My student Jim Leporati wanted me to write on this question (He asks because it is a hot topic on the discusion boards lately. He knows the answer but others perennially do not seem to, and so the question.):
“Is Tai Chi a martial art or a health art?”
My teacher, Professor Cheng Man-Ch’ing wanted to spread Tai Chi around the world, his gift to the entire planet, not for its martial benefit, but for its health benefit. But, unfortunately, unintentionally, this has spread confusion, especially among a number of second and third generation teachers. They have looked at what they were taught, thought of it as complete art, and therefore, as such, and on the basis of their incomplete knowledge, decided that health was all there was to Tai Chi.
So let me try to clear this up. The first level, the Tai Chi form, is a wonderful exercise for health, as a cardio workout (if you take deep stances), as Chinese Yoga, and for general well-being. It can soothe emotions and relieve stress, if you move slowly and smoothly through the postures.
In addition, Tai Chi, unlike any other exercise, is a moving meditation, and you can feel calm and peaceful if you do it slowly and smoothly with your mind empty of thoughts, and just become gradually more aware of your your body and your environment.
However, hidden within the form are other things. Yes, there is the Chinese Yoga, and the benefits mentioned above, but there are also the patterns for push hands, an exercise which can run the gamut from sensitivity training, to vigorous exercise, as well as the basis for a potentially very effective martial art, based on movements and stances in the Tai Chi form, used with proper posture, sensitivity and timing.
Finding Tai Chi instruction outside cosmopolitan urban areas, though becoming easier, can be difficult. Finding push hands can be harder still, as many teachers did not learn this non-health-oriented aspect of the art. But finding a competent teacher of the self-defense aspect can be really difficult to locate. This is because, not only do many people not know that Tai Chi has martial application, but fewer try to do it, and fewer still do it competently.
So know this: Professor Cheng was an amazing martial artist, among his five excellences, and he passed on push hands and martial applications to those in his school who were interested and ready for it. So, yes, Tai Chi is martial in the right hands. But know this too: if you are doing it for health and that is all that you want it for, that is fine. It is a complete art for all who do it for health. It is just not the only possible application. Help those who you can help, teach those who want your knowledge, and they are legion. Just do not deny something exists just because you were not taught it.
And, for those of you who are Tai Chi push hands players and martial artists: Know that Tai Chi is indeed a “complete in itself” health benefit. This is the gift that Professor Cheng wanted to give the world.
So wherever you stand on this issue, whatever you know, please keep your mind open to your Tai Chi brothers and sisters. Martial artists, know that Tai Chi is a wonderful health exercise and respect those who spread it as such. Health practitioners, know that there is more to Tai Chi, even though you weren’t taught it, and may not value it.
We are all one Tai Chi family. Let’s get along.
In Tai Chi,