Trying tai chi

It’s an ancient Chinese art you can do anywhere, and it has health benefits. How could I resist?

Trying tai chi

Source: Best Health Magazine, September 2009

My introduction to tai chi

Not long ago, I was walking through our local park when I noticed a group of elderly people engaged in a seemingly random, slow-motion ballet. Like puppets moving at half speed, their arms were rising and falling, their knees gently bending, their feet pirouetting in unison on the grass.

It looked mystifying but also intriguing. What were they accomplishing by practising this exercise called tai chi chuan?

Since I’m always on the lookout for alternatives to the treadmill at my gym, I decided to try out this ancient Chinese martial art that has apparently been practised for 900 years.

History of tai chi

Legend has it that tai chi was invented by Zhang San Feng, a Chinese monk, at a monastery. He had been watching a snake and a crane engage in combat. The snake slowly and sinuously retreated into the hollow of
a tree as the crane advanced, and then the crane took subtle evasive measures as the snake lunged. This back-and-forth dance where the strength of the other was used against it was reminiscent of yin and yang, in which opposite forces are interdependent, like light and dark, and black and white’and, evidently, water fowl and reptiles. It led the monk to develop the exercise.

Tai chi chuan translates as ‘supreme ultimate boxing,’ but it is known as a ‘soft’ martial art, less concerned with combat than with fluidity and energy balance, as generated through a continuous series of linked movements.

Health benefits of practicing tai chi

Thus it was that on a glorious morning about two weeks after encountering the park group, I found myself barefoot in a sunlit gym in the company of four middle-aged tai chi chuan enthusiasts and their 76-year-old teacher, Paul Kwan.

You wouldn’t guess in a million years that Kwan is a septuagenarian, he’s so springy and lithe and bright-eyed. He must be doing something right. In fact, studies suggest that tai chi chuan is beneficial to immune capa­city, cardio-respiratory function, flexibility and balance control, although the precise mechanisms delivering the benefit are unclear. A 2001 article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that the ‘slow, deep diaphragmatic breathing’ used in tai chi boosts the circulation of oxygen in the blood. Another study, in the June 2009 issue of Arthritis Care & Research, indicates that this kind of exercise helps with pain reduction but, again, the reasons aren’t clear.

The traditional perspective

Kwan, who learned the art from a grandmaster of the Wu style in the early 1970s after immigrating to Toronto from Hong Kong, explained to me the benefits from a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, which views wellness as connected to an even flow of energy through our bodies. ‘Tai chi chuan promotes dynamic balance. It is a moving meditation as well as a sophisticated martial art.’

Okay, well, the first thing I wondered is how on earth is this a martial art when it’s so flowy and snail-paced?

Smiling amiably, Kwan explained that if you learn to channel your energy, or ‘chi,’ which is believed to exist throughout your body and also around your exterior’somewhat like a force field’you can empower yourself and undermine your opponent. Kwan has trained several karate black belts who went on to be champions in Hong Kong by blending tai chi energy principles with their karate skill.

But all those applications of tai chi come later, after years of practice. ‘First,’ Kwan told me, ‘you learn the movements, then you learn the proper breathing, and then, finally, the art of using your inner vision.’

Got that, grasshopper?

The concept of inner vision is difficult to translate into Western terms, but has to do with entering a state of deep concentration and calm, as one does during meditation. ‘You need to become void so that healing energy can flow through you,’ Kwan said.

Learning the movements

But first, of course, you need to start with the movements themselves. Music played quietly in the room, which was fragrant with the smell of freshly picked lilies of the valley. Kwan took his quartet of ladies, plus me, through a brief warm-up to loosen our muscles, and then led us through a choreographed series of gentle and balletic poses with one sliding into the next, without pause. (Different styles of tai chi involve their own fixed number of movements. Kwan teaches a sequence of 108, each with a wonderfully obscure name, like ‘grasp bird’s tail,’ ‘carry tiger to mountain’ and ‘repulse monkey’).

A light sheen of sweat developed on my brow. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but it was fairly simple to follow along by keeping my eyes glued to Kwan’s body. As he lunged and twirled and twisted and moved his outstretched hands through the air as if stirring water, I did the same.

After we’d gone through our paces for 10 to 12 minutes, we took a break before repeating them. One of the ladies’a slender sociologist from Hong Kong’explained to me that the movements are deceptively simple: ‘Anyone can move their arms and legs; that’s easy. But, you’re moving them with your inner vision. It took me years to get that right.’

Finding the chi

I nodded, but really didn’t know what she meant. I did find that going through the sequence was centring and calming, which I assume is what Kwan alluded to as the meditative element. But, clearly, as a novice slicing the air and turning about, I was not yet allowing my inner vision to direct what my body was doing, and apparently that isn’t something you can grasp until it happens to you.

‘Chi is not just energy,’ Kwan said. ‘There are levels of energy and chi is the highest form, the healing energy. It is thought to be centred in the abdomen, just below our navels. This is what we must draw from and disperse throughout ourselves, through every cell and each capillary, in the practice of these movements.’

The mind-body connection

The key is constant practice, and also the right instructor. The ladies I joined were adamant on this point. You can’t just learn to do it with a fitness instructor who is teaching it like aerobics, these women feel. Study with someone who is truly knowledgeable and you will become, in a sense, your own healer.

One of the women there, big-boned and beautiful, was sporting a cast on her wrist. ‘I was in an accident two weeks ago,’ she said excitedly, ‘and Paul came to the hospital to work with me for a few hours. I had no pain! I didn’t need painkillers at all!’ Could it be similar to the placebo effect? I have no idea how that mind-body connection works, and science has been unable, head-scratchingly, to rule it in, or out. It’s a mystery that has been given the thumbs-up by intelligent and analytical folk for 900 years. That’s worth repulsing some monkeys, in my view. I certainly enjoyed it’and it’s hard to knock an exercise you can do in your bare feet, on the grass, without gasping for breath. Sign me up for more.

This article was originally titled "Trying tai chi chuan," in the September 2009 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.