TAI chi is a unique Chinese cultural symbol, often portrayed on-screen as a supreme form of self-defense. In real life, however, it is a traditional form of physical exercise, which is becoming increasingly popular, and practiced by people all over the world. But why do so many people enjoy it? How can someone learn it well?
Tai chi dates back to the Tang Dynasty over 1,000 years ago, and consists of five traditional schools: Chen, Yang, Wu (Hao), Wu, and Sun styles, of which the Chen family-style is the oldest and original form. Tai chi is a form of aerobics that is good for joints and bones, improves circulation, strengthens the body, and increases life-span when practiced frequently.
The secret to 59-year-old American James Healy’s youthful complexion and good health is that he practices tai chi year round. With over 33 years of experience doing tai chi, he is the sole foreign student at the Zhenglei Tai Chi Academy in Beijing.
“After practicing tai chi, I feel like my reactions are noticeably faster,” said James Healy. Regular training helps awaken the body’s “brain,” allowing every part of the body to be aware of one’s surroundings, so that the body becomes aware of dangers before the mind has even noticed them. Plus, just before a danger presents itself, those who have undergone tai chi training are able to react much quicker.
Tai chi is also often likened to a medicine that can cure all kinds of diseases. 53-year-old painter Xu Ningning used to suffer from insomnia, and always felt like she had no strength. As such, she lost a lot of confidence as well as much of her interest in life. However, since she started practicing tai chi over a year ago, she feels an inner change, “My body feels strong, my sleep has gotten better and my self-confidence has improved. Every time before practicing tai chi I first exercise my joints, so now my knees no longer hurt.”
Xu is by no means an isolated case. 62-year-old Mo Yuchuan used to suffer from a frozen shoulder, but the symptom disappeared since he took up tai chi. As a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, his workload is extremely intense. He explained, “After working 10-plus hours a day I feel absolutely worn-out. So now if I’m tired, I’ll stand up and go through a few movements; then after moving around for 10 minutes or so, I feel I have much more energy.” One advantage of tai chi is that it doesn’t require any special location: an office, corridor, or bedroom are all suitable places.
Zhang Jinxi, the main instructor at the Zhenglei Tai Chi Academy, explained that tai chi helps with the curing of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, heart failure, and osteoarthritis, and also promotes an increased metabolism, increases joint flexibility, prevents aging, and helps with weight loss. “Breathing in tai chi is done from deep in the abdomen, the chi sinks down to the lower belly, and has a positive massaging effect on the internal organs which helps maintain health. Also, tai chi requires us to relax our whole bodies, helping lower resistance in the veins, and increasing our blood circulation, which in turn eases the burden on our hearts.”
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Alongside convenience, the fast pace of modern life also brings with it a huge amount of pressure; with anxiety having already become a common complaint of city dwellers nowadays. Perhaps that is the reason why a growing number of people practice tai chi. Healy said, “All the concepts and philosophies contained in tai chi such as courtesy, modesty, and Daoist nature allow me to consciously maintain harmony and balance with the outside world, which benefits my whole life.”
Twenty-nine-year-old Wei Wei constantly felt on edge due to the challenge of getting a promotion or salary raise. However, after practicing tai chi, his anxiety slowly receded, and those moments of stillness have allowed him to get a sense about how he should behave and handle matters. Young Peruvian scholar, Maria Osterloh, was eager to try tai chi ever since she first encountered Chinese cultural history, “But I always thought it was for old people. It was only when I came here last year on an educational exchange that I realized young people can do tai chi as well.”
That’s right, this ancient Chinese practice not only attracts young Chinese people, it has also already spread to over 150 countries around the world, with more than 300 million taking part. Since returning to Peru, Maria continued practicing tai chi and is now somewhat of an expert, with every gesture and motion grounded in stillness, combining both strength and gentleness. Those around her have even expressed an interest in learning tai chi, having caught the bug of this slow exercise. For them, it’s really fashionable.
In fact, tai chi is not simply a martial art; it is also a way of thinking, filled with Eastern wisdom.
Alibaba founder Jack Ma has distilled the essential wisdom of tai chi and applied it to the running of his company, often practicing it in his own office. Sometimes during meetings with staff, he’ll suddenly jump up mid-sentence and go through a few movements to help him think or get some inspiration.
Jack Ma particularly appreciates three concepts inherent in tai chi: ding, sui, and she. For him, ding (composure) refers to the positioning and arrangement of business strategy, i.e. seeing oneself and the future clearly no matter what happens, and facing everything with a cool head; Sui (following), means making the best of the situation as it develops, i.e. only when you have strength is it possible to understand how to rely on and follow others; She (releasing) is an even higher state, which means learning how to let things go, i.e. only by allowing others to see you clearly and understanding what you do not want, can you be sure what it is you actually want. Only by knowing what you want, can you understand what you should let go of. Jack Ma has guided Alibaba using the tai chi concepts of truth-falsehood, movement-stillness, opening-closing, and advancing-retreating.
In addition, one important principle when practicing tai chi is to have a stable foundation. Stability relies upon shifting footwork, the quality of which determines the level of work one is capable of achieving. In Jack Ma’s opinion, the same is true in business. Only when development is stable can one start to consider how to develop faster and better.
How-to Practice Tai Chi
Tai chi is completely different from most common forms of exercise. So, how can someone become good at it?
Renowned master Zhang Jinxi explained that in order to do tai chi well, the following are necessary. First, engage the lower back, using the spine to slowly drive the arms and legs. Second, you must relax, sink down, and be loose yet firm, steady yet not stagnant. Third, each movement should join together smoothly like flowing water. Fourth, your feet and back should exert strength, and your punches must have a penetrating power.
Studying tai chi requires diligence, as professor Mo Yuchuan explained: “To study tai chi you must be interested and observe carefully. As well as being conscientious, you also need to use your brain and learn how to draw inferences from one instance.”
As a foreigner, James Healy has his own set of experiences when it comes to learning tai chi. In his opinion it is important to understand how to balance all four limbs, correctly use one’s strength, and be sufficiently relaxed. Plus, when imitating your teacher it’s vital that you avoid moving like a robot.
Learning tai chi is not difficult, but learning it well is another matter. This is something James Healy has particularly strong feelings about: “Tai chi requires perseverance and willpower. During your studies you’ll experience setbacks, but just like climbing a mountain, as long as you press on you’ll be able to reach new heights.”