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What is exercise?

In order to exercise the body a person must work the muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, nerves and cardiovascular system in a coordinated manner. There are many different approaches.
The Western way is usually to push and punish the body. The Taoist method is to treat the body with care and respect; to work the body gently and carefully.


Exercise involves putting the body under sufficient duress in order to provoke a change: muscles get larger, better endurance, cardiovascular fitness improves...
Without harming the body in the process.

The drawbacks of exercise

Not all forms of exercise are necessarily good for you. For example, running may improve cardiovascular health but is also very hard on the joints.
Lifting heavy weights can cause significant tension to accumulate and - if the muscles are large enough - adversely affect the skeleton. Most forms of exercise have pros and cons; especially sport.

The risk of heart failure was more than double for men who sat for at least five hours a day outside of work and didn't exercise very much, compared with men who were physically active and sat for less than two hours a day.

(Dr. Deborah Rohm)

Ideal form of exercise

According to the book The Blue Zones it is important to think of exercise in terms of what you can reasonably do long-term.
The ideal form of exercise is moderate enough that you can do it for the rest of your life. It needs to be joint-friendly, provide a gentle workout and be sustainable.
This sounds rather like taijiquan, doesn't it?

Daily exercise

Dr Michael Greger (author of How Not To Die) recommends 90 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every day.
The three doctors who wrote The Okinawa Program maintain that taijiquan - with its ancient origins and incredible health benefits - is the ideal form of exercise for modern people.

Isn't taijiquan just slow motion exercise?
No. Some of the training methods are slow, and some are not. As the student gains greater skill, their movements become fluid and dynamic.
They move at whatever speed the situation demands. To quote The Taijiquan Classics: "If the opponent's movement is quick, then quickly respond; if his movement is slow, then follow slowly."

A balanced approach?

For many people, their fitness regime does not take into account
'motor learning'. Motor learning is about the process of using the body, rather than simply exercising the body.
Agility, mobility, relaxed spontaneous movement, balance, structure, alignment, biomechanics, efficiency, ambidextrous body use, joint health, coordination, skill, emotional wellbeing or psychological flexibility.
The balanced approach is to combine exercise with motor learning.

Motor learning

Instead of being physically strenuous, taijiquan challenges the body in different ways:

  1. Healthy skeletal alignment

  2. Optimal body use

  3. Learning how your muscles work

  4. Coordination

  5. Timing

  6. How and why to relax your body

  7. Balance

  8. Proprioception (relative position of body parts/awareness of how much strength is being applied)

  9. Rhythm

  10. Mind/body unity

  11. Leverage

  12. Kinaesthetic awareness (knowing where your limbs are positioned without needing to look)

  13. Biomechanics

  14. Footwork

  15. Stance

  16. Biofeedback

  17. Ambidextrous use of the limbs

  18. Gait (manner of walking)

  19. Ergonomic body use

Taoist way

Tai chi and qigong combine exercise with motor learning. The exercise feels to be so mild that it is hard to believe that anything is really happening. There is no sweating, straining or panting for breath. There is gain without pain. Much of the training is concerned with how the body is being moved, rather than purely exercise.

Medical proof

The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi is one of many reputable books detailing how
taijiquan can improve the health of virtually anybody.
Extensive testing around the world suggests that taijiquan is the nearest thing we have to the 'perfect exercise'.
The benefits of taijiquan emerge gradually over time. They are significant and long-lasting. Tai chi can be practiced throughout most of your life.

When we are young, we can enjoy lots of external movement. When we are older, we become less active and can't as easily enjoy large movements, speed, high impact, and quick twisting of the muscles. Unfortunately, this is exactly the time our bodies really need good exercise to maintain youthful energy and health. Most of the exercise systems available in our society can't satisfy this need.

(Adam Hsu)

Sarcopenia (muscle loss with aging)

Adults over the age of 50 lose approximately 1% of muscle mass each year as a natural consequence of aging.
The only way to offset this is to engage in a strength building regime that can be sustained throughout your natural life. Qigong and taijiquan qualify as ideal methods for accomplishing this goal.
However, daily practice is a must.

Little & often

Instead of pushing your body hard and putting it under duress, just do a little exercise. Keep it mild. Encourage things to move, to release, to flex.
Regular, mindful exercise has been found to be more healthy than sustained bursts of hard activity.
Tai chi is intended to improve health and wellbeing through frequent, regular practice using low effort.


