Old Energy for a New Age
LONDON — World Tai Chi and Qigong Day has recently come and gone, with thousands of participants in 34 countries giving free tai chi demonstrations and classes. Now in its seventh year, the event aims to send a “positive wave of energy” around the world and draw attention to the benefits of this ancient Chinese form of exercise which is steadily establishing itself in the West.
The early morning practice of tai chi, which can be seen in city parks throughout China, is now an increasingly common sight in Europe and America, too, where it is hailed as the new yoga. Its benefits have been validated by recent studies indicating that regular practice contributes to better balance, flexibility and mobility, can reduce cardiovascular stress, and can help with symptoms of arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Tai chi could well join a growing list of “alternative” therapies invoked by Western health authorities to counter the stress and strain of modern living.
Tai chi was originally developed as a discipline for Taoist monks and hermits who fled the restlessness of the cities to find quiet in remote and mountainous regions. Those places had their dangers, from poor climatic conditions to wild animals, bandits and other aggressors. How was the poor hermit to protect himself against all those threats? The answer, supposedly devised by a 12th-century monk of the Wu Tang monastery, Zhang Sanfeng, was a progressive series of exercises, based on Taoist observation of nature, which would become known later as tai chi chuan, meaning “supreme ultimate fist.”
The name reveals it to be a combative art, but much practice and guidance with a master are required to be able to draw on tai chi in a situation of real conflict. Many will not get past first principles, but as the first stage is to make yourself mentally and physically fit and healthy, that is already well worth attaining.
At first sight, its gentle circular movements reveal little of the martial aspect of tai chi. The slow, dance-like form, with a powerful hint of energy coming from an inner center, has something mysteriously attractive about it. As shown by Western TV and film cult figures like the Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi, or David Carradine’s Caine, the underlying philosophy is not one of aggression but of heart, mind and body operating together using a universal source of energy, known as ch’i.
From this surrounding field or source, energy is said to be “gathered” and stored in such a way as to let it flow through the body and create balance and harmony. If this sounds vague and undefinable, that is exactly what it may seem like to a Western mind. Nonetheless, 3,000 years’ tradition of using the same principles in traditional Chinese healing adds up to a lot of acquired and precise knowledge. For me, a crucial aspect of this ancient wisdom lies in its closely associated healing and martial skills, both requiring an intimate knowledge of the human body, its strengths and weaknesses.
The link between the health side and tai chi is played out in a series of related tuning-up exercises known as qigong (or ch’i kung) which are designed to clear the meridians, or energy channels, through the body. Organic health problems are seen as related to blockages in these channels, and it is important to keep energy flows clear, especially with advancing age. For this reason, and given the gentle and unpressured style of the movements, tai chi is often recommended for older people.
Perhaps the crowning achievement of tai chi, in the words of the writer Cheng Tin Hung, is that it can change one’s disposition: “After practising over a period of time, a hot-tempered man will change into a gentle man.” One of my tai chi teachers put it another way. “It brings out the beauty in a person,” he said. “With time, you see the change in someone’s face.”
Just as Communism drove Tibetan Buddhism to the West at a critical time in modern culture, numerous Taoist masters have turned westward and brought an extraordinary tradition of knowledge with them, including tai chi.
This is an art that needs no special place, fancy equipment or expensive outlay, and its regular practice can build up grace, beauty and strength in a remarkable way, whatever age one may be.
Maybe we should have World Tai Chi and Qigong Day every week.