The rise of tai chi in America.
In an era in which Americans are primarily concerned with losing weight and gaining muscle mass, it is no wonder that the slow-moving martial art of tai chi has been a bit of a hard sell.
Tai chi won’t fold under your bed for easy storage, nor will it claim to reduce inches off your waistline in “just 3 minutes a day.” The reality is, however, that those who practice tai chi are likely to get stronger, have less anxiety, move more organically and gracefully, improve their balance and enjoy more flexibility.
A 10-year research trial through Harvard, Emory and Yale universities compared tai chi with computerized balance training. The trial, which appeared in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (1996; 44 , 489–97), found that tai chi practitioners had overall better balance and reduced their risk of falling by 47.5%. A study published in the Hawaii Medical Journal (1992; 51 ) cited increased breathing capacity and decreased back and neck pain resulting from the gentle practice of tai chi. And a study that appeared last year in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (2003; 35, 1972-6) found improved vagal function—associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease—in tai chi practitioners.
Despite the research, though, tai chi is a tough concept for Americans, who tend to chase after magic-pill, quick-fix choices and associate “fitness” with frantic efforts at exertion.
I journeyed into tai chi as a 30-something former aerobic champion, a worn-out, traveled-out fitness pro ready to explore something different, mysterious and compelling. To be honest, anything that didn’t involve spandex looked appealing at that point.
I’ll never forget how it felt to slow down—to actually feel the movements and postures of tai chi, to realize that my body was laying down a new blueprint of movement, getting stronger as my muscles learned to balance from one position to the next. I then understood that most of my “athleticism” had been of a frenetic, fast-twitch sort. Sure, it looked great, but it lacked balance and was often really painful at the end of the day. After studying tai chi for a few years, I concluded that fitness in America was missing what I now call “micro-connections.”
Americans are notoriously results oriented, not journey oriented, and in our haste to get results, the journey between point A and point B is often lost. Tai chi is all about the journey, the middle ground, the constant movement of life flowing from one situation to the next. It is the micro-connections that smooth out all movement, allowing the breath and “chi” (or energy) to move through the body like water flowing naturally around a rock. Deflective, powerful and centering, tai chi hones our awareness of these micro-connections and is often referred to as “a moving meditation.”
Well-studied martial artists know tai chi as both the grandfather and grandmother of martial arts. But although tai chi is a full-on martial art, complete with self- defense applications, almost anyone can practice it, regardless of age, weight or fitness level. Through teaching tai chi programs over the years, I have learned a few valuable tidbits about mainstreaming this ancient martial art.
Keep It Simple at First. Don’t focus too early on the “order of the moves.” Chi kung exercises (ancient healing exercises closely associated with tai chi practice) are actually more applicable to mainstream fitness than tai chi performed in its traditional order. The therapeutic movements of chi kung, which anyone can do, can be taught and implemented immediately, whereas the entire Yang, Chen or Sun style of tai chi can take 6 months to 2 years for some people to learn. Unless a student is seeking that kind of journey, it may be too daunting for them. I teach a combination of chi kung, traditional tai chi postures and what I call tai chi—inspired movement.
Allow Students to Find Their Way. When I teach beginners, I start with bigger movements, because there is a learning curve before a person can make the movements smaller and more efficient. Essentially, students must discover their own “path of least resistance” and be encouraged to breathe and move. Just working on a few therapeutic exercises can be really life-altering for many people. They should not be worrying about “getting it right” or having their minds cluttered with an order that is insignificant to them.
Be Imaginative With Your Cuing. Imaginative cuing is very helpful. For example, my latest cue is “Aliens have landed.” It is amazing how many people refuse to bend their knees and relax their shoulders in the traditional Horse Stance. So I have students act as if they are aliens who have just been plopped down into this strange new world of Earth and are experiencing gravity, flow and breathing for the first time. Not only is this a fun visual, but it takes the edge off what many people perceive as a dauntingly serious martial art.
Whether your discipline of choice is yoga, Pilates, kickboxing or something else, understanding and employing the principles of tai chi can increase your proficiency. A whole new world of physicality opens up once instructors and students understand the flow of energy. A fast roundhouse kick has more proficiency and stability when taught in a slow tai chi style, and a yoga tree pose gradually loses its wobbly entrance when centered chi principles are employed.
Tai chi is vast and exciting and definitely has a burgeoning following in America, but since it is not perceived as “hard,” the fitness masses tend to look elsewhere for their workouts. People ask me, “Will America ever really embrace tai chi?” “Can it afford not to?” is often my answer. But pushing tai chi on anyone would be out of keeping with the fundamental principles of the discipline. So I defer to one of my favorite tai chi teachings, which states: “When spring comes, the grass grows by itself.” So, too, will tai chi blossom in America, when it is time.