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Which Is the Best Tai Chi Style to Learn?

author image Martin Booe
Martin Booe writes about health, wellness and the blues. His byline has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Bon Appetit. He lives in Los Angeles.

If you've been looking for an exercise regimen that works both the upper and lower body, boosts strength, lowers blood pressure and improves the overall mind-body-spirit connection, you could hardly do better than Tai Chi. Deeply influenced by the Taoist philosophy of living in harmony with the rhythms of nature, its early masters believed that to be powerful, movement must arise by concentrating the "chi," or life force with mindfulness.

Today Tai Chi is renowned as a fluid, almost ballet-like sequence of movements. This makes it an excellent alternative form of exercise for anyone with joint problems and reinforces strength, agility and balance in the elderly. There are, however, different styles of Tai Chi, so a quick tour of the main schools may help you choose a studio.

Read More: Comparison of the Benefits of Tai Chi and Yoga

Five Different Schools

Tai Chi (also known as Tai Chi Chuan or Taijiquan) is comprised of five branches that represent somewhat different twists on the same basic tenets. Each of the schools -- Wu, Yang, Chen, Sun and Hao -- is named for the family who originated it.

Although the most popular forms of Tai Chi in the U.S. are Yang, Chen and Sun, many of the classes taught in gyms or public recreation centers are likely to be a combination of styles. The American Tai Chi and Qigong Association encourages all forms of the practice.

Yang and Wu

Yang is the style most widely-followed school of Tai Chi worldwide. Yang began as a secret practice passed from father to son in the village Chen. Mid-19th century Master Yang Lu Shan taught it to the imperial guards he commanded.

In the early 20th century, his descendant, Master Yang Cheng Fu, re-designed his family’s style into what is now known as Yang Style Long Form Tai Chi. Tai Chi began to migrate west to the U.S. and Europe in the sixties after the arrival of another grand master of the Cheng lineage in New York. He became one of the first to teach the martial art to non-Chinese pupils.

While other styles may retain more of their martial roots, Yang -- and also the Wu style -- are more more-evenly paced and appear more fluid and continuous. Wu favors small, contained movements over the wider sweep of most Yang styles.

Yang, Wu and combinations thereof account for at least 80 percent of all Tai Chi practitioners, according to the trade magazine Energy Arts. These are commonly taught as physical movement classes with an occasional nod to Tai Chi's more philosophical aspects.

Chen and Hao

Chen is the original bad-ass style from which Yang arose. It's also all but extinct. The Chen style adds rapid-motion movements that alternate with the slower ones. Chen is more physically challenging than most other styles and may not be suitable for those with bad backs, knees or other orthopedic problems.

Hao is the other style that's going the way of the ice caps and it's hard to find even in China. Its main focus is on internal shifting of the chi rather than external physical motions.

Combination Styles

Combination styles that incorporate elements of the other four make up most of the remainder of available Tai Chi classes. The most common combo styles in the West are the Sun and Chen Pan Ling. These styles freely mix and match movements from the four other tai chi styles as well as movements from other internal martial arts styles such as bagua and hsing-i.

Read More: Tai Chi Basic Steps for Beginners

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