Tai chi advocates moderation; not taxing or tiring the body. Rather than train for a lengthy period of time, aim to practice little & often. 20-30 minute increments, with rest breaks in-between is ideal.
Instead of pushing your body hard and putting it under duress, just do a little exercise. Resting will keep your concentration sharp and offset fatigue.

Be here, right now
If you enter a busy gym, there is usually very loud music designed to 'numb-out' the mind whilst exercising. This is not wise.
Whenever the body is being used, the mind must be present, aware and alert. Spacing-out is dangerous. It can result in poor alignment, exertion and injury.

Active rest'

Some people use the jargon term 'active rest'. This isn't actual rest at all. It is an active break; not a rest.


Tai chi encourages the student to exercise with intelligence, to 'listen' to what the body is telling you. If something feels too heavy, too hard, too taxing... then it is a warning.
If a joint feels sore, then do not ignore it. If the same injury occurs again and again, you risk long term damage that will eventually affect your quality of life.

No pain

Pain is not something to be fought or ignored. It is something you must listen to and learn from. It is something you want to avoid experiencing altogether.

So, people's shoulders being up like this (lifted) it doesn't just affect their shoulders. It pushes their neck vertebrae out - which is why they get sore necks. It actually makes their chest lift a lot. It puts pressure on your heart. It does a whole lot of things that are not good for you.

(Bruce Frantzis)

Tear & repair mentality

The drawback of sport and mainstream exercise is that the emphasis is not upon good body use, optimal alignment, emotional, physical and psychological wellbeing.
The onus is upon the outcome rather than the process involved. There is the pressure to win, to succeed, to perform, to be the best. Or to look good; muscular, trim or sexy.
People push themselves and the body can suffer. Seeking to repair the body afterwards is not as smart as avoiding injury in the first place.

The 70% rule

The 100% capacity approach is the 'no pain, no gain' attitude to exercise. It opens you up for strain and injury because you are fully committed (and often forcing) at all times.
Most people exceed their natural range of safe movement frequently throughout the day without realising it. If you remain well within your limits at all times there is less risk of injury.

A tonic

Tai chi is not going to fix you up. It was never intended (or designed) to be something employed for repair. At best, it may be seen as a tonic.
A tonic is a medicine taken daily in order to maintain and invigorate the body. It may significantly improve your fitness.
However, you should take note of the small print, the conditions of use:

  1. It must be administered every day 

  2. When you stop taking it, the fitness benefits go away

This is something to really think about. Re-read the paragraph if you need to.


In a taijiquan school, a qualified instructor with decades of experience is overseeing your progress. This means that faults in body use will be identified and gently corrected.
Bad physical habits can be slowly removed and replaced with healthy, intelligent alternatives. Small errors will continually emerge and these too can be curtailed.
New, stimulating skills and insights ensure continued enthusiasm and curiosity.

Mental health & wellbeing

Exercising the body is only half the story with taijiquan. To fully embrace the art, you must be prepared to rigorously challenge and expand the mind.

Starting your day with taijiquan

It is beneficial to start your day with taijiquan practice.  Instead of feeling stressed, rushed, tired and anxious... your day begins with clarity and ease.
You will feel:


This makes driving safer. You will be capable of thinking more clearly and effectively throughout the day. Remember: in order to get the benefits of taijiquan you need to practice the art...

Body building and weight lifting are fashionable activities today. The emphasis is upon developing external muscles which creates an armouring effect that can eventually distort the bony structure. It is the over developed musculature that actually torque's the bones and discourages them from bearing additional weight. The body attempts to compensate and problems arise.

Running does not necessarily in and of itself improve posture that is already poor and constricted. It often exaggerates problems due to the substitution of inappropriate muscles. The repetitive inappropriate development of the musculature (as in body building or weight lifting) often leads to diminished sensitivity. Stress occurs in the knees and lower back, encouraging injury.

Swimming is an activity that can either create structural problems or release them depending upon the way it is taught and practiced. Professional swimmers are known to develop shoulder tendonitis and kyphosis. Overriding head/neck righting reflexes (as occurs when the head is repeatedly turned but the body does not follow) eventually result in overdeveloping shoulder muscles, pinching nerves and distorting the rib cage.

Various sport activities emphasize strength, endurance and speed. Development of muscle control rather than skeletal balance takes precedence. Gaining speed at the expense of mounting tension, is too often the goal.

(Liz Koch)

Page created 11 April 1995
Last updated 26 July 2022