“Dear Father, I know a number of people, including fervent Catholics, who practise Tai Chi. Is there anything in this Chinese practice that would make it unsuitable for Christians?”
As in my recent answer to a question on Yoga, I will use Brother Max Sculley’s book Yoga, Tai Chi, Reiki – A Guide for Christians. The author gives a comprehensive treatment of Tai Chi with numerous examples of people who have been adversely affected by it.
At the outset let me say that in Tai Chi one can distinguish between the physical exercise involved, which has merit in its own right, and the theory and practice which follow the Chinese Taoist understanding of medicine, in which there can be dangers. I know good Catholics who use Tai Chi simply as an exercise, which they say helps relax them and strengthen their muscles.
But first, what is Tai Chi? Tai Chi comes from China and is based on Taoist philosophy and religion. It involves slow gentle balanced movements with retarded, rhythmic breathing while focusing the mind on the breathing and visualising the movements.
The word ‘Chi’ refers to energy within the body which, according to Chinese medical theory, is transmitted throughout the body along 14 energy channels called meridians.
Chi is supposedly stored in energy centres just below the navel, near the heart and between the eyebrows, from which it radiates out along the meridians to every cell in the body.
In a healthy person, according to the theory, Chi flows harmoniously to all parts of the body. However, most people have blockages to this flow and the exercise of Tai Chi clears them.
As the exercises release tension in the different parts of the body, the channels are re-opened and the flow of Chi is re-established.
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The place of the mind is important in each movement, since one of the chief aims of Tai Chi is to bring about balance between mind and body.
This begins even before the movements, when the person focuses the mind on the slow, rhythmic, abdominal breathing. During the exercises, the mind visualises the body doing the movement. Ideally, this keeps the mind focused solely on the bodily movements and gradually lessens the stream of consciousness, inducing a sense of deep relaxation and an altered state of consciousness.
In Taoist philosophy this is referred to as emptying the mind, allowing the unconscious mind to become highly receptive to cosmic Chi.
All created things are considered to be divine manifestations of Chi and so the ultimate purpose of Tai Chi is to enable the person to reach enlightenment, to become divine, and to find inner peace.
As the person becomes more adept in controlling the flow of Chi, he or she acquires a range of gifts, the most prominent being superhuman powers of strength and the ability to heal oneself and others.
Tai Chi can also be practised as a martial art. In his book Brother Sculley relates the experience of a woman from Canberra who was watching a demonstration of Tai Chi as a martial art in a mall, when the man doing the demonstration seemed to follow her.
Frightened, she entered a shoe shop where she was suddenly struck by a powerful force in her back through to her chest which made her lose balance, fall and feel decidedly unwell.
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She was in no doubt that this force had somehow come from the man doing the demonstration, even though he was some distance away.
After she found out more about Tai Chi she observed that some of the people who practise it become more aggressive and strike out in a variety of ways at others.
Brother Sculley also relates something seen on nationwide television in the US in 1993, where a 90 year-old Tai Chi master sent an entire line of his students falling to the ground merely by hurling Chi at them from a distance of some six metres.
The students later revealed that they felt forced down by a mysterious and irresistible power, the power they themselves were seeking through the practice of Tai Chi.
As is clear, there are definite dangers in practising Tai Chi if one follows the philosophy behind it in its entirety. The philosophy is not at all compatible with Christianity.