Regular mental and physical exercise is the key to long term good health. When performed slowly and gently, the Chinese martial art known as “t’ai chi chuan” is especially suitable for older students concerned to maintain their health and for students with poor health looking to improve it. Those who are already in good health and physically fit can benefit from a more vigorous approach.
“All my classes focus on improving each individual’s physical and mental fitness,” says Fong, “appropriate to their age and level of conditioning.”
Yang Luchan (1799-1872) learned t’ai chi chuan from Chen Chang-xing (1771-1853). With their mastery of t’ai chi skills, Yang and his sons did much to popularize t’ai chi in martial arts circles. After coming to Beijing, however, he gradually changed the old-style routines he had mastered to suit the needs of wealthier students who sought to keep themselves healthy and physically fit instead of learning to fight. Yang’s version of the form was adapted yet again by his grandson Yang Chenfu (1883-1936), and this form has been finalized now as the “Big style.”
The Big style form with its extended and graceful movements has become the most famous t’ai chi style in the world today — overshadowing less well known styles like those of the Chen, Yu, and Sun schools. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the historical development of Yang Style is the emphasis placed by most current teachers of this form of t’ai chi chuan on the benefits of training for health and longevity, as opposed to its usefulness as a fighting art.
Despite their different characteristic movements and techniques, the various forms of t’ai chi chuan share a common training principle: the movements of the form must be executed in such a way that the sense of relaxation gives rise to a state of softness which produces in turn a state of firmness, such that softness and firmness properly complement one another. The basic idea behind this principle is that the student must learn which muscles must go to work and which he must let go to move with the greatest power and efficiency. Learning simultaneously to work and let go of which muscles when is the task of a lifetime.
The postures and the transitions between them that make up the movements of Yang Style t’ai chi chuan should be performed in such a way as to stretch, flex, and twist each and every muscle throughout the body. The rather complicated actions that constitute the Yang form are intended not only to contract effectively all the main and peripheral muscles of the body but also to improve and revitalize the keenness and sensitivity of the whole nervous system. Movements should be performed slowly, lightly, and calmly in a naturally effortless manner and with smooth continuity between the postures throughout the entire form. And because each movement must be coordinated with one’s breathing, inhalations and exhalations must be deep and slow. A continuous succession of slow, light, steady, and calm movements can be executed only with the spine held upright and with the mind both concentrated and relaxed throughout the form. All extraneous thought and feelings should be studiously ignored.
After completing the form, the student should feel free of fatigue and with a renewed sense of vigor. The entire body should be charged up and warmed from the toes to the fingers. These results are generally thought to be the effects of the deliberate activation of the nervous system required for conscious movement, stimulated circulation of the blood, and intensified flowing and draining of lymphatic fluid during performance of the form. When combined with the mental relaxation demanded of the student, these effects make Yang Style t’ai chi chuan a form of meditation in motion.
Yang Style t’ai chi chuan differs entirely from other forms of exercise. Besides making the student use every muscle and joint in a coordinated and organic manner, each movement of the form must harmonize as well with naturally deep diaphragmatic breathing. Moreover, proper performance of the form also requires both mental tranquility and concentration.