There are many different types of exercise: strength training, cariovascular endurance, muscular endurance, skill training, flexibility, explosive movement, emotional toughening, and so forth.
And no exercise does it all. One might well suspect that Tai Chi offers genuine “bang for your buck” or it wouldn’t compete for the title of “world’s most popular exercise”.
Lets go over the aspects of fitness that Tai Chi “touches on” but then look at the ones where it excels.
- Strength. If you hold a deep stance and move slowly, you definitely can gain strength of legs and core. Upper body? Not much.
- Endurance. By going deep and slow, or high and fast (or deep and fast! Ouch!) you can get your heart pumping, no question. As cardio as walking, and walking is terrific exercise.
- Skill. Excellent for developing awareness and coordination. Fighting “sensory motor amnesia”
- Explosive power. Depends on the form, or your modifications to it. Combat applications will demand explosive movement (generally), so preparing the body for storage and release of elastic energy is built into it…but you have to dig for it, it’s not on the surface.
- Self defense skill. Not under ordinary practice. You’d have to extract the techniques and principles and practice them under realistic stress. Do NOT believe that “if you push hands for twenty years, you will be able to fight.” This is an okie-doke. A con. For all practical purposes, it simply isn’t true. Six months of full-out Kali or Silat hand flow drills will cut a push-hands expert to pieces if he hasn’t practiced at intensity. And by intensity I mean that it has to HURT if you lose. Pain is the best teacher in the arts, and nothing is really in second place.
Now…other than skill, then, what does it offer?
- Balance. Fantastic. Moving slowly, you have the chance to really feel the “slinky” like flow of balance from one foot to another. Feel which part of your foot is on the ground at what moment as you flow from 80% weight on right to 60-40 to 50-50 to 40-60 to 20-80.
- Flow. Focusing your mind and breath into the present moment is valuable in countless life activities and essential to countless skills. To find flow, you have to have enough challenge to focus your mind, but not so much as to create anxiety. A slightly detached sense of interest is very smooth and cool in this arena.
- Focus. See #2.
And what does it SHINE at?
- Joint mobility. If there is a single aspect of fitness that is most critical, it is remembering that fitness is NOT health. Fitness and health are two different circles which overlap. Generally, you don’t really want flexibility–you want mobility. The capacity to move smoothly within a non-extreme range. Relaxed, smooth, flowing motion. In many ways, Tai Chi is just a complex joint mobility drill, maybe the best in the world.
However, it is not necessarily the most EFFICIENT joint mobility drill. In other words, if someone has bad back, aching joints and so forth, if it takes them a year to learn the form before they can reach “unconscious competence” and relax into the slow-motion swirl and flow of the movement, frankly most people will never get there. When I teach Tai Chi at a convention, I have one or two hours to try to give my students something of value. And it could well be that the mobility drills with which I begin class are the most important lesson of all.
Basically, you work through your entire body, top to bottom, rotating and flexing every joint at least five times. A possible order is: neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingers, trunk, hips, knees, ankles. In five minutes you can work through every tendon, ligament, joint and muscle in your entire body, and this daily work might be the single most important “health” activity you can commit to, for a lifetime.
Tai Chi does this, and in a beautiful, aesthetically pleasing manner. But if you want to cut to the chase–or to learn the perfect warm-up for Tai Chi, I suggest Scott Sonnon’s joint recovery drills, available free on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1aLdYgfr3M
Every day, for the rest of your life. Five minutes to feeling GREAT when you wake up in the morning (the saying is: if you want to heal a bad back, do it slowly. If you want to prevent a bad back, do it daily). Aren’t you worth it?