What exercise tightens muscles, firms your frame, and creates balance—both physical and mental—while using warrior moves and simple choreography to begin? Of course, it is the ancient disciple of Tai Chi Chang, Qigong, and other martial arts (pronounced tie-Chee). Chinese masters and the Westerners who practiced under them helped to spread Tai Chi to people all over the world.
Rooted in History
The inspiration for this multidimensional art form is based on the deep-seated tenets of Taoism, which a person practices to embrace wonder and the joy of living with style. A Chinese philosophy carved over many hundreds of years, Taoism is a practical guide that requires tuning into the essential breath, and, with a cultivation of practices and beliefs, is bent on turning a crisis into transformation.
Ideas about the Tao were eventually set down in its principle text Tao Te Ching, an anthology of works produced in 300 B.C.E; often referred to as the Lao Tzu.
It does not matter if the Tao is indefinable, the principle is truth. The goal is inner peace and the path to that is by not trying to resolve life’s contradictions, but is more about acceptance of your nature.
Thinking Tai Chi
There is a nice story that infuses Tai Chi with meaning: When plants enter life, they are soft and pliable; when they die, they are hard, dry and stiff. The hard and strong are companions of death—the soft and weak are companions of life. To stay pliable is to embrace life.
The full name of the Chinese term is tai chi ch’uan and translates to “fighting art based on the laws of the universe."
Health, Well-being and Longevity
Nature, not society is the element an individual seeks out to find one’s own personal rhythm. After many hundreds of years, the techniques of Tai Chi have been preserved and generations of practitioners took to inform others about the art form throughout China, where it is still a very popular and powerful rite. In the early hours of dawn and, at the end of day until twilight, people can be seen practicing these graceful movements in parks, open spaces and city squares.
Although ideally, Tai Chi should be practiced in a natural environment for freedom of movement, with adequate light, locations such as a porch, a parking lot, or even a tennis court work well. Later after much practice, you may want to advance to grass or sand and challenge yourself and “your roots" by digging deeper or undertaking an uneven surface to test your skills.
You may have heard people talking about yin and yang. It is about two opposing forces that are actually complementary in their give-and-take—the rough enhances the smooth, the dark is in contrast to the light, there is receiving and giving. Tai Chi, too, is looking for a balanced whole such as a feminine force—positive and nurturing—against a more masculine activity with direction, change and challenge.
The discipline itself names its moves like poetry, such as “waving hands in clouds," “brush knee," a “single whip," and “return to mountain." Through a series of learned moves, a Tai Chi pupil will use muscle and strength while applying slow, careful, flexible movements that feature balance and grace. Inside the body, the rhythmic moving is kept steady and helps to reinforce spirit, mind and physique, and to release tension and rigidity. The release comes off your fingertips and it even embodies a spirituality discharge between your hands often referred to as “chi" or life force. It is hard to be depressed after doing Tai Chi.
According to Catherine Kerr who has studied the effect of Tai Chi on elderly populations, specifically brain dynamics and mindfulness meditation: “For anyone who practices tai chi regularly, brain plasticity arising from repeated training may be relevant, since we know that brain connections are ‘sculpted’ by daily experience and practice."
Patience and the ability to wait for the right moment, are key to Tai Chi technique—to flow with the river, such that we follow the natural rhythms of our body and mind. One function is meant to clear the mind of the day’s busyness and activity; and to use visualizations of the moves to s-l-o-w you down so your feet are correctly aligned, and, in the beginning, it will feel all left feet until you learn the choreography and where you should be standing and waving your hands. But after time and after practicing the moves and getting the mind into gear precisely, the body will breathe at the right times and flow will occur in one whole body energy cycle.
It takes time to cultivate however, so practice is key. There are a variety of books, DVDs and programs to zone in on and although they may differ slightly in technique, soon you will be standing like a mountain between the heavens and earth.
Chuen, Master Lam Kam. Tai Chi Step-by-Step: The Natural Way to Strength and Health. New York: FIRESIDE Simon & Shuster, 1994. Book.
Clark, Angus. Tai Chi: A Practical Approach to the Ancient Chinese Movement for Health & Well-being. Hammersmith, London: Element, 2002. Book.
Cole, Scott. Tai Chi: for balance & mobility. Hackensack, N.J.: Bayview Fitness, 2010. DVD.
Wayne, Peter M. PhD & Mark L. Fuerst. The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi. Boston: Shamlhala Publications, Inc., 2013.
Brown, Nell Porter: Easing Ills through Tai Chi. Harvard Magazine.
Kerr, Catherine et al. frontiers in Human Neuroscience: The Effects of Tai Chi Practice on Intermuscular Beta Coherence and the Rubber Hand Illusion
Feature photo courtesy of Pixabay.com