The first time I encountered Tai Chi was in 2002, via one of the hottest technology formats of the age: DVDs. I bought Tai Chi for Weight Loss on Amazon, and was surprised by how its exercises felt easier and more effective than my prior purchases, Yoga for Weight Loss and Pilates for Weight Loss. Instead of requiring you to stay still in painful positions, Tai Chi offered a light, smooth, steady flow between them that felt like slow-motion dancing.
I wore the Tai Chi DVD out; the others gathered dust on the shelf. Its teacher, Scott Cole, was a friendly young guide with a soft voice and a shirtless six-pack, introducing moves with fantastic names like Wave Hands Like Clouds and Golden Rooster Stands On One Leg, steadily building up to a surprisingly sweat-inducing workout on a blissful Hawaiian shoreline.
This was right at the beginning of the U.S. yoga boom: model and philanthropist Christy Turlington had appeared in a pretzel position on the cover of TIME, while Lululemon had opened its first couple of stores. I remember expecting that Tai Chi’s popularity would boom in tandem alongside that of yoga. After all, there’s a lot that unites the two practices.
Both are kinds of physical meditation that demand focused attention. Both were practiced for thousands of years (yoga in India, Tai Chi in China) in multiple forms. Simplified versions of both practices reached the west in the 20th century. And yes, as those DVDs promised, both have a long list of proven health benefits, including losing weight at a steady clip if you keep up the practice over time.
Fast forward two decades, however, and the two practices are clearly far from equal in the eyes of 2020s tech culture. Google “yoga” and you’ll get 1.4 billion hits; “tai chi” returns half of that. YouTube’s top yoga beginners’ video has 38 million views versus 8.1 million for the Tai Chi equivalent. There are more than a hundred English-language yoga podcasts on Spotify, and only two for Tai Chi.
The same disparity can be found in both major app stores. You can download dozens of yoga apps with slick, professional-looking interfaces. Of the handful of Tai Chi apps, most are collections of amateur drawings and re-skinned YouTube videos. I’ve seen several good apps drop out of Apple’s App Store as they failed to keep up with iOS updates.
The only ones I use on a regular basis are 7 Minute Chi — Meditate and Move and Tai Chi Temple, both by a Belgian developer called Zhen Wu. And even the latter has problems, such as the fact that it cuts off some of the video of its tiny Tai Chi master. Neither quite hit the spot, which is why I’ve digitized that old Tai Chi DVD, uploaded it to my iPad, and still use it to this day.
Why the imbalance between the ancient arts? In part, it’s because Tai Chi has a definition problem. There’s a lot of overlap with Qi Gong, a somewhat lighter, easier form of exercise, and with hardcore martial arts like Kung Fu. Is Tai Chi a fast form of moving meditation or a slow form of self defense? The answer is that it’s kind of both — which helps explain why Tai Chi is closely related to the taijitu, better known as the yin and yang symbol. But things with fluid definitions are not always easily embraced in western culture.
Tai Chi also has an image problem. Think “yoga” and you’re probably picturing a room full of lithe, glowing young gym rats in flattering outfits moving into warrior pose. But traditional Tai Chi uniforms, chosen for ease of movement rather than looking good on Instagram, look more like shapeless silk pajamas. In the U.S., Tai Chi is most commonly seen practiced in parks by the elderly, spreading a false perception that it’s something you should only bother taking up in your later years, when you’re trying to keep arthritis at bay.
To be fair, Tai Chi is indeed great for arthritic pain. But it has also been shown to help with a wide range of other conditions that afflict us at every age, including stress, lower back pain, and my nemesis — occasional bouts of vertigo. (This 2009 study says that improving your balance with tai chi poses helps calm things down in your inner ears.)
If Tai Chi is seen in movies at all, it’s either as a martial art in a Hong Kong-style action epic (such as Keanu Reeves’ 2013 directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi), or it’s meant to signify that someone is old and a little out of touch. Such as Robert DeNiro’s 70-something title character in The Intern, practicing Tai Chi with his peers in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, or The Farewell, in which a Chinese-American woman laughs through her grandma’s serious attempts to practice.
And then there’s The Big Lebowski, in which The Dude (Jeff Bridges) practices awkward tai chi forms on the rug that really tied the room together, White Russian in hand.
Perhaps, in the hyper-stressed 2020s, Tai Chi’s time has finally come. There are a number of Tai Chi apps for virtual reality systems, such as Guided Tai Chi on Oculus Quest. The practice makes sense for VR in a way that yoga does not. In Tai Chi, you’re almost always on your feet and moving your arms around with precision — a natural fit for VR controllers, which can show your hands where to go, whereas you’d have to put them down for yoga poses like Downward-Facing Dog.
But while I wait for app entrepreneurs to catch on, I’ll be over here in my lockdown-friendly tai chi pants, once again firing up a 20-year-old video and mindfully blissing out on the shores of an imaginary Hawaii. No White Russian required.