Meditation in motion
Why tai chi is catching on as exercise
for the muscles, mind and soul

From HealthyLiving on Women.com

Tai chi chuan is a riddle. It is at once both hard and soft, combative and peaceful, for body and soul.

It was even born of contradiction: Translated from the Chinese, it means "great polarity boxing" and draws on the principles of yin and yang, the "opposing" forces that function as two halves of a whole when balanced in harmony.

Until very recently, Westerners have perceived tai chi chuan as such a bundle of contradictions that we have shied away from it. Never mind that it is one of the most popular forms of movement in the world, practiced by millions. In regards to traditional fitness, tai chi chuan defies all categories. And exercise, for us, must submit to categorization if only to fit on the health-club schedule: cardio workouts for a strong heart, step classes for a firm butt, or weight training for buff arms and abs.But what tai chi chuan can offer is an exercise that will not just tone muscles, increase flexibility and improve balance; it is both energizing and calming, providing an excellent counterpoint to the frenetic pace of our daily lives.

The tai chi experience

Tai chi chuan embraces more than one discipline. In North America, the main styles taught include Yang (the most popular), Chen and Wu. All three may be likened to dance disciplines ranging from ballet to modern. Central to all tai chi chuan styles is the "form" a series of interconnected movements, executed slowly and reflectively.

Witness tai chi chuan in action, and you'll appreciate why it's called a "slow solo dance" or "meditation in motion." The movement flows from one position to the next, with minute adjustments of an eye, a wrist, the neck. The short form of a style takes 10 minutes to perform; the long form, a half-hour or longer.

But merely learning a form short or long isn't the only object of tai chi chuan. The experience of repeating the form every day, and the inward journey it demands, is what yields benefits, including stress reduction, muscular strength and peace of mind. Practitioners will go a lifetime without perfecting their form; it merely continues to evolve with each exercise.

It remains the biggest mystery of all. Loosely translated, the term refers to the energy flowing through the body. But the flow doesn't spring forth on its own. It requires close concentration to achieve a posture and then ground the chi by sinking, or relaxing, into the bent knees, to find both stability and power.

Once a form is learned, the student may move on to martial-arts applications, taking the positions and applying them to combat. Here, too, exists a contradiction: The emphasis is not on an attack but on deflection. In combat the tai chi chuan student learns to ward off aggression by sinking into a stance and watching the opponent ready his or her plan of attack. The ensuing assault is deflected by yielding weight, stepping aside and most important throwing the attacker off balance and letting him defeat himself.

Even without the thrill of combat, though, rapt attention is required to execute the form, whether the student labors at home alone or under the critical eye of an instructor. This intense concentration when work and family matters are set aside is what helps to lower stress and relax the mind.

For your health

"Tai chi is the best health insurance you could ever have," says Doreen Hynd, one of the few Wu instructors in America, who teaches at the SoHo Sanctuary in New York.

The deep breathing involved with each exercise helps the flow of oxygen to muscles and organs, improving circulation and lowering heart rate. The exercises themselves work both agonist and antagonist muscle groups like biceps and triceps, helping to keep the body in balance and prevent injury. Many movements also focus on improving posture and expanding range of motion in the joints. The exercises have been found especially helpful for those suffering from arthritis.

As tai chi chuan classes spread across the country, some purists wonder if this ancient discipline will become so Americanized that its most profound mind/body benefits will be lost. Is its newfound popularity part of our wholesale co-opting of all things Asian, swept up on the same wave that brings sushi to our suburbs, feng shui to the White House, Buddhism to Hollywood? Is it still the real thing?

David-Dorian Ross, the master featured on the PBS series T'ai Chi in Paradise, accepts the adaptation of tai chi chuan in the West as legitimate. "Over the course of a thousand years, tai chi has survived by evolving and by adapting to practitioners' needs," he notes. "It will spread and adapt further. It's up to teachers to take care that the instruction is good and useful and true."

So maybe tai chi chuan will put you on the road to stress reduction, relaxation, even peace of mind. Maybe not. What's clear is this: Whatever road you find yourself on, tai chi chuan will help you negotiate it with a clear head and a strong step.

Getting started

While tai chi chuan classes are popping up in gyms, dance studios and spas across the country believe it or not, the Disney Institute in Orlando, Fla., teaches beginner tai chi chuan they are still not as easily found as yoga lessons. Fortunately, an excellent selection of books and tapes exists to acquaint newcomers with the basics. Here's a sampler (click on the title for more information or to buy the book):

Books

Tai Chi for Beginners: 10 Minutes to Health & Fitness
(Perigee Books), by Claire Hooton.
Handbook of T'ai Chi Ch'uan Exercises
(Samuel Weiser), by Zhang Fuxing.

Videos

From the award-winning T'ai Chi for Health video programs: T'ai Chi for Health: Yang Short Form and T'ai Chi for Health: Yang Long Form.

Three Minutes to Power and Peace (Wellspring Media). A three-tape set introducing an anti-stress technique combining tai chi and yoga, created by Lawrence Tan.

