How to Popularize Taiji in the U.S.?

Increased Popularity of Yoga: Yoga has experienced a significant gain in popularity in the U.S. during the last 10-15 years. For example, according to a survey from the National Institutes of Health and the National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. adults who have tried complementary health approaches (yoga, taiji, and qigong) have almost doubled from about 5% in 2002 to about 9,5% in 2012. Similarly, for U.S. children, that figure has also increased by about 1/3 from 2007 to 2012. [1]  Among the complementary health approaches, yoga made up about 80%. The issue we want to discuss in this article is whether we can significantly increase the popularity of Taiji in the U.S.

Common Image of Taiji:  Let’s assess what is the image of Taiji to the general American public. First, many people probably have never heard of Taiji. To those who have heard of taiji, most likely it is known as a health exercise for senior citizens. If one is not a senior citizen, it is most likely not something that he [2] would want to be involved in, and it is definitely not something that he would want to recommend to children. If one is interested in self defense or martial arts, one would not typically think of Taiji.

What Should Be the Real Image of Taiji:  The current common image of Taiji is really far from the truth. Taiji is actually a good health exercise for people of all ages, including young adults and children. Taiji is also a good martial arts for people of all ages. Therefore, there is definitely a perception and image issue with respect to Taiji. How do we remove this perception and image problem?

The whole concept of Taiji is based on relaxation of the body and mind. Unknown to most people, it is also a good aerobic exercise that exercises many parts of the body. It is an exercise that does not have adverse impacts on the physical body because the movements are mostly soft and slow. Again unknown to most people, the mind is very much engaged; the mind is relaxed but not void when doing Taiji. It is an exercise that both healthy people and not-so-healthy people can engage in. For these reasons, it is really an ideal exercise for people of all ages to be involved in, especially taking into consideration that a lot of our health problems are due to stress. Perhaps this is the reason for the quote from the Johns Hopkins Medicine’s Health Alerts “You don’t have to be a world-class athlete to do Tai Chi (another spelling for Taiji) – and the health benefits can be tremendous.” During the last 20 years or so, many medical and scientific research studies have been done to evaluate the health benefits of Taiji. Although the results are still preliminary because of the small sample sizes, the results are very impressive, showing many positive health benefits. [3]

All of the above reasons are applicable to people of all ages, not only senior citizens, but also young adults and children, males and females. In addition, almost completely unknown to people, Taiji is an exercise that can also help children with problems of concentration, sitting still, or hyperactivity such as children with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Breathing techniques are also integrated with Taiji practice. The slow and deep breathing gets more oxygen to all parts of your body, and should be helpful to children and adults with asthma. Beyond the introductory courses, lower abdominal breathing is taught. This has a massaging effect on your internal organs inside your abdomen which is like exercising your internal organs and therefore can strengthen your internal organs.

Because of the current image of Taiji, especially in the West, as an exercise for senior citizens, trying to get children interested to learn Taiji is of course not an easy task. This will not be accomplished overnight, but only through a long and persistent educational and publicity process that Taiji is a good exercise for both the physical and mental health of all people, including children. The fact that Taiji is also an effective martial art, as discussed next, will help to persuade more children (and their parents) to learn and practice Taiji.

From the martial arts perspective, the whole concept of Taiji is based on not opposing your opponent’s force head-on, but to utilize his momentum to get him off balance by supplementing his momentum with a force either along the same direction or in a slightly deflecting direction. When your opponent senses that he is losing balance, he would change direction, and you would change direction at the same time and change from a defensive mode to an offensive mode. Your body and mind are always relaxed so you can better sense your opponent’s intention and your opponent has more difficulty sensing your intention.

Another fundamental aspect of Taiji is that the power doesn’t just come from the strength of the arms, but also from the power and momentum of the movement of the legs and especially the hip/waist. Coupling this with utilizing the opponent’s force to counter attack, together with the strategic placements of one’s legs, arms, and body relative to those of the opponent to generate more leverage, a smaller person can defend successfully against a bigger and stronger opponent. The mind is very much engaged in utilizing Taiji as a martial art. Of course, with practice, the thinking process basically becomes automatic, and the martial arts techniques can be executed without much thinking so you respond quickly to defend yourself. In more advanced courses, Qigong is practiced with Taiji to increase the power of your attacks and your ability to absorb punches.

The usefulness and effectiveness of Taiji as a martial arts is either overlooked or not known to a lot of people. That, and the image that Taiji is only for senior citizens, are the two major reasons why there is almost no interest in Taiji among children and young adults.

Overcoming the Image of Taiji:  First we must change the image of Taiji that it is an exercise for only senior citizens. As explained earlier, it is an exercise that is good for people of all ages: senior citizens, middle age adults, young adults, and children, both males and females. It is an exercise that is good for athletes, people with good health, people with some health problems, and even people with some physical disabilities. It is an exercise that nourishes both the physical body and the mind. It is an exercise that is good for all children, and also for children with ADHD and asthma.

Then we must change the image of Taiji as just a slow and soft exercise that has no relevance to self defense. Yes, when practicing the exercises, it is usually done in a slow and soft way. But in martial arts applications, it is executed with speed and power. Its basic principle is not to try to oppose an opponent’s force head-on, but to utilize an opponent’s force to your advantage, and the principle that you relax your body and mind to better sense your opponent’s intention and make it difficult for your opponent to sense your intention. Couple all this with strategic placements of your legs, arms, and body relative to those of the opponent to generate more leverage, then a smaller person can defend successfully against a bigger and stronger opponent.

Any publicity about Taiji must carry the above dual messages that (1)Taiji is an exercise that is good for people of all ages, and not just for senior citizens, and (2) Taiji is also a very good martial arts.

We must especially target our publicity toward children and young adults. Parents, who may be unwilling to spend money on themselves, will be very much willing to spend money on various activities for their children if they believe that those activities are beneficial for their children.

Young adults often can afford to spend money on exercises or activities that they believe are beneficial for themselves. They spend money to join fitness or exercise centers. Therefore, part of our publicity should be targeted to the fitness/exercise industry to offer more courses on Taiji and help them to target their publicity to a much larger audience. Similarly, we should also target more colleges and universities to include Taiji as part of their physical education courses, and other community organizations offering continuing education.

Of course, many Taiji teachers are only proficient in teaching Taiji as an exercise. There is nothing wrong with that and it should not limit their ability to teach Taiji. But they should know of other teachers who can also teach Taiji as a martial art, and can refer people to those teachers when it is appropriate. We must also attract and train more English-speaking teachers.

Conclusion:  If we carry through a proper and consistent educational and publicity campaign to convey the above dual messages of Taiji, we should have a good chance of significantly increasing the popularity and penetration of Taiji. There is no reason why Taiji cannot exceed yoga in terms of number of people taking up the practice, because it actually has two advantages over yoga:

  • It can be practiced by a broader range of people, including senior citizens, people who are not very flexible, people not necessarily In good health, or people with minor physical disabilities
  • It is good for self-defense and can be practiced as a martial arts

Learning and practicing Taiji is a worthwhile exercise for people in general.  It could also be very meaningful for you as a teacher, knowing that you are helping to increase the physical and mental health of the society.

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[1]  Yoga Becoming More Popular With Kids, Adults: http://www.livescience.com/49753-yoga-increase-us-kids-adults.html.

[2] In this article, the word “he” will be used to mean “he/she.”

[3] See the article “Health Benefits of Taiji” and several other articles in the Taiji page of my website: www.dontow.com/taiji/.

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