Written by DARLEEN PRINCIPE
W ater. Softness. Gentleness.
It’s no coincidence that these same terms come into play when practicing tai chi, the slow and graceful Chinese martial art whose original philosophies and techniques can be traced back to ancient Taoist monks.
It’s true that tai chi has come a long way since then. Today it is widely regarded in the U.S. as a “moving meditation,” similar to yoga and associated more with exercise and wellness than philosophy, self-defense and martial arts.
But the basic principles of the old teachings remain the same.
Like water, qi—the spirit or vital energy present in people and all living things, according to traditional Chinese culture—must flow freely in order to be strong. And the practice of tai chi, which promotes balance between mind and body (and between the opposite forces of yin and yang) allows for that free flow of energy.
Kurtis Fujita, teacher and owner at Tiger Crane Kung Fu in Simi Valley, puts it in less esoteric terms: If qi is like a person’s battery, then tai chi is like charging that battery.
“When you really try to pinpoint it, you’re bringing up your vitality,” he says. “That encompasses everything—self-awareness, breathing, physical ability—how vital you are. People who practice tai chi are vital well into old age.”
Going with the flow
Characterized by slow, deliberate movements, tai chi employs stable stances and focused, meditative breathing. Unlike most forms of exercise or sport, it is less about pushing physical limits and more about moving within the natural range of motion. In other words, if you can only move your foot or stretch out your arm so far while still keeping balance, then that’s as far as you need to go, and everything else will fall into place naturally.
All tai chi movements are gentle and yielding instead of being aggressive; they teach one how to “go with the flow,” says Fujita, who’s been practicing Chinese martial arts for about 20 years.
The slow and soft movements make tai chi a safe and particularly ideal exercise for those with health conditions that affect the joints, such as arthritis.
In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing, 21 people diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis—an autoimmune disorder that results in chronic joint inflammation—practiced tai chi for one hour twice a week for 12 weeks. At the end of the 12 weeks, all participants reported significant improvements in balance and grip strength.
They also reported far less joint pain and fewer swollen joints and were better able to manage their pain.
Tai chi has also proven to be beneficial for those suffering from a host of other ailments. According to an article in the August 2014 Clinical Rehabilitation journal, tai chi improved balance and decreased the risk of falling in patients with Parkinson’s disease.
In November 2014, UCLA researchers published a study that found tai chi reduced inflammation in breast cancer survivors, thereby reducing the risk of recurrence.
High blood pressure, hypertension, chronic dizziness, heart disease and stroke—when it comes to the healing power of tai chi, the list goes on. But the practice is not only beneficial to the sick or elderly.
“Regardless of age, there’s an increase of balance—emotionally and physically—that you get from tai chi,” says Fujita. “There’s awareness, self-defense, self-control and coordination. . . . All those things are going to improve anybody at any age’s standard of living.”
Kimiko Kuwamoto, who’s been teaching tai chi throughout the Conejo Valley for 14 years, says that since taking up the practice she’s been less stressed and more at peace in her daily life.
“I just fell in love with tai chi—the beauty of its motion,” she says. “It’s exercise, but it’s not exercise. Once you get to know the form, you relax and you can just be in a peaceful state.”
Kuwamoto says that while the majority of her students are elderly, they often tell her they wish they had started while they were young.
Many young people find basic tai chi to be too slow, she says, but they may not realize there are other, more dynamic forms of the art.
Besides the most commonly taught Yang-style tai chi, there’s are also the fan form and sword form, which look more like dance than meditation.
Regardless of the style—the major ones include Yang, Chen, Wu, Hao and Sun—both Kuwamoto and Fujita say that tai chi is much more than just an exercise, and true to its philosophy of balance, whatever a practitioner puts into it, they get back equally in benefits.
“If you put in a day’s work, you will get the benefits of a day’s work,” Fujita says. “It’s completely up to you and how much you want from it.”
T’ai chi ch’uan, more commonly known in the U.S. by the shortened name tai chi, is an ancient Chinese martial art that some believe was developed as early as the 12th century.
Translated literally, tai means “great” or “large,” and chi—not to be confused with the qi that refers to one’s life force or energy in traditional Chinese culture—means “biggest” or “most ultimate.” Combined with chuan, which means “fist” or “boxing,” widely accepted translations of the martial art’s name include “supreme ultimate boxing” or “grand ultimate fist.”
Like many elements of ancient cultures, the origin of tai chi is particularly difficult to trace. Oral histories passed down through generations credited Taoist monks in the 12th century with formulating the basic philosophies and techniques of the practice.
Yet according to Peter M. Wayne, a longtime teacher of tai chi and a researcher at Harvard Medical School, the earliest references to the martial art did not appear in the documented historical record until the 1700s. Throughout the 1800s, it was taught to the Chinese military as a fighting art. During the 1900s tai chi evolved into a national exercise, sport and even a performing art.
Only in the past 50 years has tai chi made its way into the West. Today, while the practice it is still characterized by slow, graceful movements, tai chi in the U.S. is more associated with wellness and exercise than self-defense.