T'ai Ch'i: is it a slow meditative dance? An alternative approach to health? A killer martial art?
T'ai ch'i is and can be all of these things. It really depends on the style and teacher you choose. Some teachers focus only on the health aspect and relaxation, others look only at the martial applications.
In the classes I offer, I try to be as descriptive as possible so that people choose the best type of tai chi for their body as it is when they take the class. So if they're really fit and want not only relaxation, but a good workout and martial applications, Chen would be the best choice. But if they've just had a knee replacement, have been struggling with balance issues and are working to get back into shape, Chen is not the best match.
All t'ai ch'i forms are good. But they aren't all good for all bodies.
Know what you're looking for: Are you fit or are you just getting back in shape? Do you live with arthritis, MS, Parkinsons? Can you stand with your knees bent for long periods of time, slowly shifting your weight from one foot to the other? Can you walk slowly backward in a low stance without tripping or falling? How is your balance and coordination?
Practicing t'ai ch'i is good for all of the above questions, but some forms will be better for you than others.
So here's a look at basic t'ai ch'i styles that will fit into your
lifestyle and level of fitness.
The names of the 5 major styles of t'ai ch'i come from Chinese families: Chen, Yang, Sun, Wu, Hao. Within those families are many, many different styles of those forms.
Firstly, there is a difference between t'ai ch'i (taiji) and t'ai ch'i ch'uan (taijiquan). Usually, if a class is offering t'ai ch'i ch'uan, it generally means that the martial aspects will be taught. If it's just t'ai ch'i the teacher is focusing on the health aspects and not the martial arts. But check with the teacher first.
If your teacher doesn't know the name of the form he or she is teaching, that is a huge red flag! My advice: find another teacher!
Low stance, so it takes strength and flexibility. For those who live with more serious health concerns like rheumatoid arthritis, recent knee replacements, difficulty balancing, Chen may not be the best choice. It is strongly martial - you can clearly see the martial applications just watching the form - so if you freak out about the possibility of afflicting pain even in self-defense, no t'ai ch'i chuan form is for you. Knowing this about yourself is important. It will help you make the best choice.
Chen movements are generally slow and relaxed, but sprinkled in the forms are fast, explosive (fa jing) movements. The weight distribution is generally 60/40 or 70/30: in other words the weight on the legs is rarely 50/50.
If you're healthy and strong, like a challenge, can move slowly in very low stances, Chen will be a good fit for you.
The stance is a little higher than Chen, requiring a little less muscle (li) power, a little less stress on the knee joints in particular. In most cases, Yang style doesn't have the explosive movements. There are some Yang forms that do, in particular, Guang Ping Yang, which also has a lower stance than most Yang family styles and also has a couple of explosive fa jing movements. The pace in most Yang styles is usually even, slow and relaxed.
If you're in pretty good shape, have strength and endurance, but would rather not stay in deep stances like Chen, Yang may be your best bet.
(Cheng-Man Ching is a Yang form, in case you're wondering.)
Not as easy to find are classes that teach Wu style. The Wu, Wu-Hao styles are very similar. Stances are similar to Yang, but the weight is generally 100% on one leg, so your legs get a good workout - especially the slower you go. It, like Yang, is evenly paced in most of its movements, with some quick high kicks. There are a couple of areas of lively stepping. Most of the pivoting is on the lesser weighted, but some are on the weighted foot, which might be tough on the joints of the knee. This form incorporates half-steps where the practitioner steps out and then follows that step with the other foot. This is important and helpful for people who are working on balance.
This form has been popularized in the U.S. largely by Dr. Paul Lam. His "T'ai Ch'i for Arthritis" is from Sun Style. T'ai Ch'i for Arthritis is a high, short stanced form which tends to be better for people who suffer from pain, want to get back into shape, or who have trouble balancing. The form has absolutely no pivoting on a weighted foot, sparing those who have knee injuries or joint pain. This particular form also has what is called a "follow step" and for those who have trouble balancing, this is really important.
T'ai Ch'i for Arthritis is not strenuous at all and combines nice, relaxing breathwork.
The long Sun Style form is fairly evenly paced, but has high kicks, some fast. There are some areas that move a little faster than others, but most of it is evenly and slowly paced. There are a couple of places where one turns on a weighted foot, so for people who have knee issues, keep this in mind. The form is not strenuous, so if you're working to get back into shape the Sun Style long form would be good.
Overall, t'ai ch'i is a great practice, not only physically, but mentally. When you're starting a new regimen, it takes a while. T'ai Ch'i is different from many other movement classes, because in order to get better, you have to practice. You can't rely on classes alone. Also, if you find that you really want to practice t'ai ch'i, but the only form that is available doesn't meet your needs, a really good teacher can find ways to modify the form for your body's structure and ability.
I always tell students that when they're beginning something new, give it at least 6 weeks and then decide if it works for you. Good luck!