Tai Chi as a Martial Art?

Tai Chi, or “Grand Ultimate”, depending on translation is still a mystery to many people outside mainland China or Taiwan.  The meditative martial arts practice made its’ way to the West along with Yoga, and a rise in the interest of Eastern Philosophy in the late 60’s, early 70’s. This coincided with the massive expansion of martial arts into popular culture, spearheaded by Bruce Lee and other action stars around the same time.

Tai Chi is intertwined with the Taoist religion, and is embodied by the Yin/Yang design representing balance.  The benefits of Tai Chi are similarly two-fold: there is the physical side, and the esoteric side, both of which can provide benefits to the Mixed Martial Arts practitioner.

The typical image of Tai Chi may be of old men and women in fancy pajamas gathered in a park, acting out the slowest choreographed dance you’ve ever seen.  The movements may seem vaguely related to martial arts, but surely this cannot be used for fighting, right?

This slow moving meditation is actually a standardized synthesis of several different styles of Tai Chi, compressed into 24 movements that serve as an introduction to Tai Chi practice, konwn as 24 Form Tai Chi Chuan.   This introductory form lays the groundwork for the more complex and athletic movements of the Sun, Wu, and Chen Tai Chi styles.

tai chi

Hard historical evidence is hard to find of course, but legends point to the Shaolin Monastery as the originator of the art.  Some say that Tai Chi an original source, a distant grandparent of traditional martial arts like Karate, many styles of Kung Fu, and even some Muay Thai.  Tai Chi is generally classified as a “soft” martial art, meaning that it is primarily defensive and uses an opponents energy against them as a way of attack.  Similar types of “soft” styles of martial art would be Aikido, Judo, and Jiu Jitsu.

The movements of Tai Chi are often circular and flowing, with a focus on balance and weight distribution. Chen Style Tai Chi is the one style of Tai Chi that many point to as a “hard style” form of the art, as it has many throws, punches, and kicks thrown with force mixed into the soft flowing movements of the form.

As in the katas of Karate, each movement is a simulation of one or more forms of attack or defense, and this is represented in even the standard 24 Form Tai Chi.  Within the slow moving, flowing dance are joint locks, blocks and counters, strikes to vital areas, and even takedowns.

While this is all well and good, longtime fans and practitioners of martial arts, and mixed martial arts competition especially, know the perils of sticking to one style of martial arts inside a ring or cage.  Traditional martial arts purists have fallen victim, in an overwhelming majority of fights and challenge matchups, to the hybrid MMA style that is seen practiced in today’s arenas.

The blend of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Wrestling, Muay Thai, and Boxing, with perhaps some Karate or Taekwondo mixed in, is certainly the most successful recipe for the modern Mixed Martial Arts fighter of today.

The major failing point of many styles of Kung Fu and the like, are the lack of any hard freestyle sparring.  Typically practitioners of these arts rely on two person drills in which one person attacks with a specified movement, and their partner responds with a corresponding counter or attack.

The problem with this of course, is that it doesn’t address the true reality and aliveness of actual combat.  While many of these styles are decent for self defense, in competition against another trained opponent it would take a true master of the style to use it effectively.

Tai Chi in the Octagon? Not Quite.

SO, you may ask, why bother with Tai Chi practice if you are a training MMA fighter or enthusiast?  What benefit could you possibly get from these soft, flowing movements? It is possible that the esoteric and meditative side of the art could be just what a fighter needs to bring everything together.

Tai Chi practice focuses heavily on controlling and coordinating the breath with movement, and the slow movements allow for a real-time analysis of balance and body awareness, which will lead to greater overall coordination.

A major tenet of Tai Chi is rooting, having a powerful base and foundation in the legs to work from.  A sparring game many practitioners will play is called “push hands”, where partners basically try to push each other off balance using push/pull maneuvers, throws, and takedowns in a similar manner to Judo, but less aggressive.

“Push Hands” practice will likely not help an MMA fighter much, but the strong base and body awareness developed from Tai Chi will certainly help with wrestling and grappling practices.  However, it is certainly not recommended that a Mixed Martial Arts fighter abandon his or her ground game in favor of Tai Chi.

Another foundation of Tai Chi is relaxation, releasing tension throughout the body through movement.  Any striking coach will agree that a fighter who stays “loose” is able to respond more quickly to attacks and capitalize on openings in their opponents defenses than the rigid and nervous fighter.

MMA training is hard and aggressive: sparring, drills, strength and conditioning; what Tai Chi practice can do is allow the body and mind to become loose, and practice blocking out the excess noise in the mind.

This meditative and mental aspect of the art is , in my opinion, what would most benefit the MMA fighter.  We have all seen elite level fighters reach a level in the ring or octagon where they seem untouchable, as if they are fighting at a superhuman level. Anderson Silva in his prime is a perfect example of this.

Anyone who has trained martial arts extensively has experienced this flow state, maybe just seconds or microseconds at a time, but they have likely had moments where they perfectly slipped and countered, or hit the perfect sequence of movements to land a submission.

This same anomaly can happen snowboarding or downhill mountain biking: things seem to line up perfectly with an absence of thought. Time seems to slow, and it seems as if you have complete control over the situation.  Call it instinct, or muscle memory, or training, Clutch, whatever.  This tendency towards entering a flow state, as some have called it, I believe can be enhanced with Tai Chi practice.

Of course, the groundwork must be there, all of the striking, grappling, and conditioning of a fighter must be built, this is not a shortcut.  Tai Chi is just another supplement to build upon the whole, it is not a (valid) MMA discipline!

While many fighters practice yoga for meditation and conditioning, Tai Chi is a discipline based in movement, and like yoga focuses on the breath. Qigong is another meditative practice that goes hand in hand with Tai Chi practice,and is also beneficial.  Both of these arts work with the concept of Chi, the life force or energy of the body.

Stripped down from the metaphysical , fanciful, and philosophical theories on Chi, it can be seen simply as energy.  What Tai Chi practice can teach is the efficient transfer of energy through the body in harmony with the mind.

I would encourage fighters who train Mixed Martial Arts to simply experiment with Tai Chi and Qigong training for one month and see if they experience any benefits from the practice.  Simply try 10-15 minutes of practice a day, or add it in as a cool down after daily training.  I have found that performing one sequence of Tai Chi along with some Qigong breathing exercises before I go to my BJJ class clears my mind, and allows me to be more fluid.

When sparring in  Muay Thai also, I notice that I am less focused on what my opponent is doing, or what I am doing, and simply act and react without the extra thoughts cluttering up my game. It’s as if I have bypassed the conscious brain, and the body and subconscious mind are in sync, and I just have to stay out of the way.  Upon ending my training, Tai Chi helps me to transition back to a different mental state, and let the endless chess moves of Jiu Jitsu take a break from my simple brain.


Of course, I simply train and do not plan to compete as a professional fighter. However, I stand by the benefits that Tai Chi practice can add to the game of a pro fighter.  There may be, at a deeper level of practice,  some moves from advanced styles of Tai Chi that fighters can incorporate at the competitive level, but I would really put my effort into the meditative practice, and simply relegateTai Chi practice into the conditioning aspect of training.

The stakes are too high in competition, and no one wants to get head kicked in front of a crowd while doing some fancy pants Tai Chi move in a fight. Seriously.