Dr. Paul Lam, an MD from Australia, is one of the world’s leading advocates for how T’ai Chi is an effective means to address a number of issues including:

  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Back Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Energy
  • Osteoporosis
  • And General Health

He describes T’ai Chi as “part exercise, part meditation,” and as such, it is easy to see why so many people think of T’ai Chi as similar to Yoga, especially since the physical benefits are nearly identical.  Both T’ai Chi and Yoga increase the stamina, strength, and flexibility of the body, and both use diaphragmatic breathing as a means to center oneself and reduce stress as well.

Both of these practices cultivate what T’ai Chi calls  the “internal landscape.”  That is, the goal is to reach a state of “Song,” where the body is relaxed, and, as my teacher Master Helen Wu would say, the heart and mind are at ease.

But there is one very important difference between T’ai Chi and Yoga—a difference that Dr. Lam glosses over as well:  T’ai Chi is and always has been a martial art, hence its full name “T’ai Chi Chuan,” which means Supreme Ultimate Fist (or Boxing Style).  While it is “part exercise and part meditation,” it is also part “martial art.”

Now before a newcomer to the world of T’ai Chi says to him or herself, “Well, I don’t want to learn that kind of T’ai Chi.  I want to learn the one that is exercise and meditation and not fighting,”, or before a person stops reading this  because he or she is not interested in anything that perpetuates violence in the world, thereby justifying how Yoga is superior because it does not contribute to the strife of the world, let me explain how it is because of the martial art aspect of T’ai Chi that is the means to heal oneself and the world.

All good T’ai Chi promotes the health and healing of the body and mind.  All authentic T’ai Chi promotes stamina, strength, and flexibility, like Yoga.  And all T’ai Chi is based upon the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to increase vitality and energy, relieve stress and anxiety, and counteract disease.

Yet, if the martial side of T’ai Chi is ignored, we lose perhaps the greatest and yet most overlooked positive aspect of T’ai Chi—a quality that not only differentiates it from Yoga and exercise but also makes it one of the most unique forms of body practice ever.

T’ai Chi is spatial and social, and as such has the potential to extend beyond the island of the self.

As a practice, it constantly negotiates the space around us, including people.  And it is social—a ongoing conversation between ourselves and others as we negotiate the world that we inhabit. Learning the self-defense aspect of T’ai Chi, which is the martial application of the art or the practice of Push Hands, is a physical dialogue in which we learn how to appropriately respond to one another.  That “conversation” depends upon the principles of physical relaxation (Song) and the heart and mind being at ease.

T’ai Chi cultivates the body and the internal landscape of the self by softening the body, heart, and mind, which allows the individual to clearly see and then respond appropriately to a given situation, which Taoism refers to as the principle of “wu wei”—appropriate action.  In this respect, it goes beyond the confines of the self by applying those things to the external world by emphasizing that the individual has agency and responsibility in responding to that world.

Cheng Man-Ching, a famous T’ai Chi teacher, often praised yoga to his students, and was once rather pointedly asked, “If yoga is so great, why are we doing T’ai Chi instead of yoga?”  Cheng Man-Ching responded, “If you did yoga, you wouldn’t know what to do if someone tried to push you off your cushion.”

Now before you say “See!  I told you it was all about fighting,”  let me clarify.

As a martial art, T’ai Chi bridges the internal world of the self (that of meditation and exercise) with the external world.  The spatial and the social aspect of learning how to respond to another person means not only understanding the emotions and habituated psychological patterns that drive ones own response but also by illuminating the best way to respond, which is the crux of “Wu Wei.”  It also recognizes that there is strife in the world, and as a martial art, it is about learning how to deal with adversity in a way that is measured and appropriate.

The very essence of T’ai Chi (as a healing modality, as a form of meditation, as an exercise, and as a martial art) is relaxing body, heart, and mind.  No anger.  No hostility.  No violence.   From that place we have the clarity of emotional and psychological vision to respond to ourselves, others, and the world at large in the most appropriate way.

The internal work of Song and the heart and mind at ease unlocks our wisdom and compassion; the external work allows us to apply those tools to all aspects of our life.  This principle is the art within the Martial art.