What is Taoism and How Does it Relate to Tai Chi?

Although you can find tons of information on the internet, some of Taoism’s (also known as Daoism) concepts are obscure and hard to understand.  I will try to simplify and condense it as best I can. Consider this the Cliff’s Notes version. Taoists never let personal desires or emotions rule their actions. However, to get a true understanding of Taoism (not my purpose here) you might need to become a student of a Taoist Master as many of the practices are passed by word-of-mouth and not documented.

 Taoism is a philosophy (some also consider it a religion - I will not speak to that) which began in approximately 500 to 300 BCE (Before the Christian Era). Tao means “path” or “way” which can also be interpreted as the road, channel, etc. Taoism relates to harmony, unity, complementary forces (Yin and Yang) and also emphasizes naturalness, simplicity, lack of selfishness, and often “detachment from desires.” It has also been called the “flow of the universe” with the goal of having your “will in harmony with the natural universe.”

 Some believe that Tai Chi is rooted in Taoism. Others that the “Taoist philosophy is the guiding principle behind T’ai Chi” and that Tai Chi was created by observing Nature in action. Are Tai Chi movements an “attempt to mirror her ways?”  Let’s consider that. Slow, flowing movements certainly look effortless, as does water moving in a stream. Water can, however, wear down riverbanks, rocks, and stones over time. This is a good example of Yin and Yang – soft and hard.  Soft can often overcome hard by slow and consistent effort, with little to no obvious force. 

 Tai Chi draws upon the Taoist principles of yielding, softness, slowness, balance, and rootedness in its movements in both the health and martial applications. The names of many movements depict the principles and the appreciation of Nature. Taoists were interested in astronomy and astrology and many of the posture’s names represent these interests. You will find most of these names in the Chen or Yang Family forms and less so in SUN.

 Taoism always seeks harmony and believes that everything is made of energy. What we consider “qi”. They believe that the energy needs to move constantly and that blocked qi causes illness. Tai Chi moves and unblocks the qi and moves it around the body. The result being better health, both internal and external.

 There is actually a form called Taoist Tai Chi taught by the International Taoist Tai Chi Society. This is a modified Yang form developed by Moy Lin-shin (a Taoist monk) in Ontario, Canada. Moy incorporated other internal arts as well to increase the health benefits of the form. The belief is that “people are innately good but that the nature of society causes people to become self-centered and to acquire bad habits.”  The aim is to eliminate those weaknesses using the Taoist Tai Chi set consisting of 108 movements plus exercises called “the jongs”.

 If you are seriously interested in learning more about Taoism, the principles and beliefs can be found in the “Tao Te Ching”, which is considered the most influential and ritualistic Taoist text. There are many versions. The original author was believed to be Lao Tzu (also spelled Laozi) a 6th century BCE sage. However, some scholars debate this. Some parts are thought to be older and some more recent. Either way, throughout the years and reincarnations of the book, many authors have also incorporated their ideas and beliefs. It is an interesting read.

 If you would rather read a lighter book about Taoism, there is an entertaining book called The Tao of Pooh, written in 1982 by Benjamin Hoff.  This is one of my favorite books, a so-called “Taoism for Westerners” using an amusing, delightful story to introduce the principles of Taoism. Most bookstores and libraries probably have a copy.  Otherwise, check EBay or Amazon.

 “The surest way to become Tense, Awkward, and Confused is to develop a mind that tries too hard - one that thinks too much.”
Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh