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On various internet forums and websites over the years, I have managed to acquire the impression that there are elements of wrestling/grappling (and perhaps even striking) within Tai Chi, though it is no longer taught in that manner in most places in North America. Instead, it has become ridiculed as slow motion karate, and low impact exercise for the elderly.

Are there any useful techniques, or even exercises within this martial art, and can anyone summarize what these would be? I'd be happy if the answer compared Tai Chi to techniques considered useful within other systems, but if someone has a better way of structuring the answer that'd be great too.

Trying to figure out what to focus on so that the mystical woo-woo stuff can be (politely) ignored.

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You're not alone. Many Taiji (also spelled T'ai Chi) practitioners are not interested in the esoteric, mystical topics that often come along for the ride. They want practical, real skill that can be demonstrated on a resisting opponent.

Trouble is, finding a teacher who can show you this is rare. About 99% of all taiji teachers teach a version of taiji that is primarily oriented towards health and qigong. They will answer questions about the fighting applications of taiji incorrectly, because their teacher never taught them it. They've had to essentially guess at it or pick it up from folklore and whatever they've read or watched on the internet. But they won't tell you that, because they want to save face.

The reason for this is due to the fact that taiji started off as a kind of secret martial art. It was closely guarded by the Chen family (the founders of the art) in China. They doled it out in tiny amounts to those who paid for the knowledge. Like every other martial family in China, that was how they made money. They withheld the knowledge to ensure their family could provide for themselves. So it was never taught in public, only behind closed doors.

Then, as oral tradition tells us, Yang Lu-chan would observe some Taiji training from a crack in the wall. And he would later go on to be accepted as a student of Chen taiji. But, he was forbidden from teaching the martial art aspects to the public. Instead, he taught it as a "health" and meditation form, without any real explanation of what was going on martially. From this came most people doing taiji we see today. Which is why when you go to a taiji school, you may walk away thinking that what they teach is fantasy and unrealistic for actual fighting. Because it is, and they don't know better.

I trained in Wu style first for a year. Then I trained in Yang style for a year and a half or so. I thought I knew what taiji was. But then I met up with a Chen style taiji practitioner who taught me more in just 30 minutes than anything I learned before. It was transformative. Suddenly everything made sense. I could feel it first hand for the first time. And I realized that my previous Wu and Yang style groups had people in them who were training for 20 years and still didn't know the first thing about it!

Please read the following two links, where I go over some of the concepts of taiji and what's really going on it:

How is Tai Chi different as a martial art in terms of self defense/combat?

How long should the Tai Chi basic 24 form take?

The biggest take-away from the links above is that taiji is an internal art, which means that stuff is going on inside of the body that you can't see very easily. It's not mystical. It's not about chi. It's about the body and using it in a different way from external styles.

Now, how you use that stuff in fighting is that you need to be sparring with it. Taiji has the concept of push-hands practice first. In push-hands practice, you learn to apply internal mechanics on a moving, resisting opponent. But there are some rules that limit you from doing just anything. With more competitive practitioners, it resembles judo.

Sparring is also something that takes place in taiji training. It's different from push-hands. In sparring, you have less rules. It's more "anything goes" than push-hands. So this is where you get good at the boxing aspects of it, where people are defending against punches and kicks while also having to deal with grappling, joint locking, and throws.

Although it does depend on your instructor, traditionally you're not going to get to the level where you can even begin sparring until you've spent almost a decade or longer training everything else before that. It's because internal martial arts require a lot more concentration and attention to details.

In external arts, it's very easy. You can watch stuff and repeat what you see. But with internal arts, it's what you don't see that's important. That requires a patient student and instructor. It can take years to build a good foundation.

One of the basic principles of taiji is that you're never extended in any direction. You want all your joints to be a neutral position, neither fully extended or retracted. This is because if a joint is locked, it can't adapt to forces. If your opponent pushes on you, having your joints perfectly neutral means they can easily adapt to those forces in whichever direction the force is coming from. It's when your joints are locked that you can't adapt. It will cause you to become unbalanced and fall.

