Picture the scene: it’s early in the morning and mist is slowly rising from the grass. The park is quiet, peaceful and empty. In the distance a lone figure is moving slowly and silently his smooth, circular motions interweaving intricately. As if from nowhere, he releases a lightning fast punch only to return to his undulating slowness. Now sinking low into his unwavering stance he pauses like a coiled snake. Composed, he jumps and turns all in a split second and lands to emit a flurry of strikes. Tranquil again, he returns to his slow, fluid motions just as the sun breaks over the horizon.
Our friend in the park is of course practising Tai Chi and these days most people have heard of this mysterious ‘internal’ martial art. Aside from images of elderly Chinese people slowly waving their arms around in the park at dawn the general consensus on Tai Chi seems to be that it is primarily ‘good for relaxation and balance’. These assumptions are true of course as Tai Chi teaches you how to use your body and mind with relaxed efficiency. However, it also offers so much more. This ancient and intelligent art develops mental and physical athleticism in equal measures by working with rather than against our natural capacities using body and mind as an integrated whole. Though learning Tai Chi requires some dedication; it’s a long term project, the benefits are enormous: robust health, well-being and fitness. It can be a lifelong art because as time goes by, whether it’s weeks, years or decades, you can keep improving. In this initial post then I’m going to talk about the benefits Tai Chi can offer and how it differs from our normal concept of exercise.
The origins of Tai Chi go back thousands of years to ancient China. Legend has it that it was developed by a monk, already an esteemed martial arts expert, who had become disillusioned with his torture-like training. Secreted high up in a mountain cave he spent many years in solitude contemplating how to train both body and mind harmoniously. During his meditations he found himself increasingly drawn to the movements of the animals that shared his mountain abode. Monkeys, snakes, birds of prey and tigers were amongst his favourite neighbours and he marvelled not only at their relaxed strength and freedom of movement but also their incredible awareness and presence. He observed that his animal friends had a relaxed and natural way of moving that engaged the body as an integrated whole making them incredibly strong for their size. Furthermore, their acute senses, perception and inherent ability to live in the moment put even his well trained skills to shame. ‘All this and without training…’ he mused and he may well have stroked his long beard at this point remembering the years of extreme physical and mental rigour he had put himself through. Bingo! It suddenly dawned on him. Humans too had this natural ability but somehow seemed to have lost it along the way. He marvelled at how amazing it would be if he could unlearn all the nonsense he had learned and re-discover this natural whole-body movement and power. He dedicated the rest of his life to developing Tai Chi, blending relaxed, natural movement and mindfulness practise with sophisticated and effortless self-defence techniques into a seamless homogenous whole.
It’s a great legend and though no one is really sure of the exact origins of Tai Chi it gives you an idea of where it’s coming from. The first documentation of Tai Chi proper can be traced back to the 16th century in Chen village, Henan province. This ‘Chen style’ of Tai Chi retains all of the original flavour and depth of how Tai Chi has been practised for hundreds if not thousands of years. Long term exponents exhibit robust strength, relaxed power, agility and health well into old age. Unfortunately most Tai Chi you see today has been simplified over the last 60 or so years to make it easy for the masses to learn.
Tai Chi stands out as being different from standard western exercise in two main ways. Firstly, it emphasises training the integration of the whole body and mind and secondly, it uses slow, natural, relaxed movement and awareness to do so. It can certainly seem a bit strange to begin with and people often wonder how such slow movements can develop health, fitness and relaxation simultaneously. However, if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. The unnecessary tension we carry in our bodies is very taxing, a bit like driving a car with the brakes on all the time. Eventually habitual tension leads to the misalignment of the joints, pelvis and spine impeding the vital functions of the viscera.
As you practise Tai Chi it gives you time to feel and observe how you actually use and experience your body. This gradually enables you to relax and move with ease and structural integrity rather than just mindlessly forcing the body to ‘do exercise’.
The inherent slowness of Tai Chi challenges the entire body structure to work together in order to support itself comfortably in gravity. Over time this develops natural strength, balance and flexibility. This kind of training targets the deep stabiliser/postural muscles that form the very core of the body and not only the superficial mobiliser muscles associated with looking ‘fit’ as in the case with most ‘normal’ exercise. This kind of slow training is deceptive however as it may look easy from the outside but instead provides a challenging workout that trains the whole muscular/skeletal/neurological system in a functional and perceptive way. Similarly, the moment-to-moment awareness necessary to practise even the most basic movements well engages and trains the mind in a fashion akin to mindfulness meditation so much in favour with neuroscientists today for its benefits to mental health.
In China Tai Chi is hugely popular and successful. With around 200 million people engaging in the art daily, a common saying is when you practise Tai Chi it is like saving money in a high interest bank account. For as the Tai Chi adept ages, his health and abilities only improve. His mind and body become more relaxed, robust and efficient. It is thus a wonderful investment. A good example of this is renowned Chen Style Tai Chi Master Chen Xiao Wang who is 65 years old. Being born into the Chen family meant that he started learning Tai Chi when he was eight. When he practices his Tai Chi form it exhibits grace, strength and composure in equal measure yet in application he is as strong as a bull and can throw buff young men around with effortless abandon. It is very inspiring to witness.
Probably the best thing about Tai Chi is that all age groups and abilities can take part. It can be tailored for wheelchair users or even those who are bedbound. It is extremely cost effective. No special clothing or equipment are required, just an understanding of the basic moves and time to practise. For as they say: ‘even the longest journey begins with a single step’…
Sam Moor teaches Chen Tai Chi full time in Chichester, Brighton and all over the south of England. Check out his website: www.sussextaichi.co.uk