The one thing most people think they know about t'ai chi is that it's slow. That's only partly right.
A lot of t'ai chi is done at a deliberate pace, but a good deal of it is done fast. A fundamental characteristic of t'ai chi is that it combines opposites: fast and slow, easy and hard, extending and withdrawing. It's about balancing those opposites just as the concepts of yin and yang must be balanced — rest and motion, meditation and action, the internal and the external. When you can do that in your body, you get smooth, synergistic dance-like movements.
In modern terminology we call this the principle of "flow," the element of exercise that, when done correctly, draws all the parts of your body together — muscles, heart, nervous system, even your immune system. We know that t'ai chi builds lower body strength and flexibility while delivering a cardio workout. The greatest benefit, though, is the way the practice hones your balance and coordination, making it a perfect complement to any other workout regimen. T'ai chi improves posture and balance and reduces falls, making it especially valuable for the elderly or victims of a stroke.
But t'ai chi is for everyone. Studies show that its practice can reduce stress, anxiety and depression and increase self-esteem.
Who wouldn't want that?
First Steps First
Classical t'ai chi — more correctly called t'ai chi ch'uan or taijiquan (pronounced "Tie Jee Chwun") — is a gentle but complex dance of kung-fu postures that lead you into a meditative state and train your body to naturally flow all the time.
The primary footsteps in t'ai chi ch'uan are a series of gentle lunges called "gong bu," like the bow (or bow and arrow) step. Bow steps go left, right and forward. But there are sideways and backward steps as well – by the end of the dance you've moved your body in all directions, keeping your joints healthy and flexible no matter which way you go.
The basic bow step is a gentle lunge approximately the length of your normal walking step, with your weight shared 60 percent over your front foot and 40 percent over your back foot. Both front and back knees are bent and kept in line with your feet. There's no torquing or twisting, one reason these movements are so safe. And there should be a bit of a gap between your feet side to side known as a channel. Look down at your feet. If they're lined up like you were standing on a tightrope, then you're not in a bow step.
Waving Hands Like Clouds
Bow steps, side steps and backward steps, in combination with specific upper-body positions for the arms, head and torso, make up distinct t'ai chi ch'uan movements. Students of different schools may learn different routines, each incorporating its own combination of these moves, but most will contain certain fundamental movements characteristic of all approaches.
(MORE: Stop Slouching: Poor Posture Leads to Poor Health)
Two moves common to many routines are Waving Hands Like Clouds and Repulsing the Monkey. Each can give you a good sense of how t'ai chi ch'uan trains you to flow, and how beautiful and calming these moves can make you feel, which is so important to my own way of thinking.
Waving Hands combines our simple sideways step with an upper-body motion of waving your hands from one side of the body to the other, left to right and back again. Start with your hands rounded in front of you, as if you are holding a child, left hand on top. Next you'll take a series of side steps to the left, so step out sideways with the left foot, then bring the right foot over to the left and gently let your hands float over to the left as well. As you step together with the right foot, the hands float over to the right side. Step out, hands float left; step together, hands float right. Here's my step-by-step demonstration:
Repulsing the Monkey
This movement is best described as walking backward while swimming with your arms. The basic backward motion is a series of "pu bu," or "empty steps." Each finishes with all your weight on the back foot, the front foot barely tapping the ground. Want to check if you're in a good empty step? Lift your front foot into the air. If you first had to shift any weight to the back foot, the front foot had too much weight on it. In other words, it wasn't really "empty."
The hands and arms in Repulsing the Monkey execute motions pretty close to the crawl stroke of swimming. One arm loops to the side, then bends at the elbow and strokes (or pushes) forward. As it finishes the push, the other hand and arm loops to the other side, bends at the elbow and pushes forward. Hands and feet are coordinated: Start by circling the right hand to the side. Bend the right elbow and, as you begin to push forward, step back with the left foot to create an empty step. Now loop the left hand to the side, bend the elbow and as you push the left hand forward, step back with the right foot into a new empty step. Here's how it looks:
My last bit of advice: If you're just starting out, take it easy when you practice. Let all the parts flow together and don't try too hard to make the moves perfect. As I always remind my students, t'ai chi is meant to be "played," not "worked!"