If you put the words, “Tai Chi” into a search engine, you’ll get a thousands of different results from different schools, organizations and instructors saying they teach “Tai Chi”. To someone unfamiliar with Tai Chi, it might seem you’re spoiled for choice: they all teach the same thing, so just pick one, right?
Well, it’s not that simple. For starters, there are many different styles of Tai Chi, and finding the right style – the right introduction to Tai Chi – for you can be a challenge. However, even more than that, these days there are many programs calling themselves “Tai Chi” that may, in some ways, resemble Tai Chi, but are in fact not.
So how is the newcomer to Tai Chi supposed to know the difference? Below is a guide to recognizing whether the “Tai Chi” you’re doing is ‘traditional’ or ‘non-traditional’.
What’s in a name?
The name, “Tai Chi” can be confusing, even in some instances misleading, as it seems to have become a catch-all moniker for any form of exercise that is performed slowly. So the first question you should ask is: what is it you’re actually doing?
Taijiquan (tie-gee-chwan – sometimes also spelt Tai Chi Chuan or T’ai Chi Ch’uan) is the traditional form of what today is often shortened to Tai Chi (T’ai Chi, or Taiji). Taijiquan is a martial art: all the movements (forms) within a sequence have martial applications for self-defence. Some schools/instructors still make a point of referring to what they teach as Taijiquan (as opposed to Tai Chi) in order to emphasize they are teaching traditional Tai Chi, as opposed to non-traditional alternatives. However, many schools now use the simplified English name, “Tai Chi”, because it is more recognizable and identifiable to the broader public, and because many people seek out Tai Chi for its health benefits as opposed to its martial applications.
There are some who argue that Tai Chi and Taijiquan are two different things. This is at best, inaccurate, and at worst, misleading. If you are learning Tai Chi from a traditional sense (see below), you are actually learning Taijiquan.
What is Traditional Tai Chi?
Let’s make one thing clear straight away: at of the time of writing, there is no formal classification (that I am aware of) of “traditional” Tai Chi. I am using the term “traditional” as a way of contrasting Tai Chi with other forms of exercise that may be based on Tai Chi, but are not necessarily Tai Chi (this contrast will, I hope, become clearer as you read on).
With that in mind, traditional Tai Chi, regardless of style, follows the instruction, principles, theory and philosophy of Taijiquan. It is a martial art, whether the instruction or practice specifically focus on the martial aspect, or not. If the instruction does not focus on the martial aspect, the instructor should at least understand and be able to convey to students the martial application to help them understand why forms are performed a certain way. Many known Masters of Tai Chi have argued that if the martial aspect is disregarded, it is no longer Tai Chi*.
However, Tai Chi is much more than a system of self-defence. The principles of Tai Chi are derived from Taoist philosophy, which also forms the basis of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). To fully understand the relationship between Tao, TCM and Tai Chi is a discussion far beyond the scope of this article; however two main concepts which are present in Tai Chi practice is the idea of qi (chee – also spelled chi), a lifeforce energy that provides the underlying basis of our health (or lack thereof), and the idea of contrasting but complementary universal forces, Yin and Yang, the balance of which also helps us maintain good health – for that matter helps bring about the natural order of the universe. (Please note: this is an exceedingly simplified explanation of these two concepts and you are encouraged to read about these concepts further in order to understand their significance). This is where the idea of Tai Chi having health benefits beyond simple physical exercise came about: because Tai Chi focuses on understanding and developing these energies, a person can use Tai Chi to help maintain optimal health and increase their lifespan, amongst other benefits.
In line with this, there are many theories and principles that have been developed by Masters over the years – often referred to as the Tai Chi Classics – that guide the Tai Chi student to develop their understanding and practice – and thereby gain the benefit – of Tai Chi. It can be said that these particular principles and theories are what differentiates Tai Chi from other styles of martial arts. Again, it has been argued that anyone practicing Tai Chi who is not also striving to understand and follow the teachings of the Classics is not really performing Tai Chi. My own Master would often comment, “it’s good kung fu, but it’s not Tai Chi.”
