Tai chi chuan is a style of kung fu that consists of fluid, graceful standing movements. Often called the "moving meditation," it emphasizes softness over hardness, a concern with things internal rather than external, yielding over confrontation.
Practiced for centuries in China, tai chi (pronounced "tie jee") has evolved into a system of about 100 movements to circulate chi, the body's internal energy. The Chinese Taoists believed that stagnation was the cause of disease and aging. Nature moves unceasingly, and tai chi prevents stagnation.
Significant Health Benefits of Tai Chi
Though known more for promoting inner healing and relaxation than aerobic power, tai chi lowers blood pressure almost as well as moderate-intensity aerobics, according to results of a Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine study presented in 1998. A review in the July 1997 issue of the Harvard Health Letter noted that tai chi reduces some stress hormones and by conferring improved muscle strength — particularly in the lower body — lowers the risk of falling (the leading cause of death by injury in seniors).
Tai Chi Looks Simple but Requires Years of Training
The series of standing, graceful postures are meant to move chi smoothly throughout the body. The postures stimulate or sedate, as necessary, the energy channels, or meridians, which influence the various organs. Each movement is clearly defined by a specific alignment of the body and balance. Yet, like a slow-moving river, the motion never stops.
Although the slow, supple moves look simple, they require intense control, concentration and energy developed over months and years of training.
A variety of tai chi styles have evolved, including the Yin and Yang styles (more about that later) and the Chen, Wu and Sun schools. Each style includes numerous "forms" — combinations of stances that flow continuously into one another. All stances and breathing, in turn, originate from the center of the body, which is the tan t'ien (pronounced "dantian"), about two inches below the navel.
Because there are so many styles of tai chi and so many organizations that offer instruction, it is hard to track specifically how many people practice it in the United States. But as more Americans become disenchanted with traditional medicine and the impersonal aspects of managed care, they're turning to tai chi and other practices that treat the body as a whole, not merely the physical symptoms.
Movements Reflect the Circular Motions of the Universe
According to Dr. Effie Chow of the East West Academy for Healing Arts in San Francisco, the teachings of tai chi chuan are derived from the complementary relationship between yin and yang, two fundamental forces that some people believe create and harmonize the universe by their interaction.
"Yin and yang is the underlying principle of Chinese medicine and Chinese philosophy," she notes. "It is the also the underlying principle of tai chi. For example, reaching out is yang, the coming into the center is yin. The external self is yang; the internal self is yin. It's a balance of nature, the dual polarities that keep nature balanced, and without it there's havoc, chaos, and illness and destruction."
Chow says that tai chi invigorates the entire body, rebuilding cells and energy, while facilitating an improved state of being. "It works on all the bones, muscles, sinews and tendons; the stretching helps to facilitate circulation, and it helps to facilitate breath. When the circulation is better, you have a relaxation of the body. With relaxation, you're more flexible and more mobile. It therefore enables your muscles to relax and allows your joints to be more pliable."
The different styles of tai chi accomplish the same ends, though in different ways and through different processes, Chow says. Many of the movements resemble the movement of animals, but the flowing motion reflects the circular motions of the universe and the connectedness of the universe. During each session, students perfect motions and movements, adding a couple of motions or movements over time. "It's good if they practice daily," Chow says.
Tai Chi: "Just What the Doctor Ordered"
In addition to adhering to the basic principles of balance, body alignment and relaxation, Chow says group energy is critical. "The more powerful the master is in the chi, the more he or she will be able to facilitate the chi in the individuals and the group as a whole.
"The teacher should be compassionate, warm, kind, knowing, wise. And check on the person's experience in teaching, not necessarily whether he's from a particular lineage" of tai chi, she says.
Because there is no standard certification of tai chi teachers, the burden of finding a good instructor, or master, is on the student.
Patrick Merrill, a 52-year-old artist from Los Angeles, took up tai chi after injuries curtailed his tennis playing about 12 years ago. He says the concept of slowly building strength and flexibility rather than the Western method of pounding the body into shape was just what the doctor ordered. "The pain in my knee just sort of disappeared," he reports.
Recently, he lost his temper about something, and later realized how long it had been since he had done so, something that wasn't the case before he started tai chi. "It reminded me that I had maintained on a regular basis a level of balance and peace I didn't have to focus on or be conscious of."
Each morning he practices 108 forms for about 45 minutes. While he prefers to practice on his own, he said that sometimes in groups he has "experienced the chi. When you have a group of 10 people in a room and they're all moving the same, their breathing is going to come in sync with each other; there's a chemical exchange going on. It's really a high sometimes. It manifests itself often, as your body temperature going way up, you sweat profusely, but you're not tired. You feel floaty. It's a very forceful effect."