China is such a large country that the many climatic and geographical regions have each generated their own particular Tai Chi styles. For example, in the North where it is mountainous people would ride horses and there was more emphasis on the stances and leg movements whereas in the South where transport was by river the posture and arm movements predominated. Different climatic regions also tend to produce different kinds of diseases and so the Taoist doctors would tailor their exercises to suit the environment. In order to explore the widest possible area the early Taoists decided that each should specialise in a particular aspect of the field and so Tai Chi styles have also evolved along different paths, each reflecting the interests or abilities of a particular teacher.
The modern Tai Chi styles can be roughly divided into five main groups or families: Yang, Wu, Lee, Chen and Sun. There are also many offshoots and inter-related disciplines such as Chi Gung and Tao Yin or breathing exercises. Some of the styles which have become popular in China in recent years are quite different from those which have been exported to other countries prior to the communist era. Of course every style claims that it is the oldest original style from which all the others are derived. Unfortunately, foreign invasions and two world wars have seen very little preserved in the way of documented records for any accurate chronology to be compiled. Nevertheless the many volumes of Taoist writings which have survived testify to the fact that internal forms of exercise have been popular in China for many thousands of years.
The Lee style was one of the first to come to the West. It was brought to Britain by a Taoist practitioner called Chan Lee who had fled the war torn China of the 1930’s. He was the last of his line and so he adopted a young orphan boy called Chee Soo as his ‘nephew’ after a chance meeting one Sunday afternoon in Hyde Park, London. They opened a Tai Chi school in Holborn, London which ran for five years until the war in 1939. Chee Soo joined up in 1937 and fought as a tank commander in Burma where he was captured and imprisoned by the Japanese. He later escaped, travelling through the jungles of Burma before finally reaching allied lines. On his return he resumed his Taoist studies and after the death of Chan Lee in the 1950’s he became the President of the International Taoist Society. Over his sixty years as a Taoist teacher Chee Soo devoted himself to the promotion of Tai Chi and Taoist philosophy. For many years he was the only Taoist Grand Master in the West to be recognised by the Masters in Beijing.
The main emphasis in Lee style Tai Chi is on relaxation and health. The student is taken through a process with nine distinct stages. Each level can only be accessed once the previous one has been completed. The class begins with some warming up exercises followed by deep breathing which starts to activate the internal energy. You then learn some movements from the Tai Chi Dance which is a flowing form designed to stimulate the energy at the start of the session. This may be followed by a variety of exercises which help you to learn how to apply the energy and Taoist principles to everyday situations. One such exercise called sticky hands encourages people to interact with each other in a non aggressive way even when under pressure. As you develop you will also learn the Tai Chi Form which is a more concentrated and meditative series of flowing movements. If the exercises are done without any physical tension the flow of Chi is stimulated through the energy meridians and it can be stored in the Tan Tien which is a region in the lower abdomen just below the navel. With more practice this store of energy overflows and starts to work its way through the whole body right down to the bones. This process helps to regenerate any damaged tissues in the body and so it can aid recovery from disease and slow down the ageing process.