Once yoga rolled its way from incense-rich, noveau-hippie basements into chic studios on some of the most expensive city avenues, it seemed only a matter of time before tai chi — yoga's Asian cousin — followed closely behind. Years went by and the transition never happened. Although tai chi has all the health benefits of yoga plus the additional benefit of martial-arts discipline, it never caught on with the Pilates and spinning set. When you consider the beautiful names for some of the classic tai chi movements — hands moving in clouds, parting the wild horse's mane, catching the sparrow's tail, fair lady works the shuttles — it's a wonder the rich tradition didn't catch on with Westerners.
Reasons may have to do with the fact that many older people can be seen doing tai chi in parks in warm weather, and the Ever Youthful set doesn't want to be associated with "getting old." This is a total misconception, for the venerable exercise, a blend of an ancient Chinese yoga and temple martial arts, is as strenuous as you want to make it.
Tai chi affords a studied break in the hectic civilization we live in. As students learn various "forms" (as the styles of tai chi are called), they begin a step toward moving meditation that affords exercise and focused awareness. However, because it is often hard to find a good studio, especially in small towns, some good books will help students find their way. A book is never a substitute for a living, breathing tai chi master, but it will instruct a student in the philosophy of the art and give neophytes ideas of how to search for a school. Most of all, it will explain the tai chi mindset, which is quite similar to that of yoga. Tai chi (or tai chi chuan, meaning "infinite ultimate hand (or fist)" — and a definition of that would take pages — is an extension of Taoism, a contemplative religion that is reminiscent of Buddhism.
An excellent introduction to the art is Ultimate Guide to Tai Chi edited by John R. Little and Curtis F. Wong. Wong is the publisher of Inside Kung Fu magazine. The book has many reprints of article from the magazine, which are full of fascinating historical information about tai chi and its development. The book takes readers through the various styles and "families" of forms, including the Yang long form, which is the most popular form taught in America today. The book goes on to display a version of Yang long form in pictures — which is an invaluable tool for someone struggling to learn.
For those who already practice the forms, Lynda Myoki Lehrhaupt has gathered together thoughtful and often challenging essays on what tai chi means in Tai Chi as a Path of Wisdom. Not a how-to book as much as a jumping-off point for thinking about profound moments the art presents, Lehrhaupt's book never speaks down to the reader. In fact, in one essay, she discusses a master who compares standing with chi (or life force) to a little child with poop in her diapers. It led to hilarity in the class and a bit of shock for the author.
Both books ponder how this seemingly simple but deep art form brings peace and illumination to its devoted practitioners.