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How to Do Tai Chi

Four Parts:TechniquePracticingSeeking InstructionMastery

Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) is an ancient Chinese "internal" or "soft" martial art often practised for its health-giving and spiritual benefits; it is non-competitive, gentle, and generally slow-paced.[1] Contrary to the Western concept of "no pain, no gain" one hour of tai chi actually burns more calories than surfing and nearly as many as downhill skiing, so it's definitely a veritable workout.[2] But that's just one of the many benefits! By increasing strength, flexibility, body awareness and mental concentration, tai chi can improve your health, too.

Part 1

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    Warm up with proper breathing and centering. As with any martial art, it's not just how quickly and forcefully you can strike a board or knock a guy out. A huge part of it is having a firm grip on your mind. To clear yours, focus your chi, and tap into your potential, you'll need to start with proper breathing (which will, in turn, centre you).
    • Put your feet up to shoulder width apart, no further.
    • Place your hand on your lower abdomen, about 2 inches (5 cm) below your navel. Push in lightly.
    • Breathe in and out through your nose slowly (lips loosely together) from this area of your abdomen. If you can't feel this area moving, push in with your hand a bit more.
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    Concentrate on all parts of your body one at a time. Once breathing like this feels normal, start relaxing every part of your body one at a time. Start with your feet and work your way up to your scalp. Get as tiny as you'd like -- down to your fingernails even. You'll find you were holding tension without even realizing it.
    • If you start to sway, that's actually a good thing! It means you're relaxing and your body isn't tensed to balance. If that does happen, consider slightly readjusting your feet or moving your concentration back to your balance until you're steady again.
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    Root yourself. One of the concepts of tai chi is "rooting." It's fairly self-explanatory: imagine roots growing out from underneath your feet. You are a part of the ground, never losing balance, focus, or your centering. Your limbs sway like branches in the wind, never hesitating for fear or apprehension. You are rooted.
    • This does not mean you or your legs are stiff. Quite the opposite. Just imagine roots under you, a part of you, allowing you for freedom of movement because you cannot fall, you cannot fail, and you will always be a part of the natural world.
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    Think about your frame. In Tai Chi, there are a few forms your positions can take. Generally, each style favors a specific form. Here's a rundown of the basics:
    • Small frame style. In this style (usually Wu or Hao versions) aren't very expansive. The movements are smaller (big surprise, huh?) and there's less extension in general. The focus is on correct internal energy to form correct movements and transitions.
    • Large frame style. The large frame style (Chen and Yang) involves low and high stances, more dramatic postures, and swinging arms. It emphasizes correct positioning of the body and alignment to channel energy.
      • There is a medium frame style, but it's really just in between the two.[3] If you have questions, ask your teacher!
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    Experiment with different styles. Because all Tai Chi is good, it's more important that you do any rather than worry about which style is right for you. But once you get immersed in the world, you may want to experiment. Here's a brief rundown:[4]
    • The Chen style mixes up the tempo, going very slow and then being explosive. It can be difficult for beginners.
    • The Yang style is the most popular. It has a steady tempo and, as discussed above, uses large frame movements. It's probably what you think of when you think of tai chi.
    • In Wu, the movements are almost microscopic. This makes it easy to do, but difficult to master -- there's a lot of focus on powerful flows of energy and inner, pressured movements. The movements are very slow and deliberate.
    • The Hao style isn't very widely spread. You probably won't find a teacher that practices it.

