When you hear about tai chi, you might think of martial arts or high-energy fight scenes. But this ancient Chinese practice combines slow, mindful movements with meditative postures that can strengthen more than just your body.
Tai chi is a great way to rebalance your mind, body, and spirit at any age or skill level. If you’re looking to start a tai chi practice as a beginner, you’ve come to the right place.
In this article, we’ll explore essential tai chi postures, outline tai chi health benefits, look at tai chi options for seniors, and offer you a comprehensive guide to begin your own tai chi practice at home. Before we get into the actual practice of tai chi, let’s explore what tai chi is and where it originated.
What is tai chi?
Tai chi is an ancient Chinese exercise that originated in martial arts practice. Through a series of slow-flowing movements combined with mindful postures, tai chi reconnects us to the natural world, calms our nervous system, and strengthens the body. Tai chi is rooted in the concept of “Qi” or “Chi,” a force of energy that lives and flows through everything and connects all beings.
The history of tai chi
The tai chi roots stretch back through centuries-old practices that slowly made their way from China to evolve into the tai chi commonly practiced today in North America.
Many sources credit martial arts master Chen Wangting as the father of tai chi, while others attribute tai chi origins to Taoist monk Zhang San Feng. Tai chi masters use internal energy and subtle movements that can throw off an attacker with surprising power.
The core aspects of tai chi are based on Taoist principles, including an understanding that everything in the universe is interconnected, including the natural, spiritual, and physical experiences of life.
The current-day tai chi practices originate in Chinese medicine and Qigong, an ancient Chinese practice that integrates mind, body, and spirit.
It’s important to recognize the importance of “Qi” in tai chi. Qi means “life force” and represents the concept that human beings are made up of multiple elements or pathways. Qi teaches that optimal wellness is achieved when all elements have a clear pathway, allowing “Qi” energy to flow with freedom and balance.
This concept is visible in Chinese medicinal practices, focusing on holistic wellness that differs from a more medicine-centric Western approach.
Tai chi uses the flow of “Qi” energy channels in the body to ward off attackers and redirect force with intention.
Learn the 13 postures of tai chi
Learning the 13 postures of tai chi chuan is as essential as learning the alphabet is to a kindergarten student. Your practice will stem from the strong roots of these 13 fundamental tai chi postures.
The following 13 steps can be thought of as Eight Trigrams or “expressions of energy” (the first eight postures), and the Five Elements or “directions of movement” (the last five postures). If you’re a tai chi beginner, it may feel intimidating to learn this list of postures.
But take your time in building an intentional, thoughtful tai chi practice, and soon, these steps will feel as intuitive to you as saying the alphabet does.
Every style of tai chi has its own movements. Yang, wu, and tai chi chih styles can have anywhere from 20 to 108 movements (in a traditional tai chi practice). If you’re a beginner, it’s best to start with these 13 essential postures and to build your practice up from these. You’ll see here that the first four steps are building blocks for the steps that follow. Let’s explore the postures below.
1. Peng posture
This first expression of energy can also be described as a “warding off” of the opponent. Peng Ching or “Jing” posture creates a barrier or shield between you and your opponent. Rather than a movement, it is a response to incoming energy.
Your body is intentionally placed to dispel force and to read your opponent. This first step acts as a foundation for the rest of the postures. When a tai chi master is rooted in Peng posture, they are immovable even by the strongest man.
2. Lu Ching posture
This second tai chi posture intends to throw off the opponent’s centre so that they lose their balance. Lu posture uses your opponent’s own force against them to offset their equilibrium.
3. Chi or Ji Ching posture
Chi or Ji Ching is the third posture of tai chi. Now that we have firmly rooted ourselves, created a protective barrier, and thrown our opponent off balance, we are ready to make a forward motion. Ji posture uses hands and arms in a forward force towards the opponent, like throwing a coin or bouncing a ball against a wall.
4. An posture
The force of the tai chi An posture comes from deep beneath the earth, through the power of the legs, and outwards towards the opponent. Energy is pushed downwards to generate strength in this tai chi posture.
5. Cai or Tsai posture
Cai is another tai chi posture that intends to throw the opponent’s balance off, this time by “rolling” back or pulling or plucking force from the opponent. A quick grab uproots the opponent by disrupting them with one fluid movement.
6. Lieh or Lie posture
Lie posture is intended to help you break free of an opponent’s force. Lie posture divides force into two different directions to undermine and break down its power, releasing any hold it has on you. Similar to the way a rock in a stream disrupts the flowing water’s force, Lie posture divides the force of your tai chi opponent.
7. Zhou or Chou posture
Zhou is a more powerful, forceful posture. This tai chi exercise uses an intentional strike with the elbow to strike and to break free of an opponent’s hold on you.