Finding a form

Quickness and brute force aren't the primary goals of tai chi; the emphasis is on strength and balance, stemming from slow, methodical movements and rhythmical breathing. While tai chi chuan classes can help teach the basics behind proper form, advancement requires time and practice. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when performing tai chi chuan on your own:

  1. Posture: To keep the chi, or energy, flowing smoothly through the body, concentrate on posture and alignment. Knees should be slightly bent with the lower back held straight, abdominals tight, shoulders drawn downward, upper back lifted upward, and the head aligned with the spine and "floating" above, as if suspended by a string.
  2. Speed: Almost all of the movements in tai chi chuan are performed slowly and carefully. Slowing the motions down allows you to become more aware of your actions and gain control over the exercise; it also serves to calm you down and erase any tension in the muscles.
  3. Breathing: Many forms concentrate on deep breathing throughout the movements. When you inhale, the ribs should stretch and almost straighten the diaphragm; when exhaling, raise the diaphragm.
  4. Focus: Chase away any external worries and concentrate on the movements themselves. Your mind should be clear of distractions and filled with a clarity from the forms themselves.
  5. Balance: There is a constant balance at the core of most movements, both in a mental state of harmony and in physical coordination. Lower your center of gravity by relaxing and letting your body weight sink into both legs. This will also provide a base of power for many of your movements.

    Its harder than it looks

    To the observer, tai chi chuan seems easy, but it's harder than it looks. Janet Lilly, an associate professor of dance at the University of Milwaukee, is accustomed to physical challenge and found the training rigorous. Despite its rigors, the class discourages no one. In Lilly's group, a 70-year-old rabbi and an 8-year-old child each find a place.

    To most of us, chi remains the biggest mystery of all. Loosely translated, the term refers to the energy flowing through the body. But the flow doesn't spring forth on its own. It requires close concentration to achieve a posture and then ground the chi by sinking, or relaxing, into the bent knees, to find both stability and power.

    Once a form is learned, the student may move on to martial-arts applications, taking the positions and applying them to combat. Here, too, exists a contradiction: The emphasis is not on an attack but on deflection. In combat the tai chi chuan student learns to ward off aggression by sinking into a stance and watching the opponent ready his or her plan of attack. The ensuing assault is deflected by yielding weight, stepping aside and most important throwing the attacker off balance and letting him defeat himself.

    Even without the thrill of combat, though, rapt attention is required to execute the form, whether the student labors at home alone or under the critical eye of an instructor. This intense concentration when work and family matters are set aside is what helps to lower stress and relax the mind.

    For your health

    "Tai chi is the best health insurance you could ever have," says Doreen Hynd, one of the few Wu instructors in America, who teaches at the SoHo Sanctuary in New York.

    The deep breathing involved with each exercise helps the flow of oxygen to muscles and organs, improving circulation and lowering heart rate. The exercises themselves work both agonist and antagonist muscle groups like biceps and triceps, helping to keep the body in balance and prevent injury. Many movements also focus on improving posture and expanding range of motion in the joints. The exercises have been found especially helpful for those suffering from arthritis.

    As tai chi chuan classes spread across the country, some purists wonder if this ancient discipline will become so Americanized that its most profound mind/body benefits will be lost. Is its newfound popularity part of our wholesale co-opting of all things Asian, swept up on the same wave that brings sushi to our suburbs, feng shui to the White House, Buddhism to Hollywood? Is it still the real thing?

    David-Dorian Ross, the master featured on the PBS series T'ai Chi in Paradise, accepts the adaptation of tai chi chuan in the West as legitimate. "Over the course of a thousand years, tai chi has survived by evolving and by adapting to practitioners' needs," he notes. "It will spread and adapt further. It's up to teachers to take care that the instruction is good and useful and true."

    So maybe tai chi chuan will put you on the road to stress reduction, relaxation, even peace of mind. Maybe not. What's clear is this: Whatever road you find yourself on, tai chi chuan will help you negotiate it with a clear head and a strong step.

    Getting started

    While tai chi chuan classes are popping up in gyms, dance studios and spas across the country believe it or not, the Disney Institute in Orlando, Fla., teaches beginner tai chi chuan they are still not as easily found as yoga lessons.

     

    Finding a form

    Quickness and brute force aren't the primary goals of tai chi; the emphasis is on strength and balance, stemming from slow, methodical movements and rhythmical breathing. While tai chi chuan classes can help teach the basics behind proper form, advancement requires time and practice. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when performing tai chi chuan on your own:

  6. Posture: To keep the chi, or energy, flowing smoothly through the body, concentrate on posture and alignment. Knees should be slightly bent with the lower back held straight, abdominals tight, shoulders drawn downward, upper back lifted upward, and the head aligned with the spine and "floating" above, as if suspended by a string.
  7. Speed: Almost all of the movements in tai chi chuan are performed slowly and carefully. Slowing the motions down allows you to become more aware of your actions and gain control over the exercise; it also serves to calm you down and erase any tension in the muscles.
  8. Breathing: Many forms concentrate on deep breathing throughout the movements. When you inhale, the ribs should stretch and almost straighten the diaphragm; when exhaling, raise the diaphragm.
  9. Focus: Chase away any external worries and concentrate on the movements themselves. Your mind should be clear of distractions and filled with a clarity from the forms themselves.
  10. Balance: There is a constant balance at the core of most movements, both in a mental state of harmony and in physical coordination. Lower your center of gravity by relaxing and letting your body weight sink into both legs. This will also provide a base of power for many of your movements.