Part 2

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    Master the moves by understanding the philosophy and its makers. To understand the nature of Tai Chi Chuan (meaning "Supreme Ultimate Fist") we have to put it into context with the culture from where it has come. This means we have to look closer at the Chinese culture and, in particular, the spiritual tradition of Taoism which is where Tai Chi Chuan finds its roots and sustenance.
    • The art of tai chi is said to improve the flow of Chi (Qi), the traditional Chinese concept of a physically intangible energy or life force. In scientific studies, tai chi has been proven to improve a host of medical conditions including, but not limited to: muscular pain, headaches, fibromyalgia, cardiovascular problems, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, Diabetes and ADHD. Though its low-impact workout is especially helpful to seniors, tai chi is for everyone and is deceptively simple in appearance.
    • The thing to keep in mind about Taoism is that it is about an attunement with nature. Not just nature outside of us, but also the nature within us. This principle is called Tzu Jan, or Ziran in pinyin, and it is the principle of being "self-so" or embodying one's "self-nature". So beyond the health benefits and stress relief, Tai Chi Chuan is also a means to tap into one's inner self.
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    Think about more than just doing the move. Tai Chi isn't about putting your arms out in front of you. No. Just no. For every moment, there's purpose, flow and, for some, a fighting application. While you're practising, think about these things. What does this move symbolize? How does such a simple move evoke such energy?
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    Try the single whip move. We're just going to outline a few here (there are tons), but a pretty standard one that is seen in every variety is the single whip. It's where every point along your arms and upper torso is part of a whip -- they could explode with a force of energy at any moment, becoming the end of the whip. Doesn't seem so effortless now!
    • For this move, generally one hand stays in the "beak hand" position. You can probably guess why -- it sort of looks like a bird's beak. Your four fingers should be lightly touching your thumb and your palm should be facing downward. As for your arms, each style of Tai Chi is slightly different, but generally, they're at shoulder height and spread like loose wings.
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    Do the white crane spreads wings move. For this one, your weight should always be on one leg -- but both feet should always be on the ground. You'll be shifting back and forth as you test your balance. So to your arms should be opposite -- one should be moving fast and on different planes and the other should be slow and deliberate (but never flaccid and weak).
    • The name of this moves sounds docile, but it does have a fighting application. Think about it: your weight and arm position is always changing. And when you have 100% of your weight on one leg, it frees the other up to kick. There's your purpose!
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    Practice "pouring." This can even be something you do waiting in line at the self-check out. You simply stand with your feet on the floor, parallel, shoulder-width apart. Then you pour your weight onto one leg and hold; after a few breaths in and out, you begin slowly pouring your weight onto the other leg and holding. Do this for a few minutes, clearing your mind and becoming aware of your balance.[5]
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    Do arm circles. With your elbows out in front of you and your wrists relaxed, begin your arm circles. Start on the first level making slow circles with your fingers, then your wrists, then your forearms, and then through your shoulder. Try to keep perfect, unmoving balance in your core at all times.
    • Do leg cycling, too! Sit down and work from your toes to your thighs, bending your knees when you need to. Be sure to go both clockwise and counterclockwise.[5]
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    Master the "snake creeps down" move. Again, this move is slightly different in each style of Tai Chi, but the general gist is the same: move from a standing position into a deep (hamstring) lunge as gracefully as possible![6]
    • Once you're there, test your balance with your arms. Move them around on different planes and at different speeds. Can you hold it?
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    Go from short form to long form. For most beginners, you'll probably want to stick to the short form. That's 13-40 moves long and generally lasts about 5-20 minutes. But once you get that down, you may be craving more. That's where the long form comes in! It's 80 or more moves and can take over an hour.[7] Talk about stress relief!

