Tai Chi Chuan, or Tai Chi, began as a martial art in 16th century China. The name is generally translated as ‘supreme ultimate fist’ or ‘ultimate fist.’ Its most salient characteristic is the slow and determined way the forms are carried out.

   While many different versions evolved over the years, 5 major schools of Tai Chi have come to predominate. They are the Chen Style, the Yang Style, the Wu/Hao Style, the Wu Style and the Sun style. The major differences in these schools are the types of movements performed, their level of intricacy and the speed with which they are exercised.

   In addition to the martial arts training that is the foundation of Tai Chi Chuan, it has also become popular as an exercise that has many health benefits. Reducing stress in body and mind is one of the more attractive features of Tai Chi, but it also helps with cardiovascular activity and facilitates weight loss. Indeed, it has been pointed out in one study that Tai Chi burns more calories than surfing and almost as many as downhill skiing.

   While the benefits of focused attention and meditative concentration can be useful for all ages, the soft style and low-impact movement of Tai Chi can be especially beneficial to the elderly.  It has been shown to reduce the risk of falling among the aged and helps to reduce the symptoms of fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

   If your interest is in Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art, then it is important to understand the self-defense philosophy underlying the forms. Essentially, the method eschews a fist on fist encounter and concentrates on meeting brute force with becoming one with the opponent’s blows and redirecting the aggressive behavior until the attacker is rendered powerless. It is understood that to become expertly focused on the opponent’s movements requires thousands of hours of slow, low-impact training (often referred to as the ying), culminating in actual, hands-on combat (referred to as the ying). Some schools use additional training such as breathing exercises (Qigong), push-hands and weapons training with a sword, knife or chain whip. Most of these schools have websites where you can learn about various training techniques in more detail.

   As suggested earlier, the current popularity of Tai Chi extends beyond the martial arts and has many adherents who are attracted to the slow movements of the form and the psychological and physical benefits that can be attained performing Tai Chi as an exercise. Consequently, there are thousands of Tai Chi Chuan classes held in hospitals, clinics and community centers. And in many parts of the world it is appreciated as an outdoor exercise.

  What began in ancient China several centuries ago is now thriving in both Asia and the West, not only as a martial art, but as a health-enhancing exercise as well. And as the Baby Boomer generation matures, its interest in alternative health techniques and well-being will help enhance Tai Chi Chuan’s worldwide popularity.