When someone calls to book a trial Taijiquan (Tai Chi) lesson, one of the most common questions is what to wear. As long as your outfit lets you move, there aren’t any special recommendations – except when it comes to footwear. When you practice Taijiquan (Tai Chi), you are bound to become very picky about shoes. It’s not you, it’s them: regular shoes squeeze your toes and hinder your balance, and the excess cushioning and slant change your posture.
I made the video above when I was trying to convince my kids not to wear big brand shoes with thick cushioning. You’d imagine that small kids aren’t that indoctrinated, but advertising and peer pressure are pretty powerful. The elastic band around the fingers of one foot simulates the narrow toe box of regular tennis shoes, and you can see how detrimental not being able to use your toes can be to your balance. Only after this experiment they willingly agreed to wear minimal shoes.
When I started learning Taijiquan (Tai Chi), I was an Airline Pilot. I had to wear formal shoes, the airline I worked for even provided us with them. But formal shoes have heels, and even man’s shoes heels, which are no more than 1/2″ thick, will change the way your whole body distributes power, specially in the hips and legs. After a short while practicing Taijiquan (Tai Chi), I could feel the negative impact of wearing common formal shoes, and went to a shoemaker to have my feet measured, and get hand made, wide, zero-drop shoes.
Of course, many people at work noticed, and I had to resort to telling them it was a Physical Therapist’s recommendation. Not true for the 90’s, but recently a movement towards minimalist footwear started among more avant-garde health professionals. I’d argue I was simply ahead of my time…
So, when selecting shoes for Taijiquan (Tai Chi), choose flat (zero drop), wide toe box shoes, and let your feet do their thing. If you practice sports such as running, and are used to thick cushioning, you probably need an adaptation period to transition from cushioned shoes to minimal ones – don’t try to switch straight away, without proper orientation and gradual change, as you might find it uncomfortable or painful.
There are multiple brands in the market offering minimal, zero-drop shoes, like Vivo Barefoot, Xero Shoes and Vibram Five Fingers.