Part 3
Seeking Instruction

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    Choose a style of tai chi that fits your needs and interests. There are hundreds of tai chi styles but each of them has a specific focus of its own such as health or martial arts,[1] meaning that you need to make a decision about what you want to get from the tai chi experience. The six most popular styles, which originate from family lineages, are the Chen, Yang, Wu, Sun and Wu-Hao and Fa styles. Yang style is the most popular when focusing on health issues, however, Chen style, with its lower stances and focus on martial development, is most popular as a self-defense art. No matter the style, stick with it, and remember that despite visual differences all tai chi styles share the same basic underlying philosophy.
    • The many types of tai chi styles mean that there are over 100 movements and positions in tai chi that you can learn.[1] Many of these carry the names of nature or animals.
    • The continuity between all forms of tai chi is a concentration on breathing coordinated with rhythmic movement, and an end goal of achieving inner calm by focusing on the present.[1]
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    Make sure you're physically ready for it. Anyone can do tai chi, provided you choose a gentler form of it, if you need to. The reason for this is that tai chi emphasizes technique over strength[1], giving every person a chance to master the art regardless of strength or age. The workout is low-impact and is, therefore, suitable for most people. If you have any doubts, talk to your medical practitioner.
    • Those who have joint, spine, fractures, or heart problems, or who are pregnant, should discuss taking up tai chi with their medical practitioner first.[1]
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    Find a knowledgeable teacher who is right for you. There are no degrees or credentials for teaching tai chi,[1] and the key factor is the compatibility of your learning style with their teaching style. While there may be helpful study guides, it is simply impossible to learn from a book or video. A DVD cannot correct your form, and everyone needs correction as a beginner. Moreover, the social support gained by attending a class is invaluable. Places to look for a tai chi teacher include your local health club, community center, wellness facility, martial arts studio, YMCA, or YWCA. There are many "tai chi class finders" online. Factors in choosing a teacher include:
    • There is no universal (or even widely-used) accreditation system for tai chi teachers. This often makes it difficult for a beginner to judge the veracity or suitability of a particular teacher's tai chi. A teacher without the ability to answer prolific questions and make individualized adjustments to your form is not acceptable, therefore it is best to trust your gut and keep looking until you click with the instructor.
    • If you're a newcomer to tai chi, it is completely acceptable to learn from another advanced student.
    • One important factor to consider is if you have any medical conditions which require special attention, such as arthritis or multiple sclerosis. If so, it is essential you choose a teacher who has experience making accommodations for your condition.
    • Picking a teacher who is an hour drive away is the fastest way to getting tai chi relegated to your New Year's resolution list year after year. Ensure that you find classes that are close and handy to you.
    • Pay only what you can afford. A fancy studio and a free uniform doesn't mean much if you aren't learning anything. Most traditional classes are held outdoors and are informal when compared to say, your local taekwondo school.
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    Pick a style of instruction. No matter if your teacher of tai chi is a soccer mom from the burbs' or an old Chinese man with a white beard, pick a style of instruction that works for you. It doesn't matter how knowledgeable they are, if you can't understand them, you won't get any of their experience to show in your practice. Be sure to pick a teacher who has the same goals you do (in terms of health, self-defense etc.). To understand what you're in for, visit the class yourself before signing up. Teachers who refuse to allow a trial class are hiding something. Anyone who calls themselves, or insists you call them grandmaster or any other equally overblown term, is not worth pursuing. A true tai chi teacher will tell you that they are still learning to master tai chi, even after many years.[8]
    • Bear in mind that tai chi is not about competition. You are not entering the class to compete with the teacher or the others in the class. You are joining the class to honor and augment the teacher's work, and to learn.

