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Tai Chi Chuan

IF you ask a Chinese friend, especially an elderly one, to recommend a popular form of exercise, the answer will almost always be taiji quan — also known as Tai Chi Chuan, or simply tai chi, in English — a martial art which combines slow, deliberate movements, meditation and deep breathing. Today, there is growing evidence from around the world indicating that this mind-body practice has value in treating or preventing many health problems, as well as in delaying aging and prolonging life.

According to legend, tai chi was formulated by Zhang Sanfeng, a 12th century Taoist monk and martial artist. It’s said that one night, Zhang had a dream about a crane and a snake engaged in a battle. Against the bird’s fierce onslaught, the snake, alert and agile, made smooth and graceful movements to fend off the attack and eventually won the protracted battle.

This dream allegedly inspired the Taoist monk to create a noncompetitive, slow and internal style of martial art, which has been practiced in China for centuries and still remains a daily routine for millions of people.

However, historical records strongly suggest that Tai Chi Chuan was founded by Chen Wangting (1600-1680), a martial arts master from the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). When Chen was young, he served as an armed escort for merchant caravans and soon won a reputation for his exceptional fighting skills and bravery.

Chen also collected and studied literature on various types of martial arts that had been practiced in different regions of the country. After the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, Chen retired to his home village in central China’s Henan Province and concentrated on teaching young students. It was during this time that he formulated a new type of martial arts and named it Tai Chi Chuan.

Tai Chi Chuan can be translated literally as “Supreme Ultimate Boxing.” The first part of the name taiji, or tai chi, is a fundamental concept in traditional Chinese philosophies, including Taoism and Confucianism.

In Chinese philosophy, tai chi is the ultimate source and motive force behind all reality. It also generates the two primary aspects of the cosmos according to traditional Chinese thinking, namely, yin and yang, which need to be kept in harmony. And tai chi is intended to promote the balance of yin and yang in the human body.

Curative properties

The roots of Tai Chi Chuan are also closely intertwined with traditional Chinese medicine.

For instance, TCM holds that qi, or life energy, must be able to move freely throughout the body in order to maintain good health and keep the balance of mind and spirit. Practicing Tai Chi Chuan is believed to be one of the best means to unblock the flow of qi.

Many benefits of this exercise have been found for people of all ages, but particularly for the elderly.

“A growing body of carefully conducted research is building a compelling case for tai chi as an adjunct to standard medical treatment for the prevention and rehabilitation of many conditions commonly associated with age,” said Peter M. Wayne, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Tai Chi and Mind-Body Research Program at Harvard Medical School’s Osher Research Center.

“While practicing, tai chi moves qi and blood and the sinews in the body — purportedly correcting health imbalances,” added Wayne.

Studies around the world suggest that Tai Chi Chuan has a number of specific health benefits, such as alleviating stress, anxiety and depression; improving mood; enhancing aerobic capacity; increasing energy and stamina; and raising one’s flexibility, balance and agility.

Other evidence indicates that the exercise may help enhance sleep quality, beef up the immune system, lower blood pressure, ease joint pain, improve overall well-being and reduce risk of falls among the elderly.

In 2010, doctors reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that tai chi is also a useful treatment for fibromyalgia, a nerve disorder characterized by widespread muscle pain and fatigue.

And some reports claim that one hour of tai chi exercise can burn more calories than surfing and nearly as many as downhill skiing, calling it definitely a veritable workout.

The Chen style of tai chi later branched into several other schools, such as the Yang, Wu and Sun. All of them are a safe form of exercise for people of all ages. As a daily practice, tai chi requires no special equipment or clothing.

“It’s not a high-cardio workout, it’s all about deepening the relaxation in the movement,” said Catherine Kerr, a former assistant professor of medicine at Brown University in the United States, who practiced tai chi for many years.

“In aerobic exercise we’re taught to tense the muscles and push hard. tai chi is the opposite approach; it’s about the flow of the whole body in the movement,” Kerr added.

To unite human beings with the natural world, tai chi imitates motions found in nature, such as the movements of animals. Such meditative motions have poetic names like “white crane spreading its wings,” “waving hands like clouds,” “dragons stirring up the wind” and “swallow skimming the pond.”

Thanks to its roots in ancient Chinese philosophy as well as its beautiful choreography and health benefits, in recent decades Tai Chi Chuan has been attracting more and more followers not only in China, but many other parts of the world as well.

According to some conservative estimate, more than 300 million people are practicing tai chi around the world today.

Regarding it as a calling card of the country’s traditional culture, the Chinese government included Tai Chi Chuan on the country’s first state list of intangible cultural heritage in 2006.


 

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