As the owner of a professionally operated traditional tai chi school, I receive a lot of emails with folks asking me what is the best thing to wear when practicing tai chi. You have several options. First of all, in your class wear whatever uniform your school suggests if you are lucky enough to be able to attend a traditional school. Keep it clean and wear it with pride out of respect for your art. The school uniform helps to create a unified feeling that enhances the group energy of the class. When you’re on your own outside of class, you can freely choose form a variety of clothes and shoes. Below are some options.
The traditional cotton “kung fu” style uniform: These are the most common. Usually constructed from cotton and black in color, or black with white trim. The style is straight, with a comfortable fit. The closures are usually “cloth knotted buttons” or “frog closures” straight up the centerline of the jacket. This popular style of uniform is usually called a kung fu uniform and is sometimes referred to as a “training uniform” or xunlian fu. It was a popular style from the later Qing Dynasty of China when the Manchurian style replaced the older hanfu style of clothing. You can order these uniforms online from most major martial arts suppliers.
The silk or satin uniform: Some are plain and some are quite ornate. Try to wear natural silk instead of synthetic polyester or satin. The synthetic fabrics are usually used in decorative uniforms that are reserved for formal demonstration or tournaments. The fancy Qing Dynasty style tangzhuang jacket is usually made of embroidered silk. Silk is a highly regarded material in China. It tends to keep you warm in winter and cool in the heat of the summer. It also moves effortlessly with your body. Some folks will wear Chinese-style silk pajamas as a suitable set of “silks” for tai chi practice. Raw silk is a little nubbier in texture and processed silk is very smooth and fine. Both are suitable and you can wear any color you like. Note that on some silk or synthetic uniforms the closures cross over toward the shoulder at an angle. That design is exclusively for women. The men’s style is with closures straight up the front of the uniform. This is worn both by men and women. And yes, you can wash silk in cold water with mild detergent in the gentlest wash cycle of your washing machine. Raw silk is washed much easier. You can wash the polyester uniforms too, unless they have satin trim. Never wash the satin uniforms – you must bring them to a dry cleaner.
The Shaolin monk uniforms or karate uniforms: Both of these styles are actually closer to the older hanfu style clothing that was worn in ancient China for millennia. The uniform is comprised of a top that usually falls past the hips and possibly to the knees. The top/robe wraps over and is secured with a sash or belt. It is worn with loose-fitting pants. This older style uniform is most often made from cotton or silk, and is light in color or unbleached natural white. You may be surprised to see a Japanese “gi” style uniform suggested here, but that indeed is closer to the old style robe that was worn in ancient China. It’s rarely worn in tai chi schools nowadays, but when worn, it’s usually tied with the thick and long Chinese sash (yaodai).
The Chinese sash: This sash is mostly made of satin nowadays, but you can sometimes get it in silk or cotton. It is worn outside of the robe/top, but some people prefer to wear it just below the waist of the pants with the robe/jacket top worn over so that the top can be removed easily if it gets warm. And some folks altogether prefer not to wear a sash because they feels it’s too constricting. I suggest that you try wearing the sash in a “therapeutic” manner, by wearing it over your lower abdomen and low back to give extra support and remind you of your center of gravity.
Western clothing: Plain old loose sweatpants and a T-shirt work fine too! Tai chi masters typically suggest anything loose, comfortable and made of natural fabric as best for your health. The trendy compression-style spandex exercise wear is thought by some to disrupt qi (life force energy) flow and so should be avoided for tai chi.
Shoes: If you wear orthotics, make sure they are suitable for sports. Otherwise, any sneakers, Chinese kung fu shoes, tennis shoes, ballet shoes, or even bare feet are fine. Try to avoid hiking boots or high tops. Wear footwear that lets you feel the ground and doesn’t slip off your foot easily or block movement. Best is to wear anything that makes you feel secure but still allows you to move freely.
Jewelry: Remove your jewelry so that your body and energy flow is as unblocked as possible. Always remove it when you do partner work such as push hands or sparring- not only to protect yourself, but to also protect your partner.
Headwear: Pull long hair back if it gets in your way and makes you toss your head to move it aside. Wear a hat if your head gets cold outside in cold or windy weather. In class, be sure to find out what your school rules are about bandanas, hats, du-rags, etc. If you don religious headwear such as a yarmulka or hijab, be sure to fit it as comfortably as possible so that it doesn’t bother you during tai chi practice.
Undergarments: Full-figured women should wear a supportive brassiere, but not one that overly compresses, cuts or binds. If you’re a woman doing sparring or a vigorous form such as Chen 2nd Routine, you need to wear something more supportive. Men should always wear an athletic protector if engaging in vigorous sparring or martial applications work. Socks and other undergarments are best if they are constructed from a natural fabric, as the Chinese believe that this is healthier for your qi.
Doctors of Chinese medicine, qigong and tai chi advise to protect yourself from prolonged extremes of heat, cold, dampness, windiness and dryness. In our modern day, this is very easy to do as you can readily find lightweight, wicking clothing for hot weather, rain gear, and insulated lightweight clothing for cold weather. Wear layers if the temperature fluctuates while you practice. Keep hydrated in dry weather and anytime that you sweat.
Again, the most important thing is comfort and being able to move freely. When playing tai chi (taijiquan) on your own, experiment to find what works best for your needs.
Enjoy your practice!
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