Although this is a simplified and brief outline of what traditional Tai Chi is, what should be apparent is that traditional Tai Chi is not just a form of ‘slow exercise’ (in fact, there are many forms and styles of Tai Chi that use rapid or explosive movements), or a ‘moving meditation’. There are many facets to understanding and practicing Tai Chi, and for the committed student of Tai Chi there is always more to learn and develop.
What is Non-Traditional Tai Chi?
Again, understand that at the time of writing, there is no formal classification (that I’m aware of) of “non-traditional Tai Chi”; it is simply a term I’m using to differentiate between traditional Tai Chi and other “Tai Chi” practices.
At the risk of stating the obvious, a simply explanation of non-traditional Tai Chi would be anything that isn’t traditional Tai Chi. However, if you don’t have any experience with traditional Tai Chi, how could you be expected to know the difference?
Non-traditional Tai Chi is often, at best, a ‘filtered’ form of Tai Chi. Often, the martial aspect will be entirely disregarded because it is only being practiced for “health benefits”. Instead, the focus will be on slow and gentle movements. In some instances the sequences or forms themselves may be modified from the original in order to make their instruction “more accessible”. The underlying theory and philosophy will often be ignored (assuming it is even known by the instructor), or only referred to in a casual or off-hand way; a historical reference or quirk, as opposed to a guide or instruction.
This is not to say that non-traditional Tai Chi is not beneficial: in fact the opposite is often true. Any form of exercise can have benefit to people, if it is performed safely and effectively. What is at question is: is it really Tai Chi if it is missing many of the essential elements of traditional Tai Chi? Should it even be able to be called “Tai Chi”? This is something that increasingly being debated as more and more non-traditional Tai Chi schools and instructors commercialize “Tai Chi”.
As a general guide to determining whether a program is non-traditional Tai Chi, you should be aware of the following:
- use of the terms, “modified”, “variation of” or “based on” when referring to the type of Tai Chi that is being taught, or “combined with” where the exercise claims to combine Tai Chi with some other form of exercise (yoga and pilates are common). I would also caution against claims of the instructor’s “own style”;
- encouraged use of adaptive equipment, such as walkers or chairs, to facilitate a student’s ability to perform the exercises (while very useful to enable participation in exercise, this is more suited to Qigong practice than Tai Chi);
- specificity of what the Tai Chi is “for” – eg: “Tai Chi for [insert health or medical condition]” (traditional Tai Chi is beneficial for many health and medical conditions and there is no variation that specifically targets one over the other) – or modification of the actual name – eg: “Tai Chair” (see above) or “Aquatic Tai Chi”; and
- instructor qualifications, especially those who have become instructors by doing a course as opposed to engaging in traditional Tai Chi instruction – be especially aware of anyone offering to qualify you as an instructor by taking a “weekend” or “two week” course (traditional Tai Chi instructors have often devoted years, if not their life, to learning Tai Chi and have been specifically selected – often graded and/or certified – by their instructor/Master to teach).
Traditional or Non-Traditional: Which One to Choose?
The only way to answer this question is to ask yourself: why are you interested in learning Tai Chi?
If you are interested in finding a light, easy form of exercise that you can attend either regularly or semi-regularly, similar to a light aerobics or stretching class, where you can turn up and follow along with the instructor without the need to have a deeper understanding of what you’re doing or why you’re doing it, you would probably benefit from joining a non-traditional Tai Chi class or program.
If, however, you are wanting something deeper, something that requires you to learn, and practice, and think about, that can have far-reaching benefits for all aspects of your health – not just physical – that presents a constant challenge that enables you to continuously develop and grow over your lifespan, you would do well to seek out a traditional Tai Chi school or instructor.
For further guidance to finding a suitable Tai Chi instructor I recommend one of my previous articles: Six Tips Before You Start Tai Chi Class.
* examples include but are not limited to: Wong Kiew Kit, Dr Yang Jwing-Ming, Waysun Liao, and Yang Cheng-Fu. Discussion of this can be found in many of their own respective publications.