It may seem like a paradox that t'ai chi offers such amazing health benefits while being an incredibly effective martial art. It is actually the synthesis of these two aspects that brings about the most profound depth of study and benefits in practice.
Often the martial arts perspective can give us a biofeedback experience. The principles of t'ai chi tell us that we should move in the most relaxed and integrated fashion possible. Yet how can we discern whether we are moving this way? Sometimes our teacher can correct us; but sometimes investigating the martial purpose of a movement can also give us the feedback we need.
For example, we may know that one movement is designed for pushing. So we can push something while checking for the principles of relaxation and integration. As we are pushing, we may feel a buildup of tension in our shoulders and a resulting lack of integration to the back. Or we may feel a little pressure in the lower back resulting in a lack of integration to the legs. As we feel these tensions, we can release them and further integrate the body so that we don't feel pressure at any area. We learn to use the whole body to create the movement. Performing the push movement in the context of its martial purpose gives us a type of internal feedback, if we are attempting to use t'ai chi principles. We can use the awareness we gain in these types of exercises to deepen our relaxation, body integration, and energy flow.
When we challenge ourselves with two person practices like pushing hands or light sparring, we try to maintain t’ai chi principles. Striving to embody these principles in demanding circumstances can help us clarify our boundaries. If I recognize that I often overextend in these practices, I can correct that same tendency in my solo practice and perhaps in my daily life. This is a wonderful compliment to the solo form in which we can more easily cultivate a peaceful state of moving meditation. Eventually, that state of moving meditation can seep into two person practices as well as into daily life.