Those who are new to tai chi may well not realise that there are several different styles, some of which can look and feel very different.
At the end of the day, if the style is taught well, the benefits are pretty much the same but you may want to spend some time investigating – either in person or online – to find a style and a class that you resonate with, as different styles can have a slightly different emphasis on how the body is used.
In this blog post I will go into a few details of Chen tai chi and explain a little of its history and how learning it might benefit you (with the application of regular practice, of course!).
The Original Style of Tai Chi
Chen tai chi is the oldest and the original form of tai chi, it originates from Chen Village (Chenjiagou) in Henan Province, which is to the east/centre of China. The founder, Chen Wanting (1580-1660), after retiring as a military commander after the fall of the Ming Dynasty, developed Chen tai chi into seven routines/forms, also integrating principles of Yin and Yang, Chinese medicine, qigong breathing, to create what we now refer to as an ‘internal’ martial art.
Chen Changxing (1771-1853) took the seven routines of Chen Wanting and created two forms, Lao Jia Yi Lu (Old Frame First Form) and Lao Jia Er Lu (Old Frame Second Form – also known as Cannon Fist). These forms, among others, are taught today at White Crane Academy.
Chen Changxing broke tradition within Chen village and became the first teacher to instruct someone from outside of the village, namely Yang Luchan (1799-1871), who later spread the popularity of tai chi throughout China with his own style (Yang), derived from Chen tai chi. (We also teach a short Yang form at WCA).
In the early 20th Century the popularity of Chen tai chi increased, as it spread from Chen Village to Beijing and other parts of China via Chen Fake (1887-1957) and his students. Chen Fake was revered as a martial artist and enhanced the reputation of Chen tai chi with victories in several high profile fights.
This increased popularity in Chen tai chi (as well as all other styles) was halted between 1966 and 1976 due to the Cultural Revolution. The practice of tai chi was banned and schools closed, at great personal risk many people continued to practice in secret until the restrictions of the revolution were lifted in the late 70’s and early 80’s. This was a time when China re-embraced its traditions, such as tai chi, during what is known as the Era of Reconstruction.
In the early 80’s Chen tai chi’s reputation started spreading internationally, first with Japanese visitors to Chen Village, and later visitors from other countries were welcomed. The Chinese government supported the initiation of the Four Buddha Warriors, four high-profile Chen instructors from Chen Village who would go on to develop their own schools and help spread the practice of Chen tai chi worldwide. These Buddha Warriors are: Chen Xiaowang, Wang Xian, Zhu Tiancai, and Chen Zhenglei (whose lineage I have learnt under).
Benefits of Chen Tai Chi
In my opinion (and others may differ), one of the greatest benefits of Chen tai chi is a greatly increased body awareness, even for myself, who had studied other martial arts styles for 15 or so years before my Chen training started.
The pelvis is the seat of power in Chen tai chi. It can be seen as the handle of a whip, with the spine and the arms as a long whip. Like a whip it is soft and relaxed but when it is needed, the power is there with a quick crack of the whip, and then instantly relaxes again.
The development of this type of power takes much practice and dedication, yet as you progress – through specific basic exercises (such as silk reeling), standing meditation, qigong, and tai chi forms – you will become incredibly aware of your body, where you are tense, where you are relaxed, which parts of the body need to move and the timing of when to move them.
In terms of practical benefits that you will see in your everyday life, the emphasis on moving from the pelvis requires that you learn how to relax your hips because if the muscles around your hips are tight, your pelvis will be locked. Just with a short amount of training you can feel the benefits here, particularly if you suffer from pain and stiffness in your lower back.
Pain and discomfort is hardly ever localised though and tension held in one area of the body can cause pain elsewhere. If we can free up the hips and pelvis, this has a knock on effect on the shoulders for example. ‘Relax your shoulders’ is one of the more common corrections I have to give students in class. However, it’s not really productive to just focus on the shoulders. If the pelvis and hips are relaxed, this will allow the lower spine and tailbone to sink, aiding the relaxation of the shoulders.
As the expression goes, ‘You are only as old as your spine’. This is bad news for a lot of people! Not so for practitioners of Chen tai chi, as there is a large focus on spine health. The spine is our central column, major energy channels run through the spine and most people won’t need me to tell them that if you’ve got a bad back, it’s simply miserable!
I’ve always said that tai chi is the antidote to modern lifestyles and this is perfectly demonstrated here. So many people sit for hours upon hours each day at work, travelling to and from work, with evening leisure time spent watching TV. This has been exacerbated even further over the last couple of years with so many people working from home sitting on their sofas, or dining room tables as makeshift desks. There’s no wonder that so many people have issues with their back.
Chen tai chi constantly focuses on lengthening and straightening the spine, keeping it strong and mobile by moving it naturally. With regular practice your back (and neck) will feel better than it has for years!
Once you have learnt to relax your hips and sink your pelvis, your stance will naturally deepen. Spend half an hour or more a day practicing your tai chi and you can do away with legs day at the gym!
You won’t develop stiff and heavy legs either, we still want the legs to be relaxed so that our energy sinks down to the ground and power can be transmitted from the ground through the body. They will be functional, mobile, flexible, strong, and look much better in a pair of shorts!
Obviously this has a positive effect on your balance, which is why many many people want to start learning tai chi in the first place.
I love meditation but I don’t like sitting down! If you’re like me, Chen tai chi will be perfect. Most classes we spend time practicing standing meditation. It offers all of the benefits that you would expect from a seated meditation, in addition to helping prepare your body for tai chi (and everyday life!).
The focus is on aligning the structure of your body (the bones), so that your muscles and soft tissue can relax. When our body is incorrectly aligned we put stress and strain on our muscles to hold us in place, usually in a position that isn’t quite natural.
When we are able to stand and relax, our muscles will soften, joints open slightly, our blood and qi flow will strengthen, resulting in increased health and a better tai chi practice – a double bonus!
If any of that sounds appealing to you, at White Crane Academy we currently teach two daytime Chen tai chi classes per week, and a third one in the evening will be starting soon.
As I mentioned earlier in the blog, the list of benefits of tai chi is almost endless, here was a summary of a few of the main ones which Chen tai chi offers, and emphases slightly over other styles of tai chi, it doesn’t mean that those styles don’t offer benefits for the spine, legs, mind, shoulders, hips, and pelvis, just that in my experience these areas have been greatly helped and improved through Chen tai chi.
However, the caveat that I usually add is that benefits depend on regular practice! For me, there are two parts of a student’s learning: learning in class, and consolidating at home. Without both, your practice will be incomplete, and benefits minimal.
So, I can’t imagine that anyone could read this blog without wanting to do two things: 1. Sign up for a Chen tai chi class (which you can do here). 2. Practice some tai chi – which if you need some guidance online, you can do so at White Crane Online – we don’t have any Chen forms online (yet) but if you are a Chen student or looking to start, I’d recommend with these suitable video lessons: silk reeling, Eight Pieces of Brocade qigong, and spine exercises.
See you in class!