Illustration by Christopher Cunetto
When most of us think of Tai Chi, we picture older folks in the park moving in slow motion. No one’s idea of a hard-core workout. But these kinder, gentler forms of Tai Chi — usually Yang style, among others — are actually much-diluted versions of the original martial art created to appeal to the masses in China and elsewhere.
Authentic Tai Chi –- known as Chen style –- is a whole different kettle of fish.
Chen style Tai Chi is an intense form of physical conditioning that, in the right hands and with the right attitude, can deliver profound levels of fitness, dexterity and fortitude — all with little or no impact.
But Tai Chi? Seriously?
Seriously. Chen Tai Chi is very much a martial art, a system for close combat developed during the late Ming dynasty by a Chinese military leader. The principles have been carefully preserved by the founder’s descendants and, as a consequence, they have changed very little over time.
What you learn today from a high-level instructor will be very much what training would have been like in ancient China. Except, you will have access to indoor plumbing and the class will last an hour as opposed to all day.
Of course, like any regime that delivers, Chen style is attracting its share of attention with celebrity practitioners like Bette Midler and the late Lou Reed. It was Chen Tai Chi that Hugh Jackman performed in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain and the style practiced by Tiger Chen, star of Keanu Reeves’ Man of Tai Chi.
The bottom line is that real Tai Chi is no walk in the park.
So what does a typical class look like?
Chen Tai Chi training works from the ground up, starting with deep leg-muscle conditioning that realigns and re-sets the whole body for action. While legs strengthen, students are taught to incorporate the rest of the body with movements that are at times smooth and controlled, at others, fast and powerful.
Much of the work is done in place, using techniques that protect the joints — which is ideal for anyone who has old injuries or wants to avoid new ones. Eventually, students also practice choreographed routines that deep-train the body for even more power and dexterity. There is punching and kicking.
More experienced practitioners can move into sparring that looks like a kind of upright wrestling.
But what if I’m not into kung fu fighting?
There is no doubt that the goal of Chen Tai Chi is effective self-defense (or “applications” as they are rather euphemistically called), but even if you never spar -– or find yourself grappling with a maniac — the process itself delivers deep conditioning and health benefits.
This is largely because Chen Tai Chi is about body principles, not memorizing a list of moves. The body is trained over time as a power base from which to work the physics of close combat. But it’s just as good for the physics of taking the stairs at work or improving performance in any sport that requires endurance, speed and balance.
“Authentic Chen style Tai Chi as we teach it provides deep health and energetic benefits, regardless of your initial level of fitness,” says Stephan Berwick, a Chen expert and owner of Arlington-based True Tai Chi. “You can be a top athlete or arrive in a wheelchair — either way you will be challenged to develop strength and conditioning like you have never known before.”
So what are the health benefits?
Part of what makes Chen Tai Chi so unique is the way it teaches one part of the body to relax while another is deeply engaged –- the so-called yin and yang of proper practice. It is a body method that allows the harnessing of tremendous power –- but one that also incorporates principles of Taoism and Chinese medicine.
It’s a potent combination delivering tangible health benefits. According to The Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publications, studies have shown that hypertension, arthritis, sleep problems and a number of other medical conditions respond well to regular practice of Tai Chi.
It shares principles with other exacting methods of body work, especially in its emphasis on posture and the protection of joints. Pat Christopherson, a certified Rolfer and Chen style instructor based in Springfield, Va., says both methods rely on “properly aligning the body for optimal function.” She teaches Chen style because it offers “a potent system that cultivates both strength and serenity.”
All sounds good, but I find exercise boring, will I stick with Tai Chi?
Maybe. Chen Tai Chi was not designed for 21st century device-laden urbanites. Its methods assume a certain capacity for focus and patience.
But if you savor things like fine wine, jazz, opera, the arts –- indeed anything that engages with intelligence and intensity — you will likely appreciate the pace and authenticity of training Chen Tai Chi.
If you’re a gym-rat with the attention span of the same rodent, Chen will either kill you or make you stronger.
Learn more at truetaichi.com or in the book Chen Style Taijiquan: The Source of Taiji Boxing by Davidine Sim and David Gaffney, available at Amazon.com.