching someone and mimicking what they did, and were not able to learn the finer aspects of the movement.
Some styles of tai chi contain all of the internal work (the neigong components I spoke of earlier) that can enable the practitioner to heal diseases and other known physical problems. But some styles of tai chi lack that. This means that some people get a bit better, but they don’t get well. When people practice a style that contains all of the original material, they have a tendency to not just “get better,” but to get well. This is an important distinction.
Just as all tai chi styles are not equal, all body types are not equal. If you are young or healthy you can go with a style that you like based on how it looks, or what its philosophy is, and you might really enjoy it. But what if you are not so healthy? What if you are injured? What if you have a major physical problem?
It becomes important to know what the major distinctions are between different styles, and even different types of forms within the same style. But first it is important to keep in mind that, if you are learning from a legitimate source that hasn’t been watered down and lost what it originally had, then sixty, seventy, or eighty percent of EVERY tai chi style is going to have the same stuff as any other style. The remaining twenty, thirty, or forty percent is where the distinction is found in each style. Knowing this makes it interesting and useful, because then you can choose a style or two to learn (or to teach) that matches exactly what you are looking for (or what your students are looking for).
The Five Main Styles
If you have been practicing tai chi for a while you probably already know there are five major styles of tai chi. There are the Yang, Wu, Chen, Hao and Sun styles. These styles have different movements and can physically look very different from one another. In the West there are also other styles including forms for specific applications such as arthritis - but most often they are an off-shoot of one of these main five styles or are taking specific movements out of these five main styles.
Within each of these main styles there is another important distinction, and that is between large and small movements. For example, in some styles the arm extends wide and far, whereas in other styles the same movement of the arm will be much smaller. The moves are literally inside a smaller container, a smaller frame. But, if the style is derived from a direct tai chi lineage and not watered down, it will contain everything the bigger movements contain.
Most often the style someone chooses is based on what class they stumble upon or based on the availability of instructors in their area. As more and more teachers come to the West, it is becoming easier to find people teaching different styles in the same location - which allow more choices and opportunities. In this way you can make a more conscious choice on which style to study.
Tai Chi Styles Progression
Classically, the progression of training for healthy individuals in China began with performing large moves in the beginning, which were very gross and obvious. Large frame styles like the Yang style work much more on the level of developing the physical frame: bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments.
The large styles provide a dramatically more physical experience. In China, once you could do the larger style, you would move on to the middle-sized movements, and as you did so you would focus more on internal energy components (openings and closings, breathing techniques, spiraling).
Then, finally, you would advance to the small movements of the form, focusing on what goes on internally, energetically. In the advanced stages you take something that previously required a large movement and learn to make it happen in a container that is small, often using your mind to direct the qi and fluids in the body. To the untrained eye, it might look like less is happening in the smaller styles, but this is not the case.
"Movements should be big at first, but should become smaller later. Then, one's defense will be impenetrable."
Tai Chi Classics
This classic progression worked, and continues to work, for many people that are already healthy. But for people who have injuries, there is another way of progressing from external to internal components of any tai chi form.
Tai Chi Styles for Bad Knees and Backs
Although the typical progression was from large to small style when learning tai chi or teaching another, physical condition must come into consideration. Some very common physical issues that occur in the West are bad knees and bad backs. They seem to be part of the Western way of life. They’re everywhere.
Why? Many people engaged in sports too enthusiastically (or radically), maintain bad posture and/or have had falls or other injuries, etc that limit their range of motion or have chronically damaged their body. A large percentage of the population will experience back or knee pain as they age. In fact, many people will get knee and back injuries when they’re still quite young.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics report, Chartbook on Trends in the Health of Americans 2006, Special Feature: Pain, back pain is the leading cause of disability in Americans under 45 years old. In 2006, it was estimated that approximately 26 million Americans between the ages of 20-64 experience frequent back pain.
For people with bad back or bad knees, tai chi movements done in a large frame with long, low stances may actually aggravate their condition or make it worse. Large styles can put too much strain on the system, specifically the knees, by emphasizing postures that are too big. Even those who are otherwise healthy despite being prone to weak knees might experience harm from practicing too large of a style. A smaller style with higher stances would not put the same pressure on the knees, and would actually be better for such cases.
Tai Chi Styles for Healing
In 1982, I had a car accident where my back was broken; the diagnosis was several cracked vertebrae in the spine. Before then, I had done all of the big and medium styles. The Yang style, which was a classic large frame of tai chi, was able to heal my upper back and neck, but it could not heal my lower back. It put too much pressure on my back when I did the form.
By this time I was already what people call a “master” of tai chi, so the issue was not that I was unable to perform the movements correctly. It was simply the wrong form to be practicing at that time; it was like trying to use a saw to pound in a nail. The Wu style of tai chi was the right tool and I used this daily to heal my lower back. Why did this work? Because, being a smaller frame, it put less pressure on my back.
