What is Tai Chi? Beginners Guide

Tai chi is a way of moving. If you’ve seen photos of groups of people practicing a graceful, slow-moving exercise in China, you’ve probably seen tai chi. This particular way of moving is practiced by over 200 million people.
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Tai chi is different from most other forms of movement and exercise because it’s a way to work directly with one’s qi, or life force.

Qi, Life Force. Only the living are imbued with qi. A lack of qi leaves one sluggish and dull—and in its complete absence, dead . With an abundance of qi, one feels vibrant, alive, and alert to the possibilities of life.

Tai Chi Develops Qi. Tai chi movements are a way to develop and to increase one’s life force. But understanding how this happens can be daunting. Explanations are often filled with unpronounceable Chinese words and equally difficult concepts.

Become familiar with a few concepts and your study of tai chi will be that much easier. Read more about tai chi and energy here.

Tai chi vs Qi Gong. Because tai chi works directly with qi or chi, as it is commonly spelled in the West, tai chi is often confused with another Chinese exercise, qi gong.

The qi development goals of tai chi and qi gong are the same. However, specific qi gong exercises focus on enhancing a specific type of qi flow. Tai chi practitioners strive, in each movement, to improve all qi flow. Read more about the distinction between tai chi and qi gong here.

The Perfect Exercise. Tai chi has also been called the Perfect Exercise. Its accessible to everyone, regardless of age or fitness level. The injury rate is low while the health and fitness benefits are high.

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Tai Chi for Fighting. When injuries in practitioners do occur, they’re likely to be from the martial arts crowd. Most tai chi practitioners focus on the health and relaxation aspects but some remain true to the known roots of tai chi and practice it as a fighting art.

Although currently better known for its health benefits, tai chi was first recognized as Tai Chi Chuan, the tai chi fighting art. Read more about this martial art,Tai Chi Chuan, here.

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Tai Chi History. The history of tai chi extends over 500 years, since its first known roots in a remote village in China. Although initially developed as a martial art, many modern-day practitioners focus more on the health benefits from tai chi. Read more about the evolution and history of tai chi here.
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The Philosophy of Tai Chi. Though described as an exercise—even the Perfect Exercise—tai chi is more than a simple exercise. Tai chi is a framework for dealing with different forces and interactions in life. It might even be called the art of yielding. A tai chi martial artist yields to the force of an incoming fist, and may then use the attacker’s force against him. The interaction is not about meeting force directly with force.

This approach of yielding and flowing around obstacles is core to the philosophy of tai chi. In this way, tai chi is not simply a series of movements, but a philosophy and way of proceeding through life.


The Tai Chi Symbol. The philosophy of tai chi revolves around cycles and balance. The balance of yin and yang--commonly simplified as feminine and masculine--and the constant shifts between these energies is integral to tai chi. These principles are represented in the tai chi symbol. Read more about the Tai Chi Symbol here.

Start Tai Chi. We’ve included a number of resources here for understanding tai chi. But, don’t get bogged down in the details. The history, philosophy, and medical aspects of tai chi can be dense reading. They’re important—absolutely--but not essential for starting a tai chi practice.

You may want to revisit the tai chi history, philosophy, and symbol sections after having gotten a glimpse of how tai chi actually looks, or better yet, how it feels to do tai chi. Understanding the philosophy and history of tai chi will inform and deepen your tai chi practice. But don’t let it stop you from getting started.

Next: Read about the History of Tai Chi.