And that's basically taiji's main defense and offense strategy. It's trying to remain neutral at all times while simultaneously looking to unbalance ones opponent by making them extend their joints too far. Once their opponent is in a vulnerable state, they can unbalance and throw them.

There are many other concepts in taiji that are applied to fighting. For example, sensing and yielding to pressure. This is known as soft skill. Soft skill is the bread and butter of taiji. Someone pushes on you, but instead of stiffening up and pushing back, you feel the force, you receive it, you give a little to the force, capture it, and redirect it for your own gain. Someone who is not trained will be easy to throw this way. I've personally done it many times in real life in playful and very real self-defense situations. This skill comes from push-hands practice, primarily.

The other day someone asked me about all the different styles I've learned, which one is the most useful? I replied, "Taiji". In just about all situations I've ever been in, I've used taiji primarily, at least at first. It's especially good for when you're not ready to get into a full-on boxing match with someone. You're trying to stop them from hurting you, but you don't want to lay into them with strikes.

Someone I was/am good friends with once got really angry with me and started becoming violent. She was going through some problems in life, and I really had no desire to hurt her. So she started shoving me and grabbing me. She was threatening to punch me, too. I just wiggled out of her holds and stuck to her arms, just like in push-hands practice. She tried punching me, and I just controlled that arm and deflected it just enough that it barely grazed me. And while I was doing that, I was causing her to become unbalanced. It really frustrated and confused her. Eventually I saw she was vulnerable and off balance, so I gave her a tiny bit of force that caused her to fall a little and to realize that she could not do anything to me. That's when she just gave up.

I've done that with a bunch of others in my past. Their reactions are quite priceless when they realize they're only making themselves more unbalanced and can't harm me.

There have been others with more weight and more strength, though. Men. They aren't as easy to deal with. You have a small window of time where taiji push-hands can work. After that, you better switch yourself on and get ready for a real fight. Most taiji students never reach that level of training to be able to fight for real with it. I never got to that point, either. It's there in the advanced stages of training, but we're talking 10-20 years of training before you start, with a good instructor. You're better off learning boxing, muay-thai, BJJ, wrestling, Judo, etc. for that, until you can get to that level in taiji.

But that aside, like I said, most of what I've used successfully in the past has been taiji. And it's not fighting. It's more like some useful concepts, at least at first until you get to be good enough to start sparring with it. But those concepts are great. You won't know that until you've had a chance to test it yourself in real life. It won't win real fights by itself, but most situations we get into in life aren't "real fights". They're encounters, usually with people we know and don't necessarily need to fight full-on. And in those situations, taiji is perfect. It's going to frustrate them and cause them to give up. That's the best possible outcome in those cases. It's not about winning.

Hope that helps.

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  • You should be careful when presenting lineage legends as facts. While the story of Tai Chi starting out as a secret Chen village martial art and after being stolen by Yang Luchan who then went on and taught it as a mainly health exercise is captivating, but untrue. Surely there are individual bits of information there that might be true, but the story itself is heavily biased and disregards many historical facts that disprove the story of Yang Luchan only teaching “health oriented” Tai Chi. Jun 14 at 21:32
  • @RolandTepp Understood. The things told (oral tradition) aren't very credible. You'll hear all kinds of histories for taiji. I don't trust any of them, even the "official" ones told by authoritative members of each taiji family. I think if that is something important to the reader, they should go out and really study that. Don't take my one paragraph blurb as anything authoritative. Jun 14 at 21:54
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If you think about taiji (tai chi) as a source for techniques like jabs, hook punches, or leg sweeps, you are missing the point.

Most striking systems have a concept of punching from a strong stance, rotating the hips, and rooting through the back foot. At the moment of impact, you have lined up a structure that transfers force from your back foot, through your body, and into the striking hand.

