Tai chi, also known as tai chi chuan, originally was a form of martial arts, though it developed into a system that focuses more on relaxed, slow movements, meditation, correct postures and movement of energy through the body than on attack or defense. Classic tai chi involves 13 basic tai chi postures, practiced in different sequences called tai chi forms. These 13 tai chi postures are also known as the 13 powers, 13 entrances or 13 energies. Although tai chi postures are fairly simple, mastering them, as well as mastering the various forms, can be a challenging, long-term pursuit.
Many tai chi traditions divide the 13 main tai chi postures into eight gates or entrances and five steps. The eight gates consist of four primary hands and four corner hands. Press, push, ward off and pull back comprise the four primary hands. Elbow, shoulder, pull down and split are the four corner hands. Concentrating more on movements of the lower body, the five steps consist of advancing and retreating steps, steps to the left and right and achieving balance in the center.
To learn tai chi basics, students work with a tai chi instructor who will teach the basic tai chi postures and the different ways they are combined into forms. Beginning students typically the original form consisting of 13 postures. Another commonly practiced form of tai chi is the Yang Long Form, which consists of 108 postures and can take as long as 20 minutes to perform fully. A shorter and less repetitious version of the Long Form involves 37 postures. As time has passed and the discipline has developed, tai chi postures have evolved to concentrate on movement of energy in the body, but these forms still contain elements of tai chi's origins as a martial art.
Although it originated in China, the benefits of tai chi have led it to become progressively more and more popular in the West. Many westerners have discovered the connections between tai chi and health, leading them to pursue this ancient art more for its fitness and relaxation benefits than for its spiritual and meditative elements. Tai chi fitness has become a common pursuit, almost as popular as fitness-oriented yoga. Other tai chi benefits include improved balance and flexibility, which are major attractions for older practitioners who find it easier to perform than other, more strenuous types of martial arts.