Saturday, August 25, 2012

Three Ways Tai Chi is Not Just a Fitness Program

I'm a little frustrated. It's my own fault, so it's not anything to be concerned about. I was just talking to someone about tai chi and he referred to it as "just another exercise program for fitness". This was a medical professional and I expected a little bit more from him.

Does tai chi improve fitness? Absolutely! Does it "just" improve fitness? NO! Tai chi is not the same as Zumba. It is not the same as kick aerobics or spin class. There is nothing wrong with any of these things. They can be an important part of a fitness program for some people. But tai chi should not classified as a fitness program the same as these. It does so much more. Here are 3 ways tai chi is not just a fitness program.

Fitness is not the goal of tai chi. Tai chi does much more for you than improving your fitness. That's only a side effect. Tai chi develops physical coordination, proprioception, and a strong mind-body connection.

Tai chi helps develop balance in your life. I don't mean the physical ability to balance. I mean balance in your life. It helps us develop calmness and stillness. It helps us deal with the ups and downs that happen in life. It helps you slow down and enjoy the pleasures of the moment, the slow movement as you shift your weight from one posture to another, the feeling of the muscles working together, and the way your mind learns to lead the movements.

Tai chi has incredible mental and physical depth. Every time you think you start to understand something in tai chi, you realize that there can be more to it. It's not that there is a precise way that tai chi "must" be done. It's that it takes you time to understand the correct way for you to do it. The correct way is different for every person. Your teacher can help you start to understand what this means.

Additional reading:
See here for an explanation of proprioception
See here for an explanation of weight shifting
See here for an explanation of the depths of tai chi

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Health Benefits of Tai Chi

This is one of occasional articles I plan to write on the health benefits of tai chi. 

I recently read an article titled, A randomized controlled trial of Tai chi for balance, sleep quality and cognitive performance in elderly Vietnamese. The objective of this study was to " evaluate the effects of Tai chi exercise on balance, sleep quality, and cognitive performance in community-dwelling elderly in Vinh city, Vietnam". It was published in the journal, Clinical Interventions in Aging.

For this study, 96 healthy participants were divided into two groups. The study group was assigned 6 months of tai chi training. The control group was asked to maintain their normal routine.

Now comes the tricky part: understanding the results.

The authors say that the results of the study indicate that the tai chi group improved scores on falls prevention, sleep quality, and the trail making test, a test of motor speed and visual attention, compared to the control group.

Let's look a little closer.

Every study has a control group that they compare with the test group. We need to understand what the control group did. In this case, the control group did nothing. That's a red flag. In other words, the study shows that learning tai chi is better than doing nothing. We know that the controls were already suffering the debilitating results of aging and inactivity. This paper does not show that tai chi is better than other forms of exercise.

Here's why I say that.

This study suffers from many of the problems that some other tai chi studies do. The authors do not give an adequate description of the method of teaching or how much the participants practiced when they were not in class. The study was not clear, but it appears that they learned the Yang 24 form tai chi. It does not show that tai chi is better than weight lifting or aerobic exercise. It does not show that tai chi is better than having the participants go for a morning walk and randomly wave their hands in the air. It shows that getting up and moving is better than sitting around.

One really good thing that this study did show was that the majority of the study group stayed with the program for the entire 6 months. Only 19% of the people dropped out. This indicates that exercise in a group setting was fairly effective at improving health.

My conclusion.

This study was a waste of time and money. There are many high-quality studies that show the health benefits of tai chi. This is not one of them. Always read claims like this with a critical eye.

The entire study can be read at

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Authenticity and Tai Chi

I read quite a few blogs and articles on web sites related to tai chi. I am constantly amazed at the amount of arguing going on about the tiny details about lineage and authenticity. You've probably seen them: "My style is older and more authentic." "Your style is merely derivative." "The true elements of tai chi have been removed from your style." "You shouldn't even call that tai chi."

Let's start with a definition. To some, authentic means traceable back to the original. To others, it means done as has always been done. My definition is different. You can see it at the end.

