I distinctly recall when I was first intrigued by the ancient Chinese practice of tai chi. I was new to the World Pa Kua Martial Arts and Health school, and we were learning the “shadowform” in class.
As background, the shadowform is a ritualized sequence of movements, usually performed in a graceful, fluid manner. It is what many people probably most commonly associate with tai chi and picture when they think of it. At World Pa Kua, we use the shadowform as a technique in other disciplines as well, but we emphasize it and study it in tai chi. One can perform it in a variety of styles and with different mental exercises.
So, back to my “aha” tai chi moment. I was actually enraptured in class when I first saw the shadowform. The master performing the movement made it seem a dance — and in a way it is. I was fascinated by the flow, by the stylized leg and arm movements, and by the interplay of shadow, light, and form. When people perform the movements together, there is a harmony and unity that adds to the beauty and that feels almost mystical. It emulates peace and serenity.
As it turns out, shadowform is only a small part of tai chi. The discipline of tai chi has apocryphal origins lost in history. It may have originated when the ancients watched the movements of stars in the cosmos or the clouds in the sky, or when they watched and copied animals move and interact in nature, or when they adjusted and slowed martial movements. Quite possibly, it was a combination of all of those sources and more.
Tai chi refers to energetic movements. The physical movements are used to develop harmony and energetic flow within and around the body. Typically, movements are performed slowly and with control. The movements are often spherical or circular at World Pa Kua, as in our other disciplines. The movements help to improve health throughout the body, to improve flexibility and balance, to calm and center the mind and spirit.
Tai chi has elements of both yoga and martial arts. Classes can include basic stretching poses and techniques. They also frequently include what we refer to as the “24 movements” that improve the health of the entire body. We also practice variations on martial techniques — but performed much more slowly and gently — even meditatively. We might learn basic techniques to fall, to move the legs (gently stepping or kicking), and to do self-defense. Unlike more aggressive, energetic martial movements, the movements in tai chi are aimed at healing, not confrontation.
For me personally and I think for many people, the healing movements of tai chi — whether shadow form or others — have a direct and intense corollary to our inner mental and emotional space. Although we can overlay different techniques onto the movements to explore our observations and reactions, the practice has one consistent result in my experience: Tai chi moves us into a positive, serene space and connects us to the environment and to others in a healthy, harmonious manner.
Indeed, tai chi is a moving meditation. It often clears and focuses the mind and improves the emotional space as much as or more than the more stereotypical seated, still meditation. (However, short still meditations can also be included on occasion as part of the tai chi classes.)
Quickly after learning the shadow form, for example, I found myself performing it in my mind, in order to reduce stress, foster serenity, and help me center and ground myself. For example, while sitting in a car in traffic, I would visualize myself doing the movements mentally, without the need of actual physical movement at the same time.
In short, tai chi helps to promote serenity, peace, and harmony — internally, between ourselves and our environment, and among us and our fellows. Those benefits are all in addition to its numerous benefits for the body and our physical health.
Tai chi is for people of all stripes, ages, and athletic abilities. All the techniques can be modified for anyone’s physical needs or individual situation.
I hope you will join us at World Pa Kua for tai chi and see for yourself how much it can benefit all aspects of your health and well-being.