Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tai Chi: Where We Are and a Hope for the Future

Tai Chi just passed a watershed point in its thirty or so year history in the United States. Tai-chi made its debut in the August edition of the New England Journal of Medicine (N Engl J Med 2010;363:743-54) in a study titled, "A Randomized Trial of Tai Chi for Fibromyalgia".

My how times have changed!!! Remember how it was even 20 years ago where Tai chi was still largely unknown, still a novelty. I remember learning Tai chi in the mid-1980s and being labeled "kooky", and getting odd looks from passersby. Indeed, how times have changed!!

The New York Times ran an article in August 2010 titled Tai Chi Reported to Ease Fibromyalgia and another in September 2010 titled A Downside to Tai Chi? None That I See. Both of these articles reference the New England Journal of Medicine study.

Even though this is a HUGE milestone, I found a sentence in the Discussion section of the study to be very informative of the current perceptions of Tai chi:
"Our study had some limitations. We did not use a double-blind study design, since this would have required the use of sham tai chi, for which no validated approach currently exists."
And this September New York Times article also echoed the above sentiment:
"There is no “fake” version that could serve as a proper control to be tested against the real thing."
Well . . . .

I think that the participants in the study actually learned the fake tai chi, or sham tai chi.

(Note: in the real internal martial arts community, the term "Tai chi" typically refers to the fake stuff and the term, "Taiji" typically refers to the real stuff.)

Based on my past experience as a beginning tai chi student and as a former tai chi instructor, I know that most students aren't capable of learning real Taiji with only 24 hours of Tai chi instruction. (The study indicated a 1 hour session, twice a week for 12 weeks.) I'm sure the study participants could roughly imitate several basic external movements with that amount of exposure, but probably not much more.

To me, real Taiji is played with internal connectedness, which is experienced by an opponent or partner as "internal strength". Remember, Taiji is an internal martial art.

IF Taiji is not played with this unique kinesthetic quality, then it is fake Tai chi, faux Tai chi, sham Tai chi, Tai chi dance, Tai chi exercise, moving meditation or whatever you want to call it, but it's not real Taiji.

I am discovering through personal observation and experience at the Wujifa school that developing a basic level of internal strength seems to take about three years of serious, focused zhan zhuang work along with other specific practices tailored to the individual.

Therefore I conclude that it is highly improbable that a group of beginners would be able to perform REAL Taiji after a mere 24 hours of instruction!

So where are we? Fake Tai chi has been popularized complete with its own propriety language. And now a distinguished medical journal is lending a new level of recognition and credibility to fake Tai chi without knowing their mistake. And that's OK. We are where we are and that's where we start.

If the perspective expressed in this study is any representation of the population as a whole, I think that most people cannot distinguish sham Tai chi from real Taiji. Why is this? Because the only "Tai chi" that has been popularized and adopted by the masses in the United States is the sham Tai chi. So of course, people get fooled into "thinking" they are "seeing" real Taiji and consequently make misguided statements that there is no fake version of Tai chi.

Here are excerpts from an excellent article by Ken Gullette titled: There is No Such Thing as Easy Tai Chi
This is one of the reasons I get annoyed when I see ads that promise "easy tai chi." Those who have studied with the true masters can tell you that there is absolutely no such thing. Fake tai chi might be easy. The health type of tai chi for "moving meditation" might be easy. Tai Chi for senior citizens might be easy.

Real tai chi is a powerful martial art. It is very difficult and takes years of practice to even begin to see proper body mechanics. No pain, no gain. That's a phrase you don't hear in the "easy tai chi" classes.

I've had students come to me after studying other styles of martial arts. Most of them don't last long. They see how difficult it is, and they can't adjust to the fact that THIS TAKES YEARS, not months or weeks.

My hope for the future of "Tai chi" in the U.S. is that over the next 20 years we see the development of the recognition of the difference between real Taiji and the watered down popular version. I personally do not see real Taiji ever becoming as popular as nor replacing fake Tai chi because I think developing real Taiji requires far more commitment than most people are willing to put in.

What would be interesting would be a longitudinal study of the effect on fibromyalgia on a group (of dedicated souls) learning real Taiji as compared to a group learning the popularized fake Tai chi. You can do a double-blind study. You just need to know where to look to find the real stuff.


  1. Nice article you've put up here...

    I also here that simply taking a 20 minute walk everyday gets the same kinds of results. Getting up and move around, it's good for you.

    I think that the tai chi you are talking about gets people up and moving. The people go to those classes because it sound interesting. Getting up in the morning and going for a nice walk just doesn't sound as fun to many people as it does to let's say ward off or brush knee or what ever they like to call it.

    The benefits of low impact movement for those who sit in an office chair or watching TV is well known... So there is nothing special about your common rec center Tai Chi... other than it brings people together and gets them moving around... Which is a good thing I guess.

    It seems that people like yourself who have put a lot of time in and seek out something deeper may find that what you call something maybe important too?

    I remember talking to Chen Xiaowang about this 10 plus years ago and he said if it gets people up and moving then it is good. On the other hand it may have made it much harder to find people who really teach something deeper. Like any coon I guess there is always at least two sides to a coin and a story. Thanks for sharing the links and information you do here...

  2. Hi Mike,

    Great article. I'm going to say the same about OLD NLP. New NLP is all surface based, looks pretty and promises great results - like modern "tai chi".

    OLD NLP promised the practitioner and the client some Useful Distinctions - that often resulted in the client changing - and often experiencing discomfort and growing up.

    Compared to New NLP - which promises magic beans and pills, and pain free promises.

    The Good Stuff - - Old NLP and Tai JI have hard work - inside of a method designed to bring one back to earth.

    Be well my friend,

    Mr Twenty Twenty

  3. First off, I really want to say that I like your comment, TaiRuiKe. It feels good, and allows everything to have its place. I notice a lot of allowing is present in it, and it feels very spacious to me.

    It seems like Tai Chi guided itself into its current situation. There were so many "secrets" about what Tai Chi really was and included, and when they did the dance, they called it tai chi, knowing that it takes years of focused practice to even see what is really going on. So it's not really surprising that today we have a huge culture that believes the dance IS taichi.

    For example, if I put a dude in silk pajamas moving slowly in a park and he's smiling, chances are people are going to assume he has skill in tai chi. Peoples' minds tend to make A LOT of assumptions for the interest of ease. If we had to check out every snake to see if it was poisonous, a lot of people would die. If we see someone get bit by a snake and die, it makes sense to avoid all snakes, "just to be on the safe side".

    The cool things about Wujifa is, people see a husky dude sitting on a porch in ass-tight sweatpants and they're gonna need a little more proof to know he's got some serious skill in Internal Martial Arts (which he does). There's less history to attach to.

    I think the important part is to really test things out. The silk pajama dude may really be a skilled Tai Chi practitioner.

    I guess the main message is that a turd painted with gold leaf is still a turd at heart, and a turd-shaped chunk of pure gold that has been painted brown is probably worth a lot more. It's important to really know what we as individuals are really looking for, the density of the gold so to speak, so we have a way to check out that chunk of whatnot when we find it.

    Happy hunting,