Taiji develops the ability to resist and express force in this way more generally. Instead of having solid structure just upon impact, you want this structure at all times. If someone pushes on your arm or chest, you want to be able to transfer this force through the body into the feet without preparation. You also want the ability to move while maintaining this structure and the ability to switch it off so that you are yielding and redirecting and no longer resisting.

This kind of ability is directly applicable to fighting or combat sports, but it's not a technique like a punch, kick, or throw. It's developing power to impose your will and prevent others from imposing theirs. It's also not something you can just pick out and acquire without in-depth study.


Personally, I understand the fighting aspect of taiji better from study of bagua than taiji directly, but this is probably due to the quality of instruction from the respective schools. I don't practice taiji anymore, and I definitely do not consider myself an expert.

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Tai Chi helps you to learn to move, and very importantly, GROUND. IIRC, the foundation of all Kung Fu is the Horse Stance, not back flips or eye gouges.

Strength is essential to the proper execution of techniques, as well as posture, skeletal alignment, whatever you want to call it.

However, in regards to strength martial arts can be very similar to rock climbing - generally you must have a balanced strength.

Additionally, the application of force is not about muscle size but execution, i.e. speed and fluidity - Tai Chi can cultivate an ability to flow and improve all aspects of your physical performance.

I cannot say it is 'MOST' important, but generating power is not sufficient alone, you must be able to control and project it with a stable foundation, this is the idea of 'GROUNDING'.

Related to grounding is alignment of your skeleton, and while this may not be Tai Chi specific, I thought it needed mention for completeness.

Another crucial element is relaxation, and relaxation of the shoulders in particular, as well as striking from the Dan Tien, or your belly. When you raise your arm for a block or strike, it should be initiated from your CORE, or perhaps your feet (GROUND FORCE). These are aspect of Tai Chi used in fighting.

It is not a list of hooks - shovel, corkscrew, etc. but a full body conditioning that will allow you to execute these techniques better, through relaxation and grounding and Dan Tien.

If you have ever golfed, you will know that there are VERY MANY, VERY SMALL tweaks that have a VERY LARGE impact on your performance - one shoulder hitch can make the difference between the PGA and the bread line. In martial arts it can be difficult to get the same kind of feedback, which is why I mention golf.

These things cannot be shared with words, but must be personally experienced, and while this may be off topic of Tai Chi I must recommend you try the Flying Crane Gong described in Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming's 'The Essence of Shaolin White Crane Martial Power and Qigong'. Learn to relax, learn the 'bows of the body' (shoulder, back).

In many ways, grappling and wrestling are about disrupting another persons ground, and learning to ground yourself is probably the best first step in this. All good Tai Chi teachers will teach you to ground, regardless of their martial disposition.

Lastly, Sticky Hands! Detecting an opponents energy, physical/mystical/whatever, is a very nice ability to add into you repertoire.

One more thing worth mentioning, Tai Chi practice should lead to a knowledge and relaxation of the Kua, which I have felt, but am not knowledgeable enough to explain properly.

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It all comes down to how you train.

For the outside observer, Taijiquan has mostly all the same basic techniques as any given martial system. You have punches, ward-offs, kicks, pulls, etc.

In some sense it is not at all dissimilar than learning Mui Thai for example — body mechanics and the way they both generate power is quite different when you get down to the technical level, but most basic techniques are there and the combos from one can sometimes be quite easily be adapted to another.

The main difference comes from the method of training and the overall strategy (for the lack of better word).

The strategy of Taijiquan is to join with the attacking force, re-direct the it with as little effort as possible and counter as a continuation of that re-direction. The effect is quite remarkable if performed well, but it takes a lot of practice. To that end, we have special exercises called push-hands, that are supposed to teach skills of “listening” (sensitivity), yielding and neutralising and returning with a counter.

There’s also sparring. Many health and meditation oriented practicioners might even not be aware that sparring is part of Taijiquan curriculum, but it most certainly is. Without sparring, there can not be any real martial development. Anyone telling you otherwise is just fooling you.

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