“Stiff and unbending is the principle of death.
Gentle and yielding is the principle of life.
Thus an Army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.”
—Tao Te Ching (76)
T’ai Chi Ch’uan (translated as “supreme ultimate boxing or fist“) is a form of Taoist martial arts. In western cultures, the term has been mercifully shortened to Tai Chi. The discipline is truly a mind-body therapy because, as a form of exercise, it combines imagery, meditation and physical exercise. Also known as “shadow boxing”, Tai Chi originated in China hundreds of years ago. The animal-like poses that might look like a kung fu movie in slow motion comprise one of the gentlest forms of over 300 styles of Chinese martial arts. Tai chi combines elements of self defense with an approach to strengthening both the mind and body by exercising the “chi” or inner energy that resides in all of us. Because of its multiple health benefits and its suitability for both sexes and a wide variety of ages, Tai Chi has become increasingly popular in this country. Let’s consider it more specifically in this week’s Insight.
According to legend, Tai Chi was created in 5th century China by a Taoist priest. The priest observed a bird attacking a snake and noticed that the snake made its capture impossible by remaining calm and moving slowly and deliberately. Subsequently, the priest began a broader study of motion–which included movement of other animals, as well as movement of water, trees and clouds. From these observations, he developed a series of movements intended to foster harmony between mind and body and between an individual and his/her world.
Tai Chi is useful in improving strength, balance, coordination, and concentration. Through regular practice, Tai Chi can benefit a wide variety of medical problems, including: Hypertension, Raynaud’s Phenomenon, Angina, Migraine headaches, Depression, Arthritis, and Impaired Peristalsis and its attendant digestive problems. Additional benefits include alleviation of stress (because of the meditative/peaceful qualities of the exercise), building of muscle tone and flexibility, and even improving insomnia. Another specific area of benefit is in people recovering from strokes. The assymetry in strength and balance which occurs following strokes can improve significantly with Tai Chi. But, for all of these medical problems, the key is regular practice, since these benefits are only realized over time. For those people seeking ‘the quick fix’, Tai Chi will be a disappointment; but in reality, we know honestly that genuine quick fixes are few and far between.
Since Tai Chi does not rely on strength, force and speed as many forms of sport and exercise, it can be practiced by both sexes, young and old, and strong or weak individuals. At a high level, Tai Chi movements simultaneously achieve the apparent paradox of effortlessness and tremendous power. Since skill in Tai Chi is not restricted to one’s size, strength, and speed, men and women can achieve equal proficiency in its use as a form of self-defense. There is a symphony of sensation, perception and motion integrated into central balance and fluid consciousness. Now, doesn’t that sound like fun?
In the entire tai chi chuan form, there are approximately 100 movements (each, of course, with its own name). Movements such as “Cloud Hands” and “Wind Sweeps the Plum Blossoms” emphasize softness and fluid effortlessness, while other movements such as “White Crane Spreads Wings” and “Wild Horse Leaps the Ravine” reflect the strong influence and appreciation for nature in the genesis of this contemplative martial art.
Tai Chi can be done alone or in groups. An individual who has mastered the basics, can practice movements at home. Since no equipment is necessary, the expense of Tai Chi comes only in the courses needed to learn movements and the centered breathing patterns. With practice, one can gain most of the benefits in mind/body relaxation with daily 20–30 minute sessions. And, with continued practice, the beginner’s clumsiness will develop into a sense of deliberate, graceful physical poetry.
At dawn each morning of the week, one will find a multitude of individuals in the public parks of China practicing Tai Chi. What motivates these people to rise before daylight and spend the first hour of their day in this exercise? Find an individual or an exercise center near you that teaches Tai Chi, and you will learn the answer to this question first hand. In the hectic pace of our modern world, we all benefit from moments of peace. And, when such moments include gentle, balancing movements, the benefit to our life energy and vitality is enormous. It seems appropriate to end with a quote from Marcus Aurelius who aptly observed, “Men seek out retreats for themselves in the country, by the seaside, on the mountains. . .But all this is unphilosophical to the last degree. . .when thou canst at a moment’s notice retire into thyself.”
Stephen L. Hines, M.D.