8. Kao posture
Kao is a tai chi shoulder strike. This posture uses the full force of your tai chi mastery to channel energy through your shoulder, propelled by the force of your whole body to knock your opponent off balance. Think of it as a football tackle, where every part of the body propels the shoulder forwards.
9. Chin or Jin
This tai chi step is the first of the five elements or directions of movement. Using a movement of advance, this is a core stepping technique which uses the back leg as an anchor, moving forwards with intention.
This move is a retreat, or moving backwards with awareness as to what is around you.
Ku means “look left.” Think of Ku and the following tai chi movement Pan as a pair, the same way we’re taught to cross the street as children. Look left, then look right. Ku movement involves looking to the left after faking movement to the right.
Pan means “look right.” This movement involves steps to the right after looking to the left or faking a left-side movement.
13. Ting or Ding
The Ding movement brings energy back to the centre. Now that you have looked left and then right, reconnect to your core central source of strength.
Tai chi vs. yoga: which is more beneficial?
We’ve already learned that the current day practices of tai chi originate in Chinese medicine and originate in Qigong, a centuries-old Chinese practice that holistically combines our physical, mental, and spiritual self. Yoga is another historical example of a Qigong practice that you may already be familiar with. While both practices offer benefits for mind, body, and soul, you may want to consider the following factors:
Tai chi could be more suited to those with limited mobility since the movements take place within a smaller range of motion.
Yoga often takes place on a mat, with a combination of seated and standing postures, while tai chi is mostly performed while standing. If you prefer not to use a mat, Boomerang offers seated Chair Yoga classes for those with limited mobility.
A tai chi practice can offer similar cardiovascular benefits to a brisk walk. An advanced yoga class with a steady flow can offer greater physical challenges for those looking to build balance and core strength.
Tai chi doesn’t require a yoga mat or special tools.
Both practices involve mindfulness, intentional breathing techniques and stem from ancient practices rooted deeply in Eastern tradition.
If you’re looking to dramatically improve flexibility, yoga is likely a better fit for you.
If you’re still unsure about whether tai chi or yoga is right for you, we recommend trying a free online tai chi class and a beginner yoga class to see what feels best for you.
Top tai chi tips for seniors
If you’re a senior and you’re ready to try tai chi for the first time, here are some helpful tai chi tips for seniors to help start you off on the right foot.
Start with a conversation with your doctor. You’ll want to make sure you know your limitations and have the green light to begin a tai chi practice at home.
Wear loose, comfortably-fitting clothes so you can move easily. This fits into the tai chi philosophy of unrestricted, free-flowing movement.
Remember that listening to how your body responds is essential. You know your physical condition better than anyone else, so don’t ignore any discomfort or pain.
Wear soft, supportive shoes that allow you to move easily and stand comfortably.
If you have trouble standing during tai chi at first, consider a seated tai chi practice for seniors.
Start small, with a short online tai chi class to learn the basics of tai chi.
The health benefits of tai chi
Don’t underestimate the benefits of tai chi. If you have limited mobility or are used to more vigorous cardiovascular exercise, you may feel like your tai chi practice isn’t doing much. But even the simplest mindful tai chi movements can have incredible benefits, like reducing falls by 45 per cent or effectively treating depression and anxiety.
The blend of mindful breathing, spatial awareness, and physical engagement offers benefits far beyond what you’ll notice right away. Now that we can understand the history of Tai Chi and the essential postures and tips let’s explore the undeniable benefits Tai Chi has to offer for mind, body, and spirit.
Health and fitness
Tai chi offers a wealth of benefits for physical wellness. Tai chi practices can strengthen muscles, reinforce bone strength and joint stability, and enhance flexibility for better overall health. Tai chi also offers great advantages for seniors or those with limited mobility. If you struggle with balance, research shows that tai chi can improve balance and reduce falls.
Aside from reinforcing the muscles and mental awareness that help prevent falls, tai chi also helps reinforce proprioception, the awareness of where one’s body is in space. Tai chi may also enhance immune function, help with insomnia, deepen sleep, and relax muscles to reduce pain or inflammation.
Tai chi brings much more to the table than just physical benefits. Research suggests that tai chi enhances mental clarity, calms nerves, and can even affect the plasticity of the brain, enhancing our ability to adapt. Tai chi can also positively impact our ability to problem solve and use reasoning and has been shown to improve the overall quality of life when practiced regularly.
Even benefits like weight loss, which may be commonly attributed to the physical body’s response, are linked to mental wellness. When we are more aware of our bodies, we may also be more likely to notice cues like hunger or notice when we are eating out of boredom rather than actual hunger. This is a great example of how the physical benefits of tai chi are intricately tied to the mental and emotional benefits that a regular practice can offer.