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Probably like a lot of Americans, the first time I actually saw someone doing t’ai chi was during the Bill Moyers special on alternative medicine that ran on public television in the early 1990s. He was filming in China, in a city park where hundreds of Chinese start their day with a class. The most memorable moment occurred when the ancient and wizened t’ai chi master using the power of qi (or chi, pronounced “chee”) coursing through his body pushed over a row of burly men and everybody laughed uproariously as they fell to the ground.
At the time I thought the whole thing was a big trick put on for gullible Americans and that Moyers should have been a bit more skeptical about what he had just seen. I’ve smartened up a bit since then.
What helped was that within a year, at a meeting of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA), I was up at dawn, heading for a class led by Dr. Rob Ivker, author of the best-selling book Sinus Survival. If my memory is correct, both Carolyn Myss and Dr. Christiane Northrup, who were giving talks later that day, were in Dr. Ivker’s class. I remember thinking how everybody literally glowed when the class ended and we all headed for breakfast. T’ai chi seemed like a great way to replace the caffeine that most of us need to get started each morning.
Parenthetically, the tiny AHMA is a medical association that practices what it preaches. Vegetarian meals, massage therapists, and classes in meditation, yoga, and t’ai chi are standard stuff at their annual meeting.
If you’ve read about traditional Chinese medicine, you understand that qi is the invisible life energy flowing through all living things. Chi travels down paths called meridians, and the flow can be directed by stimulating certain points on the body, using fingertip pressure (acupressure, shiatsu) or needles (acupuncture). This life energy is believed to originate from the sun, which explains why in China t’ai chi is performed outdoors and at dawn. It is also connected to breathing, affected by emotions, can be controlled by the mind, communicated from one person to another, and conducted through inanimate objects. It is for this last reason that t’ai chi classes are often held in city parks, allowing participants to absorb the energy given off by the trees.
The crane and the snake
Originally, t’ai chi was developed as a non-combative martial art and, in fact, the full name tai chi chuan translates to “the supreme way of the fist.” My favorite of the several legends about the development of t’ai chi tells of thirteenth century Taoist monk and martial arts expert Chang San Feng, who saw from his window a battle between a crane and a snake. The swooping attacks from the crane and the wily, elusive movements of the much smaller snake inspired him to integrate the movements into his martial arts.
The basis of t’ai chi is learning what is called “the form,” a set of slow, deliberate, and graceful exercises performed in a definite pattern. The movements of the forms are basically martial arts, and have names like “Kick with the right heel,” or “Punch with a concealed fist.” There are long forms, which can take anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes to perform, and short forms, rarely taking more than five or ten minutes to complete.
An estimated 30 million Chinese and one million Japanese practice some kind of t’ai chi daily. And t’ai chi has spread throughout the rest of the world, making the liquid, slow, ballet-like movements the most popular form of exercise on the planet.
The health benefits from regular practice of t’ai chi have been studied by physicians both in the East and the West. It’s universally agreed that those who have made t’ai chi a part of their lives are calmer, physically stronger, and more optimistic about life. T’ai chi limbers the joints, lowers blood pressure, slows the pulse, improves balance, and speeds recovery from illness.
Keep in mind that although the movements look easy, they require concentration, patience, and practice. Your reward will be a sense of peaceful calm and harmony as the flow of qi moves smoothly throughout your body. It’s this calming aspect that makes t’ai chi particularly helpful for reducing stress and anxiety. But also, as an aerobic exercise, t’ai chi is extremely beneficial, increasing muscle strength, enhancing balance, and improving flexibility.
Next time: getting started.
David Edelberg, MD