Like I said in "10 reasons for guys to like Tai Chi," this flow-with-it martial art doesn't have much of a macho reputation.
Yet, it should.
And does, among those who are skilled enough to look beneath the surface of the frequently femininely named Tai Chi postures, like "soft ladies hands" and "fair lady works the shuttle."
The Yang style of Tai Chi (named for the family that founded it, not the yin and yang of Taoism) was taught to the Palace Battalion of the Chinese Imperial Guards by Yang Lu-ch'an, founder of the style.
Pretty clearly, the Chinese Imperial family wouldn't entrust their lives to a wussy self-defense system.
But my understanding is that when Tai Chi was taught to the royal court themselves, and thence made its way into the general culture, it got de-martial'ized. The emphasis shifted to soft flowing movements without obvious combat application.
Still, Tai Chi is a martial art, as this guy discovered during a walk in the park. And as I've learned after taking up Tai Chi three years ago after thirteen years of hard style martial arts experience.
It's more difficult to apply than a hard style like karate. Tai chi is classed as an internal, rather than external, martial art. The distinction isn't absolute, of course, since every martial art is a blend of external moves and internal intentions.
Tai Chi, though, stresses emptiness, flexibility, and fluidly adjusting to an opponent's movements. Tension is a big no-no, along with relying on power and strength.
Thus practicing Tai Chi as a combat martial art goes against most people's (men especially) FIKI instincts. Warren Allen is my Tai Chi instructor. His ongoing project, seven years and counting now, is to cure me of my Shotokan karate-fueled tendencies toward matching force with force.
With its foundation in Taoist philosophy, Tai Chi seeks to meld yin and yang, soft and hard, yielding and resistance. You've got to be able to master both sides of the Tai Chi coin to be an adept, which I'm a long way from.
However, I know enough about the combat side of Tai Chi to recommend it to anyone seeking a softer martial art, or an exercise system with self-defense applications (I'm not sure how much good Pilates would do you in a bar fight, though you'd probably laugh at a punch to the stomach).
It's pretty difficult to find an instructor who can competently teach the marital aspect of Tai Chi along with the exercise aspect. Most Tai Chi instructors don't have much martial arts experience. I'm fortunate to be learning Tai Chi from someone who took up the art after twenty years or so of hard style training and the earning of several black belts.
That's rare. So if you want to learn the martial applications of Tai Chi, don't be shy about asking what qualifications your prospective instructor has in this area.
Perhaps best of all, ask if you can throw a punch at them or engage them in an attempted grappling take-down. If you find yourself on the floor or hurtling toward a wall, that's a sign they know something about combat Tai Chi.
To see how Tai Chi works as street-fighting, check out Glenn Hairston's Internal Damage site. Watch the videos. Yes, you can do Tai Chi to rap music. Hairston proves it.
YouTube has lots of other videos in its "combat Tai Chi" section. I enjoyed this one. You see an unlikely looking Tai Chi practitioner doing his thing, using nicely salty language in the process. I like. Take a look.