The initial aim of Tai chi chuan is to teach the practitioners to relax. Relax does not mean to flop loosely around, but rather to use the body as efficiently as possible, with no muscular tension. The foremost requirement is good posture with relaxed shoulders, an upright back and firmly rooted stance. Tai chi chuan incorporates Chi kung exercises, which encourage deep breathing, improved blood circulation and greater efficiency of the body's systems. On a mental level, the quiet concentration, required for Tai chi chuan brings a serene state of mind, in which the everyday stresses of life can be placed in their proper perspective. This leads to a more tolerant, even state of mind, and a calm mind is able to respond more quickly and effectively to challenges in any situation.
At this level, the art is accessible to anyone. Age, health or infirmity is not barrier to reaping some of the rewards that Tai chi chuan has to offer. However, to reach the higher levels it is necessary to study the art in its wider context. Practising the martial aspects of Tai chi chuan involves more complex form of Chi kung, body strengthening, practising with another person and various supplementary exercises. Such training is more demanding than basic form practice, but it does bring greater benefits in terms of mental and physical health, as well as providing an excellent self-defence method. At the higher stages the theoretical aspects of the art also become more apparent.
As a martial art, Tai chi chuan works on a number of levels, but the principal aim is to teach practitioners to relax and become fluid in their movements. This allows for smoother actions and quicker response times. The objective is for self-defence to become a reflexive action rather than a repetition of technique. There is a variety of sensitivity exercises which allow the practitioner to adapt instantly to an opponent and to react in the most appropriate manner. Incoming force will, typically, be diverted, however slightly, and the corresponding opening in the opponent's defence exploited. The level of response can range from applying holds and locks, to immobilising an opponent, through to highly damaging strikes against nerve centres and acupuncture points (dim mak).
Power training consists of chi kung to develop internal strength, as well as methods to strengthen the tendons and ligaments. The ability to issue power (fa jing) from close range is a basic feature of Tai chi chuan. This involves incorporating the whole body into one unit behind an attack. Tai chi chuan includes punches, kicks, locks, open hand techniques and throws in its repertoire, as well as traditional Chinese weapons – sword, broadsword, staff and spear.
Today, while traditional practitioners of Tai chi chuan are still in evidence, the majority practise the art in order to both maintain and improve their health and to provide an increasingly necessary antidote to the stresses and strains of modern day life.