"Do not overdo or underdo. Yield to a curve, as well as follow an extension."
Tai Chi Classics
This process of finding the right size movements for the right situation has occurred throughout the history of tai chi. The founder of the Yang style created his form by modifying the movements of Chen style tai chi when he came to Beijing. He removed many of the jumping kicks and powerful stomps from the form.
Why did he do this? Because while younger people might have enjoyed and benefited from the form, and may continue doing so even in modern times, older people were literally breaking their bodies. So he simply modified the form so that an older person could get the same benefit from the art as someone who was young, but could do so without harming themselves. He also modified the form because the original Chen style was designed to be done while wearing heavy armor in the battlefield, but with the invention of the gun this became less of an issue.
The quality of your tai chi form matters, both in how it treats your body physically, but also in what it does to your energy and mind. Once you understand these major physical aspects of tai chi, you can begin to grasp the sophistication with which tai chi movements are done. This is where a lot of the benefit for your health and stress reduction comes from. Now, let’s talk about where tai chi can go from here.
Tai Chi to Develop and Move Qi
After you learn the external moves of tai chi you start going to the next stage of the game, where you have sophisticated movements as a container for internal power or neigong. All of the main styles are containers for these energetics.
You begin moving energy inside of your body, using the container that you have built through the tai chi form. At this stage, the 8 energies of tai chi, four of which are peng (ward off), lu (roll back), ji (press forward) and an (push downward), become a living experience in your practice, and you can combine neigong techniques such as opening and closing with these energies. It ceases to be an intellectual exercise and becomes real.
"Circulate the qi as if breathing through the pearl with nine crooked channels, leaving no nook or corner unreached."
Tai Chi Classics
But this too is just a stepping stone for the next level. Once you know how to move energy in your body and use your qi to start to completely reform your nervous system, you can begin to investigate the nature of how your mind works so you can think more clearly. When you do this it can smooth out your emotions to an incredible degree. Once you reform your nervous system and see the nature of your mind and emotions, even more possibilities open up. There are endless layers within tai chi practice. Mastery is a life-long process.
Tai Chi - The Next 10 Years
If you are currently practicing tai chi, regardless of your form or style, you are doing what I think will be one of the most popular exercise systems in the West over the next few decades. As the average age of the population gets older, more and more people are going to be turning to this gentle yet powerful exercise for health and healing. If you are an external martial artist or have had injuries in your body through sports or accidents you may also want to consider practicing tai chi to reverse any damage that you may have created.
With the recent release of the Tai Chi Zero movie and more articles being published it seems like in the next few years there is going to be a lot more publicity around tai chi. Keanu Reeves will also be releasing a big tai chi production next year. So my hope is this will continue to raise the level of awareness of tai chi. With this increased general awareness it would be good to see the public is shown all of the possibilities that tai chi offers, and that the styles of tai chi being taught around the world remain pure and true to their roots.
The West needs people who really understand all of what tai chi has to offer. If you are just starting out for your own personal practice then pick a style and teacher that suits your own body and needs. If you are learning tai chi to become an instructor then I encourage you to learn a style that matches the people that you want to teach and what you want to teach for.
The deeper you go into the tai chi the more it will give back to you and those you teach.
For many instructors-to-be, learning both a large and a small style is a good idea to have multiple options when teaching. Almost all of those I know that teach tai chi do so to be of help and service to their community. If you are already a practitioner, then I hope this article will be useful in providing a context for what tai chi can do and where you can take it in your practice.
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*My Tai Chi Lineage - An Abbreviated Version from my book The Power of Internal Martial Arts and Chi
I began the study and practice of Tai Chi in New York during the mid 1960’s.
In 1981, I became the first American certified by the Peoples’ Republic of China to teach the complete system of Tai Chi throughout the whole of China. Over the years of learning Tai Chi, I studied with many masters in the Yang, Wu, and Chen styles of the art.
In the Wu style, I studied with Liu Hung Chieh, who was actually an indoor student of, and lived in the same house with, the man who founded the Wu style.
From the Yang style, I was taught by Chen Man Ching, and then later by his student, T.T. Liang. I also studied with Yang Shou-Chung, the great grandson of Yang Luchan, the founder of the Yang style and the man after whom it is named. Aside from that, I also studied with Lin Du Ying, who was very close to the originators of the lineage.
In my study of the Chen style of Tai Chi, I learned from Feng Zhiqiang, who himself was a student of Chen Fake, the man who brought the style out of Chen village and into Beijing. When I was in Beijing, Feng Zhiqiang was considered to be one of the best Chen style practitioners, and before his passing Master Feng was the head of Tai Chi throughout all of China.
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