What do you you think of when I say Martial arts?
Does it conjure up an image of 2 muscular bald men, in a ring, punching each other in the face? Or do you imagine possessing superhuman Kung fu skills and defeating a gang of muggers?
There is more to Martial arts than fighting. Chinese Martial arts are generally holistic and about much more than self defence. The likelihood of you having to use your self defence skills is probably very slim but imagine the worst happens...what then? The best form of self defence is not being there. Avoid dangerous areas and dodgy looking people and if you're in immediate danger...run!
In the unlikely event that you have to fight, you need to be able to hit someone very hard. So if you're genuinely concerned for your safety, learn something like western boxing.
Tai Chi is a Martial art. It is a highly sophisticated fighting system and as such takes many years to be able to apply. Being able to defend yourself using Tai Chi takes a lot of time and effort. At a high level it is truly impressive to behold and more than a match for any other style.
To use a musical analogy I'd say that Tai Chi is like an orchestra whilst Boxing is more like a punk band.
I practice a martial art twice sometimes three times a day, every day. That's a lot of hours to spend, learning to fight in an incredibly refined manner. Obviously that's not why I do it. I like Martial arts, well the Chinese ones (well, the internal Chinese ones), because they're deep. They are worth practicing for the sake of practicing.
The internal Martial arts of Tai Chi, Bagua, Hsing I and Yiquan can certainly be used for fighting but more importantly they provide a different kind of self defence: Self defence for your mind and self defence for your body. Staying calm, healthy and fit is what really matters and these aspects are largely missing from modern westernized Martial arts.
Modern fighting sports are scientific and as such have thrown out anything deemed unnecessary. On the journey from China via Japan to the West something has been lost and these kinds of practices are unlikely to promote mental or physical health.
Some have suggested that MMA (Mixed martial arts) should perhaps be changed to MMF (Mixed martial fighting) because that's all it is. However, it's interesting to see that a few fighters are now advocating stretching, breathing and meditation. Why? Because these practices help performance and recovery time.
Some of the practices in traditional arts like Tai Chi might seem pointless to a casual observer but they're not. There are reasons why we stand still, move slowly and prioritize relaxation and posture. The same practices that develop balance, speed and power also calm the mind and heal the body. This seems to lead to some confusion over what Tai Chi is for. There are innumerable Tai Chi schools teaching students to wave their arms around and feel balls of energy and most practitioners seem to have no understanding of how it functions as a martial art.
Tai Chi is a battlefield Martial art. Maintaining a strong healthy body and a calm mind are an integral part of it. The health and the self defence are 2 sides of the same coin. The reason why you practice is not important. What's important is that you practice.