Part 4

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    Practice. Reading the cool tai chi magazines is fun, but the primary way to improve your tai chi is to practice. Anecdotes about one tai chi master, the famous Chen Fake, say he practised his styles form 30 plus times a day.[9] While you certainly don't need to go to this extreme, practising once a day is preferable. Twice a week is about the minimum amount of practice in order to learn most effectively, and feel a tangible benefit. When practising, focus on what you remember. Don't beat yourself up about not remembering, but rather improve what you can work on. Even if you only remember one posture, standing and holding that posture is good for you.
    • Develop a routine so that it is both easy to remember and you find it a pleasant association between practising tai chi and how you feel about your day in general.
    • What you get from your Tai Chi practice is largely determined by how, and how much your are practising. To get the most from your training consistency is needed. Set aside some time for yourself every day, fifteen minutes will do. Then, every day, take that time to care for your body and clear your mind with your practice. The reward will be well worth it.
    • You can practice indoors or outdoors, with friends, or solo. Whatever fits in best for you, tai chi will work with you.
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    Commit to practising for 12 weeks minimum.[1] You need at least three months of practising tai chi before you will notice the benefits. At this point, they should be very evident and ongoing but don't give up – give yourself at least this minimum period to see the benefits. And once you reach this mark, continue for longer and bigger benefits, and for greatly increased skill.[1]
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    Keep distractions out of your practice zone. During the tai session, you are expected to put aside distractions and focus. The deep breathing aspect will help, as will relaxing:
    • Relax. Tensing your body is the best way to prevent getting any benefit from tai chi. However, relax does not mean turn into a wet noodle. Retain proper posture without excess tension. Classic tai chi literature often describes this as standing "as if one were suspended on a string on the top of the head".
    • Breathe. Part of the secret of tai chi's health benefits comes from deep, abdominal breathing. The majority of styles teach "abdominal breathing", in which one breathes in, expanding the abdominal area (not the chest) and exhales by contracting the abs. All inhalation is done through the nose; exhalation through the mouth and the tongue should touch the roof of the mouth, stimulating salivary function.
    • Live in the moment. Develop the tai chi mental discipline to live in the moment rather than focusing on anxieties.
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    Practice in stressful situations. Once you are more proficient at tai chi, move it into your daily life to reduce stress. Practice the concepts of tai chi in highly stressful situations, such as traffic jams, or a high-intensity work meeting, to lessen the tension and restore inner calm and balance.
    • As a form of meditation, tai chi is able to help you learn to understand yourself better and thereby deal with others more effectively. Thus, when stressful situations arise, tai chi learning will help you to be assertive and respectful of others, as well as staying in the present and dealing with the situation before you with calmness. Tai chi helps you learn to merge the opposing forces of yin and yang, self and the world to achieve a natural balance for physical and spiritual well-being. This balance is represented by the tai chi symbol.
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    Expand your repertoire. Cross-training in other forms and styles, after you've achieved a basic level of mastery in your first form, is often very helpful at improving your general tai chi knowledge. The iconic practice of tai chi are the "hand" forms; the slow movements performed in a group or solo. But tai chi includes a vast array of forms which can improve your health and self-defense abilities. Most teachers only go on to such forms after a demonstrable proficiency in the basic hand form of the style.
    • Learn about weapons forms. Almost all styles, including those which disregard all martial intent, have tai chi forms practised with weapons. These can range from simple staves or swords to esoteric Chinese weapons.
    • Try a faster form. Ironically, and in opposition to the public's general idea of tai chi, most traditional family styles (including Yang, Chen,Fa and Wu) have a "fast form." This form is often used as a way of expressing the martial power honed and stored in slow form practice. It is sometimes called "Cannon Fist" (pao chui) in Chen style.
    • Learn about partner work. If forms practice is tai chi's solo workout, "pushing hands" (tui shou) is its partner exercise. Though eventually it can lead into free sparring, push hands is essentially an exercise meant to develop the sensitivity and skill of tai chi in a cooperative way. Generally, the learning of push hands builds steadily; moving from fixed-stance patterns with a single hand, and ending in a moving step pattern with both hands sometimes varying in height and speed.
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    Read deeply about tai chi. Classwork is one thing but learning the meaning, philosophical underpinning, and history of tai chi takes time and much of it is best done through reading and learning in your own time. This is an important part of learning tai chi because it provides you with the opportunity to get a deeper understanding of how tai chi benefits you mentally and physically, and enables you to find new ideas about enriching your tai chi experience. Other people's learning about tai chi can inform your own and you may want to put some of their ideas into practice to see what works best for you.
    • Feel free to ask your teacher questions about your self-directed learning, such as what to read and questions about what you have read. That way you will expand your understanding a great deal.
    • Read the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching. These books discuss the concept of "chi" and how it can become blocked and when this happens, so does illness.


  • Move slowly and at an even pace. Remember that you are are not only exercising your body, but you are also exercising your energy within your body.
  • Think of moving your body as one unit, rather than in sections. To make your arms push forward, push from your legs and shift your entire torso forward, rather than moving the arms alone. Traditionally this is described as moving from your "dan tien," the center of the body located just below your navel. Moving the entire body in an integrated way is the source of the "internal power" (nei jin) of tai chi's self-defense application.


  • Tai Chi is a martial art and was originally used for combat. Do not assume it's just Chinese exercise. Doing so may offend traditional practitioners and is often seen as a sign of ignorance.
  • Do not let your knees go farther out than the end of your toes or collapse inward. This is a very common mistake for beginners when trying to relax and stay "rooted" to the ground, but doing so can seriously injure your knee.

Things You'll Need

  • Flat-soled shoes. It is important in tai chi to maintain your connection to the ground, so heels and thick soles are not helpful
  • Somewhat loose, comfortable clothing. Skirts and jeans are not desirable
  • No special equipment is required; this is one of tai chi's appealing benefits in that costs are kept low

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