Sure, it offers peace, harmony, relaxation, and a number of other health benefits. But can tai chi really improve fitness, like that offered by "more vigorous exercises and other martial arts?

Many people are surprised that Tai Chi, (also known as Taiji or T'ai Chi Chu'an) can be as effective as it is at building strength and stability, both mentally and physically.

There are five major styles of Tai Chi, each named for the family which developed it, as well as several minor variations:

• Yang Style tai chi is the most popular, and is usually practised by people who are in it for their health. It teaches large, graceful, upright postures with an even pace and a consistent height to the stances.
• Wu Style tai chi is most similar to the Yang Style, but with somewhat smaller movements, and usually practiced in a slightly higher stance. While it is equally effective for health seekers and senior citizens, and the appearance of the routines seems less martial than even the Yang Style, the lineage of the style has lead to it being more often identified with those seeking the martial side.
• Chen Style tai chi is widely considered to be either the original style or the oldest existing style of tai chi, and to be the source of all other existing styles. It's postures are typically larger, lower, and more varied in both height and speed than the other major styles. For this reason, Chen style is sometimes seen as a young person's style. This is not at all true, however, since people of all ages and fitness levels can be found in Chen style classes all around the world.
• Sun Style tai chi is sometimes called "Tai Chi for Arthritis" even though all styles can benefit arthritis sufferers. The founder of this style combined Hao Style tai chi with elements of two famous internal martial arts called Xingyiquan, and Baguazhang, to create this unique variation. The founder developed it when he was relatively advanced in years, and many of the proponents tend to be older people. However, the current grandmaster of the style is relatively youthful himself, and is particularly well known for his martial skills.
• Wu Style tai chi... Okay now, we must explain that the Chinese language is tonal, and is not written phonetically, so Chinese people seldom if ever confuse this Wu Style (武家)with the Wu Style (吳家) mentioned previously. But for the non-Chinese the only way to distinguish them is to call this one Wu/Hao style or just "Hao" style after the grand-student of Wu Yuxiang, the creator of this Wu style. Wu/Hao style is a small frame style with high, upright, postures and very small movements that may seem simple and even a bit boring to the uninnitiated. It was created by an elite scholar, and is occasionally called "Nerd Style." But you would never call it "Nerd Style" to a Wu/Hao style master's face, because that would be rude, and because they could probably kick your butt with one of those small, boring looking movements.

Other well respected styles include
• Zhaobao style tai chi (a contender for the title of oldest style)
• the rare, Fu style tai chi,
• the popular Cheng Man Ching style tai chi (Zheng style)
• and a number of others.

There are other variations such as Tai Chi Chih, and Taoist Tai Chi, which have their adherents and their benefits, but which are seldom taken seriously by the tai chi community at large.

Learning Tai chi is a never ending process. But the benefits can usually be seen in just 2 - 3 months if you have a good teacher. In fact, some students claim remarkable health benefits from just one lesson. This is because tai chi does more than move the body around. It also improves alignment, breathing, and coordination in ways that can have immediate changes in the way that a person feels.

Experience tends to show that learning fewer movements more slowly offers a greater benefit than learning a lot of movements quickly, as it gives more time for students develop a feeling and understanding of the principles of alignment and coordination.

The posture and alignment is important because it is the key to relaxation, agility, health, and power. Proper alignment and relaxation allows the student to take the stress off the joints and back, and move it to the thighs. This has a therapeutic effect on the body and breath, relieves knee pain, back pain, and shoulder problems. It also enables martial artists to generate incredible power by coordinating the strength of the quadriceps with core muscles and the fascia. The resulting conservation of momentum enables one to use a small movement to send an opponent flying away as if by magic.

When proper alignment and relaxation is achieved, it is not necessary to bend the legs much in order to get a lot of exercise. In fact, high stances can often create a better workout because more of the muscle is contracted when the legs are only slightly bent. This apparent irony causes much confusion among new students. Tai Chi actually makes difficult things easier by first making seemingly easy things more difficult.

Tai chi is best done slowly and evenly, with attention to structure instead of movement. Mastery involves understanding the subtle relationship between thought, emotion, posture and movement. This emphasis on subtlety make tai chi popular with those who are initially unfit, but it also makes it a powerful tool for elite athletes and martial artists. More and more athletes including elite golfers, triathletes, ironman racers, and MMA fighters are seeking out qualified tai chi teachers as they become aware that it is not just about old people sneaking up on trees.

Caveat Emptor.
• Not all teachers are equal, and there is no universal standard for certifying teachers. Even if there were, tai chi is an art as much as it is a science.
• Not every teacher is right for every student, and not every student is right for every teacher. Shop around for a respected teacher of one or more of the recognized styles.
• A good student can learn, even a bad teacher, and a bad student will learn little, even from a good teacher. However, there is nothing so promising as a good student learning from the right teacher.

The author: Ian Sinclair teaches in Orillia, Ontario, Canada, and offers online lessons and private consultations via Skype, AIM, and iChat.

Author's Bio: 

Ian Sinclair is an international champion with 30 years experience in tai chi, qigong, and kungfu; having trained with many of the world’s top masters. He has taught students from 6 continents (17 countries) including several champions. He has also worked as a consultant and performer for film, TV and stage.
Ian currently offers private lessons, group lessons, and seminars in Orillia, Ontario, Canada.
Seminars around the world are arranged by special request.