"Tai Chi," refers to the movement and inter-relation of the basic energies of the Universe, commonly known as Yin and Yang. The Tai Chi symbol is the Yin-Yang symbol, and is now, widely known in the West.
"Chuan" means method or Fist. Chuan is the physical way in which the Tai Chi is manifested.
So, "Tai Chi Chuan," is the method that uses the principles of Yin and Yang.
In practical terms, Tai Chi Chuan is an exercise for the body and mind, a way to achieve a natural state of relaxation, and a highly regarded Martial Art. It is also a Spiritual practice to help deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.
Tai Chi Chuan is normally taught as a sequence of movements called a Form. The Form is usually done slowly and with minimum use of physical strength. The exact sequence of the form will differ with the style, and even within a style there will be variations. The Form teaches students to become more aware of their bodies and begins to exercise the body's natural energy called Chi. In addition to the Form, most schools of Tai Chi teach Push Hands. Push Hands teaches sensitivity to the actions and energies of another person and how to deal with these energies without breaking the Tai Chi principles. In effect, the Form teaches the student about themselves and Push Hands teaches an approach to being with other people and the world in general. Again, each style has its own way of doing Push Hands and its own emphasis.
There are several different styles of Tai Chi Chuan commonly taught in the West. Wu and Chen style are becoming more popular, but Yang style with its derivations, is the most popular in Europe and North America. Much of the credit for popularising Tai Chi in the West must go to Professor Cheng Man-ching, who modified the original Yang style to make it more accessible and taught both in Taiwan and New York.
Professor Cheng is regarded as one of the great modern Tai Chi masters. Since he died fairly recently, and many of his students are still alive, much of what is said about his great skill and relaxed attitude can be verified. He studied with Yang Cheng-fu, one of the grandsons of Yang Lu-chan, the founder of Yang style Tai Chi. The original Yang style had 108 movements and is known in the West as The Long Form since it took 20-30 minutes to perform once through. Cheng Man-ching reduced the number of postures to 37 and cut out many of the repetitions to leave a form which only takes 9-10 minutes to perform.
Cheng Man-ching lived and taught in New York for the last 10 years of his life, and many of his students carry on his teachings in many parts of the world. He regarded the health benefits as being the most important reason for studying Tai Chi, followed by, relaxation and self defence. Despite his age and small size by Western standards, he was an excellent martial artist and was regarded as virtually undefeatable. In his younger days, as was the custom, he accepted many challenges from very skilled fighters and his skill never deserted him. Unlike many other martial artists, he was a physician and scholar, as well as an acclaimed artist and calligrapher and he believed that Tai Chi should help us to live in harmony with others and the Tao.