What will it take to bring tai chi and qigong to the forefront in fitness?
Over 35 years ago fitness industry visionary Ruth Stricker discovered tai chi, and it changed everything. “Tai chi is my favorite subject,” she laughs. “I’ve been to China 14 times—I kept going back because I just love the philosophy. It was the philosophy of tai chi that inspired The Marsh.”
Stricker is the founder of the groundbreaking wellness center The Marsh™, A Center for Balance and Fitness, in Minnetonka, Minnesota, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. The Marsh has participated in a variety of noteworthy tai chi research studies, and offers a wide range of tai chi and tai chi–inspired classes for a variety of populations.
“Tai chi is a metaphor for balance, and I called The Marsh ‘a center for balance’ because that’s what I was looking for in my life, and I think other people are too. Tai chi’s philosophy of balancing yin and yang is a metaphor for balancing our lives so we can both take care of ourselves and reach out to give to others. I describe it as finding balance between the hyperactive, overstimulated, go-go-go energy that is so common, and the other side of the spectrum, also so common, where we get stuck, withdrawn and depressed. With everything that’s happening in the world today, I think people are more hungry than ever for balance in their lives.”
While today’s fitness market may be ready to embrace tai chi, actual tai chi participation has been slow to build. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA 2011) lists the total number of tai chi participants in the United States as 3,180,000 in 2010, down from both 2008 and 2009, and well below the 2010 yoga figure of 21,886,000. By comparison, yoga participation rose 8.8% last year, increasing across all levels of participation.
“I think tai chi and qigong are still very underrepresented in fitness,” says David-Dorian Ross, American tai chi champion who has earned seven U.S. gold medals, two World bronze medals and a World silver medal, the highest awards ever given to a non-Asian for tai chi. Ross recently founded www.taichiconnect.com, a “Facebook for tai chi.”
“When I do presentations for tai chi teachers,” says Ross, “the vast majority seem to be teaching or training in community centers, hospitals or tai chi locations, rather than in fitness clubs, which is unfortunate because I see a huge opportunity for tai chi and qigong in the fitness industry.”
Ross suggests that yoga and Pilates are good examples of what the future could hold for tai chi and qigong. “Yoga and Pilates didn’t really take off until they became successful in the fitness industry, but it took decades. If you think about where Pilates and yoga were some years ago—that’s where tai chi is now. The buzz in the tai chi world right now is, ‘How do we get more people involved?’ I think it’s inevitable that tai chi will make the leap into the fitness industry. Think of the yoga and Pilates instructors and companies who were ahead of the trend. Visionary instructors who create the right tai chi programs could have huge success with it.”
While tai chi and qigong share essential similarities—both are Chinese forms of movement and meditation that focus on the circulation of qi, or energy—there are differences. Qigong, dating back to the 8th century BC, consists of precise but less complex movements practiced for the purposes of health. Tai chi, developed in the 14th century AD as a martial art, typically involves more complicated movements and lengthier sequences. In the fitness industry, “tai chi” classes sometimes teach a blend of the two disciplines.
Scott Cole, who created the mainstream Discover Tai Chi (DVD) series and has been providing tai chi training for instructors and consumers since 1996, says, “Consumers are absolutely looking for tai chi and qigong classes right now. My Palm Springs [California] classes are packed. You need to get on a sign-up sheet. That wasn’t happening 5 years ago. The fitness industry is missing the boat. Physicians now recommend tai chi, and the older market is often looking for tai chi, so instructors need to consider how they can offer the benefits of tai chi to members. Tai chi offers something different from yoga or Pilates—it’s a continuum of movement, and people feel the results right away. For fitness clubs, tai chi could open the door to a lot of new clients.”
“The reason tai chi hasn’t always worked in health clubs is that it’s often taught in a way that requires a giant learning curve, and that turns off a lot of health club members,” says Cole. “I think what works with most people in a fitness setting is to take tai chi principles like balance, strength, mobility, flexibility and breath work and create tai chi–inspired classes. I have been teaching the Yang-style long form of tai chi for a long time, but that doesn’t work for everyone. Most of my tai chi classes that work well in fitness clubs are fusion classes that integrate tai chi with kickboxing and yoga, for example, or include tai chi principles in warm-ups and cool-downs.”
Adds Cole, “I encourage fitness teachers to study tai chi and learn as much as they can, then blend the principles with other modalities and give it their own signature. Consider the market. If you have an older clientele, you can adapt the class for them. If the club caters to a younger crowd, you need to find ways to make tai chi hip and cool.”
Ross agrees that flexibility, creativity and adaptation are keys to designing successful tai chi and qigong classes for the fitness market. “Right now there are these ideas that tai chi is too hard, too boring, too slow, too this, too that—but it’s up to us to prove how much fun tai chi can be by giving people more approachable classes,” says Ross. “That doesn’t mean just a mash-up class that throws everything together, because classes like that usually fail. It has to be a class that includes essential characteristics of tai chi, such as breath work, alignment and imagery. If the class mixes slow and fast movements, such as waving hands with punching and kicks, it can challenge people physically and create a dynamic style. Zumba® is a great example of a program where the primary attraction is the fun factor.”
