We've all seen pictures of wizened, elderly Chinese men and women in good health and spirits. As a race, the Chinese are especially known for their longevity and thus far, comparatively low incidence of lifestyle-related diseases such as coronary artery disease, cancer and diabetes, which is attributed to a healthy diet and sufficient exercise. Interestingly, for the Chinese, sufficient exercise does not always translate to prolonged stints of vigorous movement — aerobics, sports and the like.
ChiGong [or QiGong] and T'ai Chi [also pronounced T'ai Ji], for instance, are two Chinese forms of exercise that focus on the chi or qi, the vital life force or energy that flows within our body and throughout the Universe. The Chinese believe that ill health stems from a blockage or absence of the flow of chi [energy] throughout the body. ChiGong and T'ai Chi aim to relax the body and restore the free flow of energy restricted by stress-induced muscular tension.
A literal translation of "chi" is "breath" or "air" hence, as you would guess, both these modes of exercise include a set of breathing techniques to enhance energy levels in the body, much as Indian yoga focuses on pranayama, to increase the prana within.
Cultivate your breath
However, there are certain other aspects to both ChiGong and T'ai Chi that differentiate these from other kinds of exercise. ChiGong means cultivating [Gong] breath [Chi]. It relies on the belief that since breathing sustains life, correct or mindful breathing becomes a source of healing energies to promote health and enhance stamina.
As an art, ChiGong may be performed still - either sitting or lying or standing - or moving. It includes a wide range of postures and, meditation and breathing techniques, aimed to regulate the body, mind and breathing respectively. In fact, ChiGong is often thought of as soft or hard, where the former includes gentle exercises to develop spiritual and mental faculties, and boost physical health, while the latter comprises sets of exercises that form martial arts routines.
Integrate body and mind
The key to ChiGong is the integration of the mind and body. Every physical act - even breathing - should be done mindfully. As ChiGong improves self-control over the physical body, eventually, ChiGong practitioners are able to use their mind to channel their chi to heal their body, reduce stress and restore energy levels. Moving ChiGong also improves the body's range of motion and joint flexibility.
Balance your body
T'ai Chi is said to be an expanded standing-moving version of ChiGong. In Chinese, "Tai" means "supreme" or "big", and "Chi" [or Ji] denotes the "ultimate" or "system". Put together, these words stand for the supreme ultimate in Chinese cosmology. You may have heard of the yin and the yang, or the two halves of a unified whole. T'ai Chi stands for this unity, as well as the generation of energy from its ultimate universal source.
Like ChiGong, T'ai Chi was also primarily a martial art practiced by Buddhist and Taoist monks. Although it is a moving art, it is performed very slowly, incorporating breathing exercises. Since we largely identify exercise with vigorous movement, or a "no pain, no gain" mantra, T'ai Chi presents a refreshingly different concept.
T'ai Chi's gentle slow motion exercises are designed to help the practitioner determine if s/he harbours tension in any part of our body, and then slowly release that in order to restore a flow of energy, quite akin to performing an internal self scan of the body. T'ai Chi is also called an internal martial art, as it promotes inner strength.
Where does your centre of balance lie?
Of course, it also has its use to master external martial arts movements. It's just that these are rooted in understanding where the centre of balance of an opponent lies, while remaining relaxed and firmly in control of your own sense of equilibrium. Averting an opponents' move then becomes a play of shifting your centre of gravity, and then reacting, instead of immediately lunging out in self-defense and risking the chance of receiving a blow on your head [or elsewhere].
Balance is thus fundamental to T'ai Chi, and this is gained through its slow movements. Confused? Well, it may come as a surprise, but fast movement requires less focus on balance. Try walking in a straight line, left foot following your right foot, leaving no space between each step. You'll often find yourself using your arms as balancing agents. In comparison, you face no difficulty in walking normally in a straight line.
Basically, fast movements help work through unstable transitions, when shifting from one pose to another, whereas the same movement performed in slow motion will require your body to balance itself in every intermediate position. T'ai Chi thus helps increase awareness of how your body balances itself while moving. As practitioners are encouraged to focus on their breathing too, T'ai Chi plays a dual role of toning as well as relaxing the muscles and mind.
Don't try it in a jiffy
The trick is to have all the time in the world to perform T'ai Chi's slow movements. It is also advised to wear comfortable clothes and shoes that offer good support. T'ai Chi is known to improve balance, flexibility and strength, and develop lung function and immune system. It is becoming increasingly popular among the elderly, as it can even be done by those suffering from diseases such as arthritis, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis, to enhance balance, reduce the risk of falls, maintain bone density and improve postural alignment.
It is recommended to learn ChiGong or T'ai Chi under supervision, so that no wrong moves are made. As it's all a question of the right energy flows, making unsupervised moves may be a prelude to an unbalanced approach to the practice of either of these ancient arts — something you'd certainly want to avert!
Chi Gong breathing techniques
- Chi Gong breathing techniques encourage deep abdominal breathing as opposed to our natural shallow breathing in the chest, in order to enhance lung capacity, improve circulation, massage internal organs situated around the abdomen and thus boost digestion and appetite.
- Concentration may be coupled with breathing, by focusing the mind on a point one inch below the navel, or on the act of breathing itself. The aim is to breathe without over concentrating, thus allowing the cerebral cortex to enter a quiescent state.
- Complementary breathing requires you to expand your abdomen outwards as you inhale and contract it as you exhale.
- Reversed breathing is the opposite of complementary breathing. Inhale and contract your abdomen, exhale and expand your abdomen. You'll find yourself consciously working your abdominal muscles as you breathe.
- Stopped breathing entails that you pause for a few seconds after inhaling or exhaling, in order to focus your mind on your breathing process.
Spot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!