The interdependence of body and mind is fundamental to traditional Chinese thought, and is particularly stressed in Taoism, Chinese medicine, and the internal martial arts such as T’ai chi ch’uan. Master Cheng Man-ch’ing often quoted the T’ai chi Classic of Wu Yu-Hsiang, “The mind moves the ch’i and the ch’i moves the body”. He stressed the value of relaxing and sinking the ch’i to the tan t’ien point in the abdomen, three inches below the navel. Though weak and sickly as a young man, he then fully recovered from tuberculosis with the help of T’ai chi training. The soft, grounded, flexibility and power of his form and pushing hands remaining with him into old age.
The mental aspects of T’ai chi are inseparable from the physical structural and physiological aspects. A particular type of bodily awareness is developed in the course of T’ai chi training. This awareness includes a sense of the operation of muscles, ligaments and bones, and an awareness of breath and its location and focus. The need to monitor the balance, position and posture of the body and limbs, cultivates a high level of attention or bodily awareness. Apart from yoga and advanced forms of internal martial arts, very few exercise systems have these qualities.
The sunken, rooted feeling that derives from T’ai chi postural training and the slow, deep natural breathing from the abdomen, gives a relaxed, natural grounded stance, which helps to eliminate tension and stress. T’ai chi teaches you to use the strength of the earth and the ch’i of the Heavens. The correct use of the diaphragm in breathing, not only lengthens and deepens the breath and increases your oxygen supply, it gently massages the internal organs. The relaxed, slow turning of the waist throughout the form has a similar effect. The slow, sunk, relaxed execution of the form gradually develops a lengthening of the muscles and a grounded, inner power and resilience.
As rooting, relaxation and reflex skills are developed through testing exercises, pushing hands and application drills, then the cooperative and social dimensions of T’ai chi appear. Learning to deal with and subtly redirect force, physical threat and pressure, in a cooperative environment are valuable lessons and skills. The ability to stay calm, relax, absorb and redirect energy under pressure, obviously have value in many contexts apart from martial arts. It should never be forgotten that T’ai chi training should be relaxing and it should be fun.