If you’re looking for a low-impact, yet challenging, and health-boosting exercise, tai chi may be the “perfect” choice. According to a Harvard Health publication, tai chi can be a helpful component in fighting many health conditions, including arthritis, low bone density, breast cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s and sleep problems.
And unlike many conventional exercises, tai chi can be adapted and beneficial to nearly everyone — including people who are wheelchair-bound, recovering from injuries or seasoned triathletes. So what is tai chi? And what does it look like? The following, excerpted from Tai Chi: The Perfect Exercise by Arthur Rosenfeld, explains what it’s like to get inside a tai chi practice.
So What Does Tai Chi Look Like?
Tai chi practice typically consists of a series of movements brought together like pearls on a string. Some people call the movements “postures,” an unfortunate word because a posture is static and tai chi is dynamic; without movement, tai chi does not exist. Taken together, the movements of tai chi are referred to as a “form.” Some tai chi forms are performed slowly, others are quite quickly and vigorously. Performing tai chi feels simultaneously relaxing and powerful. It leaves the player with the sense that she is moving in accordance with human structure and the laws of gravity, leverage, and inertia. Whether done dreamily and slowly or quickly with martial intent, tai chi embodies strong grace.
Tai chi is as much a state of mind as it is a system of movement. Demanding presence and attention to every sensation and detail, tai chi flees the moment the mind wanders. The instant we think about the pizza we’re planning to have for lunch, worry about whether the babysitter is into the wet bar, glance at the sky to track an impending thunderstorm, feel a chill in our spine about an upcoming exam or performance review, tai chi in its pure sense goes out the window. Let the mind slip away to an interlude with a lover, pop off to a happy memory of a tropical vacation or the best margarita we’ve ever tasted, and because tai chi is all about the mind/body connection, it’s gone. Return to awareness of the present moment, feel our muscles, our connective tissue, our joints and our bones, and tai chi returns. Because it requires a completely inwardly directed consciousness, genuine tai chi is not a performance and should not be done with an audience in mind.
Geometricians and physicists know that the spiral is nature’s archetypal shape, being found in galaxies, tornadoes, seashells, the flow of liquid through pipes (or blood vessels) and water exiting a drain. In recognition of this natural design, tai chi movements—particularly Chen style, the founding family’s original art—characteristically describe spirals. Spiral movement is a sign of tai chi’s Taoist origins, and accounts for the fact that many people watching tai chi say that in addition to looking exotic and graceful, the practice also appears organic and natural.
Natural, however, does not mean easy. While tai chi is adaptable to fitness levels from wheelchair-bound patients to Olympic athletes and suitable from ages 12 to 112, the art challenges us at every level. Every student soon becomes aware that every movement has onion-like layers of depth and complexity. Watching tai chi in a local park, health club, senior center, or martial arts school, it will immediately become apparent—even within a single class—which players have been at it the longest. A seasoned tai chi practitioner usually exhibits smoother movements, seems more relaxed, may sink lower in his stances, and may perform strikes with percussive authority.
The original purpose of form practice was to test martial strength and alignment and to remain strong, rooted (more on this later), and relaxed in the kind of unpredictable situations a real-life battle might bring. In the battlefield of everyday life today, and with a focus on health and longevity, these beautiful movements function to enhance our balance, sensitivity, serenity, composure, and power. While the elderly and infirm player can find plenty of benefit in performing tai chi gently and in a high stance, the fittest, strongest, most flexible athlete can crouch on one leg or go into deep and challenging stances. Form practice coordinates upper and lower extremities at every athletic level, all the while strengthening the body right down to the marrow.
As the tai chi onion suggests, traditional tai chi training follows a set curriculum. Each grade, or level, requires you to be able to do certain things. At the beginning, the focus is on relaxing the upper body, shifting the weight properly, and learning arm circles and stances. As the student’s skill grows, the requirements become more demanding, traditional Chinese weapons such as straight and curved swords, spear, halberd, sticks, mace, and the long pole may be brought into play to build strength, increase mobility, sensitivity, and flexibility, and improve footwork and timing. Simplified tai chi will not include such tools, but if you find an advanced group at a park or martial arts school you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the art’s martial roots.
From the book Tai Chi: The Perfect Exercise by Arthur Rosenfeld. Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright (c) 2013. www.dacapopress.com
The photograph is by David Fryburg.