Instructors do need to learn and understand the principles of tai chi in order to integrate them into programming. “You can’t water it down so much that [participants] don’t get the benefits,” says Ross. “At the same time, you don’t have to be a tai chi master to put tai chi moves into your workouts. I’ve had this fortune from a fortune cookie in my wallet for years. It says, ‘Every master began as an apprentice.’ There’s really just one basic rule of teaching tai chi: Be authentic. Don’t be afraid to say, ‘I’m just getting started.’”
At The Marsh, tai chi classes include chairs for students who want or need to modify the movements. The center offers outdoor tai chi classes, a 4-week series of tai chi for arthritis, and a yoga and tai chi fusion class called “Body Recall.” Says the club’s studio director Liz Anema, “Short series are good so people don’t feel overwhelmed or intimidated by a room of people who already know all the moves. And we always encourage people to do what feels right for them.”
Offering qigong or blending qigong exercises with tai chi is one way to overcome the learning curve, since qigong movements can be less difficult and easier to memorize than tai chi.
Stricker is adamant that tai chi at The Marsh be taught in a way that’s uplifting and practical for students. “I had a teacher who said that tai chi should look as if you’re making it up as you go along. I’m not a fan of strict, precise tai chi done with knit eyebrows. There was a time when we tried that here, but it didn’t do well. You can’t be [too] precise, or you start with 50 people and end up with six. Besides, perfectionism is really anti–tai chi. It’s not about the form you do, but how you do it, and how it applies to your life.”
The idea of adaptation and creativity in tai chi is not new. Los Angeles–based tai chi instructor Michael D. Chavez, senior student of tai chi master Wen Mei Yu, who authored Chi Kung: Taoist Secrets of Fitness and Longevity (Unique Publications 1998), explains that tai chi has been passed down through generations for thousands of years. “In its history, tai chi was viewed as a poor man’s art form, a tool to help you express yourself as you might with painting or music. If you practice Wild Goose Qigong, in a way you are painting a picture again and again of a wild goose flying or swimming. Every time you practice, you refine it, and the traditional philosophy is that you also refine the essence of who you are.”
Like Stricker, Chavez explains that tai chi and qigong are not meant to be rigid practices. “The idea is to make it your own, not to emulate your teacher’s moves in a cookie-cutter way. Tai chi and qigong adjust to the ability, size and character of the individual. Basically, tai chi is a breathing exercise with gentle movements that develops the health, character and specialness of the individual. Any way you do it is a good thing, as long as you do it.”
A good sign for the future of tai chi and qigong may be the resurgence of group fitness classes. SGMA reports that class-based fitness like Zumba continue to drive participation in group programs, and Generation Y is showing a higher propensity to go with group-oriented programs. “One of the reasons we offer tai chi at City Health Club is to offer programs that people can’t get everywhere, with a lot of variety and opportunity for people to exercise together and get to know each other,” says Franklin Henry Jr., director of City Health Club in Ithaca, New York. “We have always believed in the group fitness experience. When you join a club, people should know your name and you should feel like you’re part of a club.”
Maurice Haltom, MSW, tai chi instructor at City Health Club, believes that benefits to psychological health may play another key role in the future of tai chi and qigong. “There’s a whole new emerging area in psychology called mind-body awareness. I think it will lead to new opportunities to look at how tai chi can help resolve core psychological issues and that tai chi could see a resurgence in the therapeutic arena.”
Larry Cammarata, PhD, licensed psychologist, wellness educator and tai chi and qigong instructor, is optimistic about the future. Cammarata notes that he has seen an increase in interest in tai chi and qigong classes over the last year.
“I think we’re going to continue to see growth in the fields of tai chi and qigong, primarily because of the population aging and more research showing health benefits. I believe there is a great need for people to balance pumping iron and heavy-duty aerobics with the slow, meditative movements of tai chi and qigong, particularly if the teacher can reinforce the value and healing potential of meditative movements, relaxed breathing and grounded postures. Ideally, instructors need to understand not just the movements, but also the tai chi and qigong philosophy and their origins in traditional Chinese medicine. This is where tai chi and qigong can really become very powerful.”
The most important factor in the success of a tai chi class may well be the ability of the instructor to convey the tai chi experience to students. Los Angeles–based tai chi instructor Michael D. Chavez believes there is a particular need for more female tai chi teachers. “More women teaching tai chi could bring in more women as students and might help present the more nurturing aspects of tai chi.”
At City Health Club in Ithaca, New York, tai chi has been offered for most of the last two decades. The club’s director, Franklin Henry Jr., attributes the program’s success to one thing: the skills of longtime tai chi instructor Maurice Haltom, MSW.
Haltom is a licensed psychotherapist who works at Cornell University and has taught tai chi and qigong for 35 years. “Learning the whole tai chi form is a laborious process. It takes 6 months to a year of concentrated practice, and people don’t have the same time today as they did in the 1970s, when I first started teaching. People often don’t have time for at-home practice, so progress is slower. I think there has also been a shift in people’s capacity to focus for long periods of time. So now I offer small segments of the form that I call ‘vignettes’ and teach them over time. If students stay with it, they continue to learn, but if not, they still have a package of exercises they can do alone and not feel defeated by the memory process required.”