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Health and Fitness
What You Need To Know About Tai Chi
By Arthur Rosenfeld 
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Jan 6, 2008, 09:57

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Tai chi is the fastest growing exercise in America. More accessible than yoga because it doesn’t demand great flexibility, and easy for people of all ages to begin because there are not special fitness requirements, it is a gentle, beautiful exercise that improves strength, balance, hand-to-eye coordination, teaches you to relax more deeply than ever before, and gives you an unparalleled workout for butt and legs. There are many medical studies touting its good effects on the degenerative diseases of aging, including arthritis, diabetes, high-blood pressure, and asthma. Tai Chi has also been shown to strongly stimulate the immune system. It improves attention disorders in children, and helps the elderly guard against the kind of dangerous falls that can ultimately prove fatal. In addition to all this, tai chi is fun to practice, beautiful to watch, and is based on a philosophy that helps change the way you see the world for the better. Here are five things you need to know a
bout Tai Chi:

1. Tai Chi and other martial arts

Tai chi differs from all other forms of exercise because it sits atop the unique legs of a very special tripod. The first leg is China’s long history of folk martial arts, systems developed in the days before firearms and before the kind of reliable infrastructure that protected people and their property from bandits and other criminals. Chinese martial arts enjoy a great reputation for effectiveness, although these days we see and appreciate them mostly in the movies. Tai Chi is one of the most sophisticated and effective of all Chinese martial arts, although it does take a while to learn to use it for self-defense.

2. Tai Chi and Chinese medicine

The second leg of the tripod is Chinese medicine. Devotees of Chinese medicine claim it is cheaper and safer than Western medicine and just as effective. Chinese medicine is holistic, meaning it looks at the whole person rather isolating specific problems and trying to figure them out. Because of this “system-thinking” Chinese medicine is more likely to put together symptoms and observations rather than considering them separately. In the Chinese medical model, and in Tai Chi, the body is crisscrossed by energy pathways known as meridians. These meridians carry “qi” or life force, a vital elixir the body requires for health. Some scientists define qi as the bioelectric energy of life, the information contained in our DNA, and even as ultra-low frequency vibration. The object of Tai Chi practice is to open all the body’s meridians so that the extremities, skin, senses and organs receive maximum qi flow. In this way, Tai Chi assures optimum health.

3. Tai Chi and Asian philosophy

The third leg of the Tai Chi tripod is a philosophy called Daoism. Daoists were woolly mountain men in China, great lovers of nature and all things natural. Daoist philosophy persists in our culture in the form of such sayings as “May the force be with you,” and “Go with the flow.” To the Daoist, nature is constantly hinting at the best way to do things, and Daoists prize minimal effort for maximal results. Daoists cultivate sensitivity to the natural rhythms of the world around them, and Daoist practices like Tai Chi help you learn to sense natural phenomena like the cycles of the tides and the moon. Tai Chi also enhances your ability to detect mood shifts in others, and to notice your own natural rhythms, which in turn is useful in knowing what time of day, week or month is best to embark on which task or journey. Going with the flow of nature, a Tai Chi person pays close attention to the environment, and never uses force against force.

4. What you can expect from Tai Chi practice

Tai Chi practice is comprised of three parts. The first part is meditation, usually done standing up. The meditation is often guided by the teacher, who will ask you to imagine, for example, that your feet are growing roots like a tree, or that you can see that vital elixir, that qi, as it courses through your body. This kind of meditation helps you become more in touch with your body, and also teaches you to focus and to banish stray thoughts.

The second part of Tai Chi is the practice of so-called “forms.” Some people call these forms dance-like, or even trance-like because of the focus and quiet they require. In fact, forms are nothing more than a series of movements strung together like pearls on a string. The purpose of these movements is to provide you a kind of moving laboratory in which you can test your body’s ability to handle force from different directions. The form also helps you develop hand-eye coordination and most of all teaches you a particular kind of relaxation unique to Tai Chi. This kind of relaxation is best described as letting all tension leave your body and drop your center of gravity. Advanced Tai Chi devotees add a variety of swords and other weapons to their form practice, but this is only appropriate after years of study.

The last element of Tai Chi practice is a set of partner exercises called pushing or sensing hands. While the original purpose of these exercises was to prepare the practitioner for combat, today they are practiced cooperatively and are as important for the bonding they provide between Tai Chi classmates as for the sensitivity to motion and intention they cultivate.

5. Choosing a teacher

While authentic Tai Chi is an art form rather than merely a sport, teachers range from folks who were cab drivers in China and, seeing dollar signs, suddenly proclaim themselves Tai Chi experts, all the way to genuine masters. A good Tai Chi teacher should be obviously skillful, but humble and helpful and friendly as well. Any legitimate teacher should be eager to talk about his own teacher, and should allow you to watch the class for free. You can also learn a lot about an instructor’s qualifications, as well as the benefits of the class, by talking to students when the class is over.

Tai Chi classes can be found at YMCAs, recreational or community centers, and in martial arts schools. Typically classes cost between $10-20 per session, although private instruction from a renowned teacher may cost a great deal more.

In conclusion, if you want to learn more about Asian culture while also learning how to slow down and smell the roses, you will enjoy Tai Chi. If you suffer from any of the degenerative diseases of aging, or if you find high-intensity sports turn you off, Tai Chi may also be for you. The art is like an onion, yielding layer after layer of complexity, benefit and joy over the years.

Byilne: Arthur Rosenfeld is a Tai Chi master and the author of martial arts novel The Cutting Season. Learn more about Tai Chi at

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