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T'ai Chi - The Gentle Martial Art

by Margaret Cullison

"The day you start practicing t'ai chi is the day you will begin to grow younger," say those who practice this most gentle of martial arts.  Why then don't we all rush to realize this promise?  We may have watched ethnic-Chinese people who gather every morning in city parks throughout the United States as they perform the slow and rhythmic movements.  We have probably noticed that, although some of these people may look elderly, they do not move like old people.  Only a relative few of us have been inspired to learn their secrets.
      But, in the past twenty-five years, some Westerners have begun to practice this amazing martial art.  Now early morning sessions include some Western faces,  *Western bodies executing the gentle movements called postures that are named for animals:  charming names like 'snake creeps low', 'white crane spreads its wings', 'repulse the monkey', or 'high pat on horse'.  They have learned that chi means vital force or energy.  They know that chi moves through the meridians of their bodies in much the same way blood circulates through their veins.  Those who practice tai chi regularly can feel the flow of chi within themselves.  Some are even sensitive to other people's chi as they stand next to them at practice or in line at the grocery store.
     Yet t'ai chi and its benefits still lack appeal to the majority of Westerners who argue that slow exercise can't possibly do them any good. They lead fast-paced lives and think that exercise should be equally vigorous, sweaty, and exhausting.  Because of this mind set, the most difficult challenge to most people who try t'ai chi for the first time is simply to slow down.  Many people give up after just a few lessons because they are unable to reduce the speed of their minds and bodies.  Recent research supports this basic t'ai chi principle, confirming that muscles develop more fully when people lift weights slowly.  The body slows down so that the muscles, ligaments, and joints learn new ways to work together to produce greater strength and more supple action.  Thus the older person gradually regains the lithe step of her youth, and the longer she practices the stronger she becomes.
     T'ai chi chu'an is an exercise for health and self-defense dating from the
13th Century.  It is the oldest Chinese martial art, developed for Taoist monks whose lives were spent in sedentary meditation.  The Chinese saw life as a balance of polar opposites and strove to achieve unity within this dual nature of reality.  Execution of the stylized postures is a continuous shift between yin and yang, with all movement beginning and ending in silent stillness or standing meditation.  The soft yin yields to the hard yang but then waits, poised to ward off the next advance of yang.  The soft and resilient overcomes the hard and rigid.  Repetition of this interplay of yin and yang eventually allows the body to integrate these two opposing forces, resulting in an internal harmony of chi.  When chi is balanced, the body, mind, and spirit are healthy.  If this concept seems hard to grasp, imagine how difficult it was for beginning t'ai chi students in the old days.  For centuries the exercise was passed on by secret oral tradition.  Students silently followed the master as he practiced the postures.  This could go on for years until a select few were deemed worthy of learning the principles of t'ai chi.  "The truth is never taught in class," was the prevailing edict.  Senior students learned the secrets from the master only if they showed promise of becoming masters themselves.  Patience, perseverance, and character were built by this discipline.
        Today, reverence for the master still exists, but students are given more
explanation of what they are doing as they learn the fundamentals of the practice.  They are told that t'ai chi develops inner strength, so that they will have the confidence to handle confrontations without resorting to violence.  They learn to be aware of their breath and to focus their eyes at a point in the near distance as they move through the postures.  Action originates in the large internal muscles and flows outward to the smaller muscles of the hands and feet.  At the same time, the movements massage the internal organs.  Gradually fluidity, grace, and strength develop, and they begin to notice subtle but positive changes in their physical, mental, and spiritual being.
        In China,  heart patients are given t'ai chi exercises while still in the hospital to help them recover.  Healthy people practice the art to maintain and improve their health.  Those interested in self-defense practice dual exercises in which they learn to accurately anticipate and respond to their opponents' moves.  When the chi flows freely, so the bodily fluids circulate more efficiently and the central nervous system works more effectively.  An upright posture is cultivated in the practice because imbalance in motion causes physical and emotional stress.  A body at ease is better aligned to the force of gravity, and this encourages alertness and the ability to respond quickly.  The practice promotes relaxation, encouraging just enough strength to move without straining.  As a result, the body conserves energy and gains stamina rather than wasting it in overexertion. 
       This self-regulation of all of the physical systems relieves anxiety and
pain and improves concentration and memory, potential issues of concern to
all of us as we age.  After they start practicing t'ai chi, people say that they don't get sick as often and, when they do, they recover more quickly. Those who participate in other sports such as skiing, cycling, or hiking find that the t'ai chi experience enhances their balance, coordination, timing, perception, and endurance.
       Possibly the most valuable benefit of t'ai chi is the awakening of spirit. Awareness cultivated by the practice allows the student to recognize the difference between real and imagined danger.  Power developed by the practice gives the student confidence that she can recognize and overcome the real physical or mental challenges that confront her.  Internal harmony allows the student to realize a sense of unity between self and the life around her.  She learns to calm her fears about death and to live in greater peace with her fellow travelers on this earth.  Finally, an ageless joy of life prevails.



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