Tai Chi is a slow and contemplative martial art that leads many to wonder whether practicing Tai Chi is the same as practicing meditation. Are meditation and tai chi the same thing? Perhaps they are different but have similar benefits?
Is Tai Chi a form of meditation? Depending on what definition of “meditation” we use, tai chi can certainly be a form of one. Tai Chi can help the practitioner focus on the moment and that is what basic meditation aims for. However, Tai Chi is very different from specific styles of meditation, of which there are many.
Although there is a divide amongst Tai Chi experts as to whether they are the same or not, it is certain that they both have great benefits to health and well-being. Whether they are the same or not, Tai Chi and meditation are compatible and complementary.
Let’s weigh in what experts say about tai chi as a form of meditation.
What Is Tai Chi?
Tai chi is a martial art. This often comes as a bit of a surprise to those who’ve seen the slow deliberate practice of the forms by people of all ages. This is because Tai Chi is a different kind of martial art when compared to most others. It’s an “internal” martial art.
An internal martial art is not focused on learning forms and fighting but rather about mastering your mind in order to become truly present in the moment.
Yin-Yang Are Important
The underpinning philosophy of Tai Chi is the concept of Yin-Yang the idea of “balance” in a cosmological and individual sense. If you can find balance in your mind, the idea goes, then you can find balance and harmony in yourself.
You can then take the opponent’s disharmony and leverage it against them. In this way Tai Chi is also considered a “soft” martial art though there are schools which teach Tai Chi in a more aggressive fighting style and transform it into a “hard” martial art.
The Philosophical Roots Of Tai Chi
Tai Chi is based in the philosophy of Taoism, but it is not a religious practice (though it is often mistaken for one by Western churches). Its central philosophical tenet is that if you resist violence with “hardness” then you and your opponent are both likely to get hurt.
Instead, Tai Chi practitioners are taught to flow with the opponent’s violence until it is either exhausted or can be turned away. This is referred to in the Tao Te Ching, “The soft and the pliable will defeat the hard and strong.”
There is also an expectation that Tai Chi students will behave “heroically”. In that they will work to protect others who cannot protect themselves and offer mercy to those they oppose.
Training Tai Chi
If you want to learn Tai Chi you will undergo two types of training. Physical training that allows you to master the basic forms of Tai Chi and then, perhaps, advances to “pushing hands” training which allows you to use Tai Chi as a form of self-defense.
You will also learn how to control your mind so that you can be fully present at any given moment and be fully aware of your surroundings. It is this training that leads people to wonder if Tai Chi is a form of meditation.
What Is Meditation Anyway?
The term meditation, in English, originally meant “to think, to contemplate, to devise or to ponder” but that is not what “meditation” usually means in this context. The word meditation is (an inaccurate) translation of the buddhist practice of “mindfulness”.
The formal definition of meditation in this sense can be a bit confusing because well, there are many different definitions out there.
A Modern Definition Of Meditation
This definition, from Walsh & Shapiro, is one of the best:
“Meditation refers to a family of self-regulation practices that focus on training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and thereby foster general mental well-being and development and/or specific capacities such as calm, clarity, and concentration”Walsh & Shapiro
However, this definition fails to note that there are two forms of meditation in common usage:
- Focused attention meditation. This is where the person meditating focuses their attention on one thing only – so this may be their breath, a place on a wall, a picture, a mantra, etc. It is fairly clear that this kind of meditation is incompatible with Tai Chi. If you were fighting and giving up all your attention to your breath – the outcome of the fight would be fairly predictable and not in your favor.
- Directed attention meditation. This is rather different; it is a practice which leads to better awareness of everything of importance in any given moment. It is the kind of meditation that many books refer to as “mindfulness”. It seems reasonable to believe that a fighter with this kind of approach to meditation might be more observant than their opponent and thus, gain an advantage in a fight.
Meditation does not, generally, come naturally and it requires some training as does Tai Chi. It is important to note that while many religious groups teach and use mediation – the technique is not inherently religious or spiritual and can be mastered by anyone of any faith or background.
Most people learn forms of sitting meditation (where the practitioner sits silently and learns to focus their mind) but there are other forms of meditation including laying, standing, and, indeed, walking meditation.
This means that, theoretically, meditation is not incompatible with Tai Chi even though many people are only familiar with sitting meditative practices and thus, might think the two are mutually exclusive.
What Are The Benefits Of Tai Chi To The Mind And Body?
The Mayo Clinic, one of the world’s leading medical authorities, says that Tai Chi can bring the following health benefits to practitioners:
- Lower levels of stress, depression and/or anxiety
- Better moods
- Greater aerobic exercise capability
- Higher levels of energy and/or stamina
- Better agility, balance and flexibility
- Greater muscle strength and muscular definition
- Better sleep quality
- Boosted immune system
- Lower levels of blood pressure
- Lower levels of joint pain
- A reduced risk of heart failure
- A greater level of individual well-being
- Reduces the risk of falling in people as they get older
Now, it’s interesting to note that many of these benefits are associated with all types of exercise and not just Tai Chi. However, one of the things that makes Tai Chi especially attractive to those looking to take up a sport is that the gentle nature of the forms and training make it suitable to people with very low levels of fitness who have not exercised in a long time.
It is also very easy for young children and the elderly to practice Tai Chi for similar reasons. That high-level of accessibility may make Tai Chi one of the best life choices anyone can make if they want to live a happier, healthier life.
What Are The Benefits of Meditation To The Mind And Body?
