Every Monday evening at 7:15 p.m. in a Portland, OR, community center, instructor Mary Lang leads her students through the soothing movements of her ancient Eastern discipline while meditative music plays quietly in the background. They “gather energy” by breathing deeply, raising outstretched arms and pulling them back to their core, and practice a series of slow movements with colorful names like “White Crane Spreads Its Wings,” “Golden Rooster Stands on One Leg,” and “Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane.”
But wait – there are no yoga mats here. Class members don’t hold any poses, and their hands (and stomachs) never touch the ground. What kind of yoga is this?
It’s T’ai Chi Ch’uan (also known as taijijuan or simply tai chi)—a Chinese tradition that is gaining popularity everywhere from the United States to India, the birthplace of yoga. At least 2.3 million Americans, and many millions more worldwide, practice it regularly. These synchronized, low-impact movements reduce stress and help mental focus – and they burn more calories than surfing and nearly as many as skateboarding.
Many Health Benefits
Other health benefits have been documented as well. Doctors at the National Institutes of Health found that, in just 15 weeks, tai chi cut the rate of dangerous falls in the elderly by 50 percent, more than yoga did. The Mayo Clinic recommends it for increased muscle strength and definition, aerobic capacity and stamina, while Harvard Medical School suggests tai chi for the treatment of sleep problems, hypertension and low bone density, as well as in recovery from stroke, breast cancer, and Parkinson’s disease. A preliminary study suggests that it might help adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as well.
Part of the attraction is its simplicity. This exercise is inexpensive and requires no special outfit or equipment, just loose, comfortable clothing. You can practice by yourself or in a group, from memory or a video, inside or outdoors. Many prefer the social aspect of a shared routine; if you forget a movement, you can copy your neighbor.
Both yoga and tai chi rose out of ancient cultural traditions that are very different from modern American life, though practitioners of both often take them as simple physical and meditative routines, without looking into the underlying philosophies too deeply. Yoga rose out of India’s Vedic tradition, while tai chi sprang from the ancient Chinese mix of Taoism, Confucianism, and traditional Chinese medicine that gave birth to everything from acupuncture to kung fu movies
Martial Art Roots
In fact, tai chi was originally a martial art like kung fu or jiu jitsu. The name “t’ai chi ch’uan” literally means “supreme ultimate fist.” It has evolved into the slow, gentle movements seen in classes today, but the competitive aspect is still found, especially in China and Taiwan, where a two-person movement called “Pushing Hands” remains popular.
Popular movies such as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers incorporated elements of tai chi into their fight scenes, and in Star Trek, the Klingon fighting art of “moQbara'” is based almost entirely on it.
In everyday practice, though, tai chi is very gentle. There is less stretching than in yoga and joints are not fully extended, making it preferable for the elderly and for those with reduced mobility.
Yin Yang Movements
Students generally enact a “form,” which is a series of anywhere from 12 to 100 or more movements. Balance is a central concept underlying tai chi, so a movement performed on the right side of the body is then repeated, symmetrically, on the left. In fact, the familiar yin-yang symbol is called the tai chi tu (supreme ultimate diagram), and is the standard symbol of this discipline.
Instructor Mary Lang teaches the “Chen-style Old Frame form,” or “Lao Jia,” which has about 75 movements. “It took me about a year to learn it, four to five movements a class, and there are a lot of subtle improvements I am still making three years later – technical nuances to the movements and in my body posture that I learn as I keep practicing,” she says.
Like yoga, there are different types of tai chi. The oldest are the five traditional styles, named after the families that developed them in China: the Chen, Yang, Wu, Wu (Hao), and Sun styles. Chen-style is the oldest, dating to the early 1600s, while the others were developed in the 19th century. Today, Yang-style is the most popular, and many new forms are being created.
Descendants of the original families still teach as lineage Masters of their styles and guard the authenticity of their traditions. Chen-style t’ai chi ch’uan was not taught publicly until 1928 in Beijing. Legend has it that Yang Lu Chan, the creator of Yang-style tai chi, tried for years to study with the original Chen family in their village in China, was refused again and again, but learned enough while trying to fight his way into town to develop his own style. Tai chi came to the United States around 1939, and has spread rapidly since. The 2008 National Health Statistics Report reports that 2.5 million Americans practiced tai chi in 2007.
How to Practice Tai Chi
There are many books and videos on tai chi; this ten-minute video by M. Thomas is very practical while this longer one by Chris Pei explains more of the philosophical background. You may find it easier to have an instructor, at least when you begin. Ask your local martial arts studio, gym, or community center if they offer classes. Since there is no certification or standard training for instructors, Dr. Donald Davis (a professor of Asian Studies at Old Dominion University) recommends finding a teacher experienced in one of the five traditional styles. Within a few days, you too could be Parting the Wild Horses’ Mane!
Always consult with your healthcare professional before starting a new health or exercise regime.
Mark Saltveit lives in Portland, where he writes about sports, Taoism, and palindromes.