Comparing Tai Chi for Health and for Martial Art


Dr Paul Lam and Nancy Kieffer
Most people who practice Tai Chi practice for health purposes. However, Tai Chi was originally a martial art, and there are still many people who practice Tai Chi as a martial art for self-defense reasons. Some of these people consider themselves "different", and regard Tai Chi for health as "not real Tai Chi." In my mind, there’s no major difference with the exception of practice methods.

Most people who practice Tai Chi practice for health purposes. However, Tai Chi was originally a martial art, and there are still many people who practice Tai Chi as a martial art for self-defense reasons. Some of these people consider themselves “different”, and regard Tai Chi for health as “not real Tai Chi.”

discussion of tai chi theoriesIn my mind, there’s no major difference with the exception of practice methods. First let’s look at the direction, the reason, and the end results of Tai Chi as a martial art. To be an effective martial artist, you need to think clearly, and your mind needs to be mentally balanced. You fight better if you have clarity of mind and assess the situation clearly, rather than hit out in anger.

To be a good martial artist, you need to have strong muscles, good flexibility, fitness, a good sense of balance, ability to transfer weight efficiently, good posture, and mind/body integration. The combination of the body, mind and spirit is very important.

If you look at Tai Chi for health purposes, the aims are exactly the same: better muscle strength, flexibility, fitness, posture, balance and transference of weight. The main differences are in the practicing methods. For martial art, if you think about it, when someone throws a punch at you or makes an attacking move towards you, you will have only a fraction of a second to respond, and to do this properly, you’ll have to fall back on your training. Your reaction or responses are almost by reflex, so if someone punches you in a certain direction, you need to practice hundreds, thousands of times on how to deal with this particular attack. And the same holds true for any kind of attack. The problem with sparring is that you have a much higher chance of injury.

demonstration by Jay and  DanIf you practice Tai Chi strictly for health, you should visualize that you’re pushing hands or that you’re in a martial arts situation. That way, you’ll understand the purpose of the movement. Your body should be there; your spirit should be there. And your energy should be there because it’s needed to develop your fitness and muscle strength. Creating and cultivating powerful inner energy (qi) is necessary for the right inner power along with the right martial art intention and the right body movement.

Let me give you an example about martial art and health. If somebody punches you, the first thing we do in Tai Chi is to “listen,” meaning to feel the touch-the direction and quality-of the incoming force. To be able to feel the incoming force properly, you need to use some resistance with your inner wardoff (peng) force. But at the same time, you must yield and absorb some of the incoming force, understand its direction and quality, and then you can re-direct it. Re-directing is much easier than confronting it. After re-directing, you’re then in a position to gain control at your discretion.

With other styles of fighting, people hit you and you hit back. Even if you win that fight, you really still lose because you could injure yourself or your opponent, and you could create bad will which can create future fight.

Sun 73 class demonstrationIn the Tai Chi way, if you think about it, life is a fight. If you’re facing a crisis situation, or if you’re having a verbal fight, the least productive way is to confront, hit and retaliate. So if someone yells at you, yelling back louder is not going to solve the situation. It’s only going to make it worse. Instead, if you touch base, listen (yield) to the incoming force, understand where the anger came from, you’re absorbing the incoming anger and once you know the situation, you can then re-direct the anger, and find a way to control the situation. You will then have a choice to reach a win-win situation for both sides. All this depends on the way you approach the situation and on your mental balance. That’s the Tai Chi way.