Chang San-Feng originally developed Tai Chi as an "internal style" martial art around 1300 C.E. incorporating health exercises within its framework. The Chen family developed variations of Tai Chi in the early 1600's; these variations are the oldest of the extant forms. Until very recently, martial arts were guarded as family secrets so that outsiders would not acquire an advantage over the family. Thus, the Chen family did not teach their forms to anyone whose surname was not Chen. An exception was made for Yang Luchan (1799-1872), already an accomplished martial artist, who received training in Tai Chi from the Chen family in the mid-1800's. Yang participated in many martial arts tournaments in China, Mongolia and Russia, and was never defeated. As an international star, Yang was invited to teach Tai Chi to the royal family in Beijing.
Yang realized that this was a position with many advantages to himself and accepted the challenging assignment. Yang knew that the aristocrats would never be able to master the complex martial forms for many reasons. One important factor was that the nobles at that time were burdened with as much as forty pounds of clothing and were simply unable to perform any acrobatic, swift, or complex movements.
Out of necessity and genius he invented a new method and set of forms for the royal family. Yang smoothed the acrobatic and complex movements of Chen's Tai Chi and invented a form requiring steady, even movements resulting in a beautiful and elegant form set that is satisfying and soothing to the performer and the observer. This Yang Style Tai Chi suited the royals perfectly and was enthusiastically embraced by the emperor's family at the palace. Given the royal imprimatur, the Yang style was quickly adopted, first by the rest of the nobility and then by the common folk. The form underwent some changes over the years. Yang's grandson, Yang Cher-Fu (1883-1936), developed the primary variation as we know it today.
Yang's Tai Chi has extraordinary staying power unlike fads that come and go. The secret to the Yang style's longevity is its remarkable effect on health and that it is a martial art that can be embraced by people of all age groups and of varying degrees of fitness. The slow and steady pace of the Yang style of Tai Chi is what makes it especially useful as a method for improving health. It is a particularly low impact form of exercise suitable for people all ages and initial health status.
Many studies of Tai Chi as it relates to health have shown numerous positive results, including improved circulation to the hands and feet. In addition, it strengthens the heart and improves the function of the other internal organs. It increases aerobic functions. It moves the joints, improving and strengthening them without undue stress. It relaxes the mind and body and is an invaluable aid in both stress reduction (self-induced stress) and learning to cope with stress (external stressors).