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Meditation in Motion

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[Photo of Tai Chi]Tai chi chuan is not as rigorous as the exercise routines featured inmost fitness videos. But this ancient form of soft-style martial artsmay yield the same (if not more) health benefits.

If you happen to pass by one of the city’s big parks on a weekend, chances are you’ll see groups of old people doing deliberate and graceful steps together. Those movements, called tai chi chuan or tai chi, have been practiced in China for thousands of years. It is generally a type of exercise done in slow motion and derived, oddly enough, from self defense techniques.

The words “tai chi chuan” literally translates to “supreme ultimate boxing” or “boundless fist.” There are several accounts as to how it began, but many agree it was started by Chang San-Feng, a 12th century Taoist monk.

Monk’s secret

Legend says San-Feng one day heard noises coming from outside his house. He looked out the window and saw a snake hissing at a crane perched on a tree. The crane flew down and used its beak to injure the snake, but the reptile turned away and used his tail to whip the crane’s neck. The crane never landed a solid blow as the snake continued to twist and turn to evade the bird’s attack. Right that moment San-Feng learned the value of yielding in the face of strength.

He then created an initial set of exercises based on the movements of animals. Records say he observed other animals but the snake and the crane were the two that had the moves, so to speak, that can thwart bigger enemies. San-Feng combined these techniques with the breathing exercises taught by his Taoist teachers. This combination gave birth to tai chi chuan.

No one knows exactly why, but it was eventually passed on to the Chen family who lived in Henan province. The family kept it a secret for 14 generations, forbidding anyone of its members to teach tai chi to non-relatives or to anyone with a bad reputation.

The secret was discovered at the end of the 18th century when Yang Lu-Chan, a young man with a keen interest in self-defense, asked to be employed as the Chens’ servant. Yang spied on the family as they were practicing, and later copied the moves himself when he was alone. The old Master Chen happened to see the servant doing the movements and was so impressed by the young man’s exuberance that he accepted Yang as a student.

This mix of slow exercise and self defense has 13 basic movements, all of them credited to San-Feng. The movements can be found in all the five major styles or forms of tai chi: the Yang, Wu, Chen, Sun, and Wu (sometimes called Hao) styles. These styles were named after the families who practiced them.

Tai chi underwent many changes as variations were introduced from master to student through the years. Historians say that’s how the Wu and Sun styles were developed. Today, Yang is the most traditional and remains the most widely practiced style in mainland China.

Go with the Flow

Tai chi is classified as an internal Chinese martial art. As opposed to external martial arts (like Shaolin Kung Fu) that use brute force, tai chi relies more on the power of the mind, spirit, and qi (breathing). Practitioners need to relax their bodies to defend themselves from opponents’ attacks. And while the movements still remain loose or relaxed, tai chi has taken on a “softer” and less competitive form. More and more people today use it for physical exercise.

One needs to perform various postures or movements without pausing; each stance must flow smoothly to the next. When done with proper breathing, tai chi reduces stress. Devotees also use it to improve muscle strength and definition, increase flexibility, energy, stamina, agility, and to heighten a feeling of well-being.

Tai chi appeals more to older people as its low- impact movements put less stress or pressure on their muscles and joints. One needs to shift weight from one leg to the other, so health experts also speculate that it could help improve balance and reduce the chances of falling down, which is one of the most common causes of injuries among the old.

Health experts also say tai chi improves walking. Walking, to begin with, has been proven in medical studies as a great way to reduce the risk of heart diseases, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses. Tai chi actually doubles the health benefits of walking and, consequently, further lessens the chances of developing these diseases. According to one study, tai chi practitioners walked more steps than non-practitioners.

There are even claims that tai chi can also reduce anxiety and depression, improve sleep quality, slow down bone loss in women after menopause, relieve arthritis, help heal an injury, and improve metabolism.

Safety Reminders

Before taking tai chi classes, one has to consult a doctor first. The exercise is not for the pregnant, or those with hernia, joint problems, back spasms, fracture, or severe osteoporosis.

But if you are fit to do tai chi, it is still best to learn from a qualified instructor and not from a video. A good teacher, after all, can correct your posture or movement right away.

There are not enough in-depth research on how much tai chi exercise one should get, but some studies have shown that one can see and enjoy the benefits by practicing the fluid motions in as little as one hour per week. Beginners are urged to have two to three trainings per week as there are a lot of movements to learn. On the average, a year of regular practice is needed before one can be really good at it. Experts also warn practitioners not to overdo tai chi as this may lead to sprains or sore muscles.

Despite its worldwide popularity—tai chi is widely practiced especially in areas with a significantconcentration of Asians—there are some who are still unconvinced. For one thing, tai chi is classified in the US as a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). That means its teachings are based more on faith than on rock-hard scientific or medical evidence. Medical journals also suggest that CAM, as its name suggests, should only complement and not replace or even delay administration of conventional medical care.

print ed: 07/08

 

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