I've even seen people claiming an authentic lineage back to the legendary Master Chang San Feng (Zhang Sanfeng). He is legendary because absolutely no historical facts exist about his life! According to one source, he lived from the year 1247 to 1447 (200 years). Another source claims there were two people with that name. One lived from 960 to 1279. The other lived from 1279 to 1368. Another source claimed that he never existed. There is absolutely no contemporary historical evidence that supports the claim that Chang San Feng had anything to with developing Nei Jing (internal arts). The earliest records claiming Chang had anything to do with martial arts was 1669. It strains credulity to accept that accurate oral records were kept for hundreds of years before being recorded much later.

My opinion: Get a life. In the words of Stanley Henning, "... the prestige of tai chi rises with hot air." (You can read his entire article here.)

There is some evidence that what we now call Chen style tai chi originated in Chen village with Chen Wangting in the early 1600s. The Chen family claims that all other styles of tai chi are derived from Chen style. I am skeptical of claims that use the word "all", but we do know that Yang, Wu, Wu (Hao), and Sun styles are derived from Chen style. I'm not sure about others.

The claims start to become unbelievable after we accept that Chen style is probably the origin of what we now call tai chi. The claims begin by saying that tai chi was completely developed at that time. Anything added later weakened, or degraded, the art. I disagree.

Yang Lu Chan, the originator of Yang style tai chi, was known by his contemporaries as Yang the Invincible. Do you really believe him guilty of degrading the art of tai chi?

Sun Lu Tang, the originator of Sun style tai chi, was a master of the fighting arts of baguazhang and xingyiquan before he learned tai chi. Do you really believe him guilty of degrading the art of tai chi?

My opinion: get a life. Different styles of tai chi were developed by skilled masters. If the new styles were not effective, they would not have survived and would no longer be taught.

Another continuing debate is about the terminology. Is it tai chi or tai chi chuan? Or should it be t'ai chi ch'uan or t'ai4 chi2 ch'üan2? Is it tai ji or tai ji quan? Or is it 太 极 拳  or should it be 太 極 拳? Some people practice for the martial aspects of tai chi. They prefer to include the word chuan (or quan), except when they don't. Some people practice for the health aspects of tai chi. They don't usually include the word chuan, except when they do.

Language changes and evolves. There is no evidence that the Chen family originally used the term tai chi chuan at all. According to Wikipedia (not a reliable source), the scholar Ong Tong He first used the term tai chi (taiji) to describe Yang's style of fighting.

How far back do we have to go to be authentic? Should I be speaking "Olde Ænglisc" in order to be an authentic speaker of my native language? An early translation of the bible in Old English is not even intelligible by modern readers of English:
Fæder ūre þū þe eart on heofonum
Sīe þīn nama ȝehālgod

Once again, get a life. Language changes. It's not reasonable to expect me to learn this in order to be "authentic".

Tai Chi for Health
Another debate is about modern tai chi for health programs. One person told me that I shouldn't use the term "Tai Chi" for health programs because it's not real tai chi without at least 10 years of study and experience with a tai chi master. He wanted me to call it qigong. Guess what? Qigong in this context is a modern term, dating to the 20th century. Perhaps it really should be called dao yin (guide and lead qi) or tu-na (focused breathing) in order to be authentic.

Once again, get a life. Yes, Tai Chi for Health generally does not include the Martial Arts aspects of tai chi. It is not the complete art. So what? It's Tai Chi for Health.

What Is Authentic Tai Chi?
Times change. Things evolve.
o Is it only authentic if it's old? (Has no one developed anything new?)
o Is it only authentic if it is taught by a master from China? (Has no one else ever learned enough?)
o What if it is taught in English instead of Chinese? Is it still authentic? (Translations are always imperfect.)
o Is it even authentic to say "Chinese language"? Can it be taught in Mandarin and still be authentic? Modern languages are not the same as the languages used when tai chi developed. (That translation problem again.)
o What language was used in Chen village in the 16th century? Let's all learn that language so that we will really be authentic.

My point here is that there is no end to history. What is authentic? You never reach the beginning. Nothing comes into existence out of the air. There is always something that precedes it. What counts in authenticity is something that works and achieves your purpose, not what someone else prefers to call authentic.

I welcome thoughtful comments on this post.

© 2012 Eric Borreson