Taijiquan (also Tai Chi and T’ai Chi Ch’uan), “the supreme ultimate (fist),” is the surname for a group of internal martial arts* developed hundreds of years ago. Chen is the original system; the Wu, Sun, and Yang styles trace their lineage back to Chen. Yang is likely the style most familiar to Westerners and, in general, it is the Yang style that is practiced by those who look to Taiji for mental and physical wellness.
Taiji’s soft power is often defined as “steel wrapped in cotton.” Its slow pace teaches fluidity of motion and proper balance, while helping to build leg strength. Taiji also emphasizes relaxation, body alignment and structure, “connectedness”, and grounding or “rooting.” From a martial perspective, these elements give Taiji its gentle strength, commonly represented by the maxim “four ounces to move a thousand pounds.” From a health perspective, these same elements help to foster a sound mind and body. Yang Style Taiji's soft and
deliberate movements rejuvenate the joints and, as described by the late Master Lu Ping Zhang “massage the internal organs”
As it happens, Master Zhang’s poetic imagery of how Taiji affects the body is not completely metaphorical. In human neurobiology, the autonomic nervous system controls those functions that are largely automatic, those that we usually do not control voluntarily, e.g., heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, sweating, etc. The autonomic nervous system is divided into two subsystems, the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic system (yang) accelerates the functions of our nervous system, in preparation for stressful situations; adrenaline kicks-in for the fight or flight response. This stress can take a heavy toll on our health, in particular our immune system. Even high intensity exercise triggers the sympathetic system; over-exercising can have a negative impact on the immune system. The parasympathetic system (yin) slows down our nervous system and boosts the immune system; it is active during periods of rest/repair and digestion. Moderate exercise (like Taiji) which promotes mental and physical relaxation, activates the parasympathetic system and, therefore, benefits the immune system, helping to keep us healthy and balanced.** Clearly, Taiji is the supreme ultimate moderate exercise; physical activity that challenges the mind and body, while strengthening our immune system and feeding our spirit!
*In broad terms, the internal arts (soft/yin) teach the development of internal, whole-body power for striking/uprooting and the application of intercepting/yielding blocks; whereas the external arts (hard/yang) train “local” power/muscle for striking and “meet force with force” blocking.
**This information regarding the autonomic nervous system was taken from a T’ai Chi Magazine interview with Michael Ferrari, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. (Volume 29, Number 26)
Sensei Stoia was fortunate to study with Master Zhang and his son, Huan. Here, he performs the first set of Yang Style, long form.