Exploring the T'ai Chi Myth

Exploring the Myth of T’ai Chi: T’ai Chi isn’t Useful for Self Defense

Karate, Kung Fu, Ju Jitsu, Krav Maga, Boxing, MMA… all of these arts are known for their excellent self defense techniques. T’ai Chi, on the other hand, just doesn’t have the same reputation. To the average observer, it’s just too slow, too gentle, and not nearly aggressive enough to be a viable method of combat.

On top of that, many modern instructors only teach T’ai Chi for health benefits, leaving very few examples of combat applications available to the public. It’s no wonder that among non-practicioners, there’s a sense that T’ai Chi isn’t very good for self defense.

To many out there, T’ai Chi combat might look something like this…

So, how can we begin to dispel this myth? What practical application can T’ai Chi bring to martial training?

In order to explore this myth, we have to consider the ways T’ai Chi takes a unique view on self defense training.


Probably one of the strongest attributes of combat T’ai Chi training is its emphasis on ‘Breaking the Structure’ of an opponent’s attack. Most common attacks are unbalanced as an angry opponent lunges toward us to fight.

T’ai Chi takes advantage of this by emphasizing good posture and having the practitioner ‘root‘ into the ground below them. This solid foundation allows the practitioner to ‘uproot’ the opponent, leaving them off balance and vulnerable to a counter attack.

Drills, like Push Hands training, help the practitioner develop kinesthetic awareness of an opponent’s balance points and teaches them to exploit these weaknesses.

Proper posture and internal, core movement, help the practitioner produce a surprising amount of power. Although the T’ai Chi forms appear soft and gentle, this internal movement makes the counter strikes deceptively strong.

To illustrate the ‘Breaking Structure’ concept, here is a short, push hands video from the Mike Fliss Youtube Channel, that features Chen Zheng and Master Wang Hai Jun. The video shows several ways that T’ai Chi can be used to unbalance an attack.



The Chinese art of joint locking, such as using wrist locks, finger locks, or arm bars is called ‘Chi Na’. This art allows the practitioner to manipulate an attacker’s limb in ways that can cause extreme pain or even injury.  Chi Na is central to T’ai Chi application for several reasons.

First, it can be used to disable an attacker without causing permanent injury. This allows the practitioner to persuade his or her attacker to stop their hostilities without needlessly escalating the situation. -Joint locks make a great deterrent against continued aggression.

Since chi na exploits the weaker joints of an attacker (like fingers or wrists) it also allows a smaller person to defeat someone much larger, without expending much energy. It’s fairly easy for a 120 lb person to bring a 250 lb person to the ground with a good finger lock.

One issue with joint locking techniques is that they require a lot of small muscle movements that can be difficult to control under the stress of an attack. However, T’ai Chi practice is uniquely suited to this kind of combat because its training emphasizes relaxation and mindfulness. This helps the practitioner to remain calm and precise during a violent encounter.

Chi na is an integral part of T’ai Chi application and its techniques can be found hidden throughout the form’s hand movements.

Diligent practice is needed to ensure that the joint locks will work during an actual attack. This is one reason why the T’ai Chi from is practiced slowly. This gives the practitioner time to visualize every aspect of the lock while training.

Here are some examples of chi na techniques posted from the YMMA Youtube Channel. The video shows a variety joint locks can be found throughout most T’ai Chi forms. These techniques are featured in Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming’s dvd series.



Dim Mak, which is usually translated at the ‘Death Touch’ is the Chinese art of pressure point fighting. The term ‘Death Touch’ is a misnomer for what actually happens.

It isn’t that a practitioner simply touches a pressure point, and the attacker instantly falls dead to the ground;  like the way you might see it portrayed in a comic book. Rather, Dim Mak is based on the tenets of Traditional Chinese Medicine, where the various points on an opponent’s body are activated in a way that causes pain, weakness, dizziness, or even causes the opponent to pass out.

There isn’t any special magic to these techniques. A practitioner activates the points much the same way an acupuncturist would use needles to help heal a person. The only difference is that instead of using the points to strengthen the body, Dim Mak practitioners use them to weaken their opponent.

Pressure point techniques work well with T’ai Chi practice because they rarely need physical power to activate the points. When used for self defense, the T’ai Chi postures often place the practitioner’s hands in just the right place for point activation against an opponent.

The purpose of moving chi in the body and sending it through a strike, as practiced in the form, was originally intended to activate the pressure points of an attacker and disrupt their internal energy system.

It’s believed that T’ai Chi was the first martial art to use Traditional Chinese Medicine to enhance its techniques. However, most other traditional forms of martial art, like Kung Fu and Karate also use pressure point theory to improve their effectiveness in combat.

To get an idea of how Dim Mak techniques can work, here’s an example of  Dim Mak strikes as shown on ‘The Way of Chi’ Youtube Channel.                                              .


T’ai Chi is an excellent form of self defense. It’s designed to be used by anyone, regardless of their size, sex, or physical strength. It emphasizes relaxation and mindfulness, which allow practitioners to make calm, reasonable decisions even while under the stress of combat. It is gentle enough to handle someone who is just a ‘little to touchy‘ but can also be used to disable a attacker that intends serious bodily harm.

Most of all, T’ai Chi allows us to train to defend ourselves while also learning to walk through this world with a calm, mindful attitude. It’s not that T’ai Chi people are looking for trouble… it’s just that we’re ready to embrace it, if it should come.

Cover Image: Pixabay.com

Edited at: PicMonkey.com

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