Healthline, another respected medical source, is happy to offer up a long list of proven benefits to learning meditation too and these include:
- Lower levels of stress and in particular the more stressed you are, the better the benefits
- Lover levels of anxiety and they found that this benefit was long-lasting too
- Greater levels of emotional health with increases in optimism and positive thinking
- Greater levels of self-awareness and possibly better levels of problem solving
- It cultivates a longer length of attention span and benefits appear in just 4 days
- May help to fend off age-related memory loss
- May help to generate feelings of kindness and compassion to others
- May help to break and fight off addictive behavior patterns
- Leads to greater levels of high quality sleep
- Can help you reduce pain and control the pain you experience better
- Can help to reduce blood pressure
Given that learning to meditate is even easier than learning Tai Chi and it requires no equipment whatsoever – this catalog of benefits ought to encourage everyone to take up meditation.
Also, as you can see the benefits of meditation, whilst not identical to those gained from learning Tai Chi, are very similar, indeed.
Is Tai Chi A Form Of Meditation?
Now, here is a bit of controversy because there’s quite a bit of disagreement over whether Tai Chi is a form of meditation or not.
Both sides have reasonable things to say on this matter though the argument in favor is a little stronger than the argument against. (As a personal note: Both positions should be respected because they’re both well-constructed.)
Some Say, “No”
Some folks argue that there’s very little that Tai Chi and meditation have in common. They point out, quite correctly, that qigong is not a major part of Tai Chi (though it is not completely unconnected either) and that even if it were – it’s a very broad concept that doesn’t always relate to the Western concept of “meditation” either.
They also feel that as Tai Chi is a martial art – it simply cannot incorporate any kind of meditation which they see as a quiet, contemplative solo practice. This is inaccurate because there are many forms of meditating which don’t require quiet, lack of movement, or being alone.
Many Zen monks, for example, practice walking meditation and Buddhist monks in Tibet will often meditate whilst undertaking pilgrimage at the same time.
However, they do concede that it is possible to be mindful when you are practicing Tai Chi and say that it depends on whether you feel that this is “meditative” as to whether or not Tai Chi is meditation.
Some Say, “Yes”
On the other hand, several sources argue the complete opposite of this. For example, Energy Arts has an article by one of the leading teachers of Tai Chi, Bruce Frantzis, which walks you through why he feels that Tai Chi is compatible with meditation.
He links the way that Tai Chi’s forms can, along with the practices of other Chinese internal martial arts, complement the meditative processes used in Chinese medicine. He argues that the neigong practices of Tai Chi, in particular, are very much similar to the breathing exercise used in meditation.
He elaborates one of the chief objectives of Tai Chi practice is to live in a healthy fashion and to cultivate a calm, peaceful mind. That you must become aware of the unchanging center of your being to move beyond physical or mental relaxation into something more akin to the relaxing of the soul.
This he asserts is a form of Taoist meditation and thus, Tai Chi and meditation may be considered to be interchangeable practices with similar benefits, and which complement each other naturally. This, in turn, would explain the proven similarities in the scientifically demonstrated benefits of each practice.
5 Ways That Mindfulness And Tai Chi Are Connected
In addition to the arguments above it can be shown that there are many other areas of overlap between mindfulness meditation and Tai Chi including these points:
An Attitude Of No Judgement
John Kabat-Zinn, a major teacher of mindfulness, says that, “[mindfulness is] the awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” This is the way that Tai Chi practitioners are taught to practice their forms – without judgement. The emphasis is on enjoying the moment and accepting that we are doing the best we can in this moment.
An Embrace Of The “Beginner’s Mind”
A beginner’s mind allows us to experience the full joy of any given activity – instead of becoming jaded and cynical about something we have done many times, we approach it each time like the first time and this opens us up to the possibility that there are things we have not yet, learned or appreciated about that experience.
A Position Of Trust
Tai Chi encourages the learner to listen to their breath and to put faith in their body that it knows what it is doing and that we should pay attention to that wisdom, so that we can better trust it to serve us well. This is very much the kind of practice present in mindfulness meditation where the student focuses on their breath.
An Acceptance Of The Need For Patience
You cannot rush Tai Chi. You can only learn at your own pace and trying to force this process will only result in unhappiness. Above all mindfulness and Tai Chi teach us patience, to trust that things are going to happen in exactly the way that they should and at exactly the time that they should. There is no need to hurry.
A Rejection Of Striving
When we know that what needs to happen will happen, we can reject the idea of setting arbitrary (and stressful) goals in our Tai Chi practice and instead, enjoy the moment we have right now without worrying about what tomorrow will bring. This is one of the core tenets of most mindfulness practices.
Standing Meditation In Motion? A Tai Chi Technique
Cynthia McMullen, a Tai Chi teacher, offers this standing meditation technique as ideal for new practitioners of Tai Chi:
- Stand upright and with your feet placed apart at should-width. Your toes should point ahead in a straight line and you should gently bend at the knees.
- Tuck your hips forward just a little and let your shoulders stay relaxed while you keep your head held up facing forward
- Gently inhale deep breaths and then release them through your nose. You may want to close your eyes for this bit.
- Then focus your attention on your feet and how connected they feel to the earth beneath them.
- Then begin to imagine each time that you breathe in that the earth is giving you energy and that each time you exhale, you are giving it back again.
- Keep doing this and let the energy travel through you and encouraging it to clean your own energy at it does so.
This is pretty simple, right? It has been shown to have real and almost immediate benefits, though. You might want to give it a try where you are. It can be done in any place where you have standing room and are not obstructing other people.
Do You Need To Learn The Tai Chi Moves To Do This Well?
Andrew Hung of the Taoist Tai Chi society, encourages you to master the physical forms of Tai Chi if you want to master the meditative nature of the martial art. He says that this will enable you to gain the most energy and vitality from your Tai Chi practice.
So, is tai chi a form of meditation? Based on the evidence we touched on in this article, Tai Chi can be considered is a form of meditation. What is certain is that practicing one or both is likely to provide the best health and wellbeing benefits possible.