Pearl of Chinese culture’, ‘fountain of youth’ and ‘longevity exercise’—these are some of the phrases that one comes across while reading about t'ai chi. Having been a recipient of the art’s many benefits, I can vouch for every word of praise it receives.
T'ai chi means many things to many people. Some people take it up for its curative and restorative qualities, while others embrace it as a combination of exercise and recreation. More intense practitioners look at t'ai chi as a martial art that is primarily used for self-defence. Whatever be your goal, there is no denying that t'ai chi gifts you incredible physical, emotional and spiritual benefits. The movements invigorate the body and mind by balancing the circulation of chi [energy]. Apart from massaging the internal organs, t'ai chi increases your speed, reflexes, power and endurance by making your central nervous system more efficient.
You might wonder if you have to be fit and athletic to practice this art. Well, you can practise t'ai chi if you are fat or thin, young or middle-aged or even if you’re very old.
Whatever be your goal, there is no denying that t'ai chi gifts you incredible physical, emotional and spiritual benefits
The art of being a student
Learning t'ai chi is a painstaking process. It’s a subtle art and, as is the case with anything subtle, it takes a little time before you can actually experience its magic. When one thinks of t'ai chi, the image that comes to mind is of people using their hands and body to make mysterious movements that look fluid and almost lyrical.But make no mistake—T'ai chi is anything but lyrical.
When the whole body moves together in the same direction, it looks very graceful and well-coordinated. However, the correct execution of the movements in t'ai chi calls for a distinct separation between the different body parts. For example, when you make an inward movement during the first half of the positive circle, you initiate the move with the elbow and not the hand. By the same token, when the hand goes out during the second half of the circle, your shoulder goes down rather than following the hand. T'ai chi is an act of engineering in disguise, where each body part moves in a different direction thereby giving your opponent a feeling that he is fighting several opponents.
Gaining expertise in form
Progressing in t'ai chi is often likened to constructing a house. First, you have to lay the solid foundation by learning the joint-loosening movements. Next, you can start building the structure by practising the positive and negative circles, which involve rotation rather than movement. Then, you can put the wall and the roof by learning the ‘form’ and its applications. If the basic rudiments are not learned properly, the art’s significant benefits will elude you, no matter how long you practise.
T'ai chi is an act of engineering in disguise, where each body part moves in a different direction
After the student has learned the circles, he is introduced to the ‘form’. To do an individual move repeatedly may be easy but performing an entire sequence in a seamless manner is a completely different ball game. An effective ‘form’ involves a good grasp of t'ai chi’s numerous principles. You need to know which principle to use when, and how to use it in a manner that it puts you in an advantageous position. T'ai chi is as much about mastering the mind as it is about disciplining the body. In order to imbibe the principles and refrain from an inappropriate action, one has to adopt the approach of ‘one principle at a time’.
Some misconceptions cleared
As t'ai chi is done slowly, it has led to widespread assumption that it is more suited to older people. The truth of the matter is that t'ai chi's range is infinite. You can go as fast or as slow as you want. However, it is usually done slowly as that allows you to effectively check on the principles of alignment, yin and yang separation and groundedness.
This is how I discovered t'ai chi
My interest in t'ai chi was aroused by a book I read 17 years ago. Although the book was about the Silk-Weaving Exercises that were aimed at strengthening the vital organs of the body, there was a passing mention of this internal martial art from China. I was heavily into Karate back then but something about these exercises stirred me. After I mastered these exercises, I was teaching them to a group of people. That’s when a leading newspaper decided to do a feature on it. After the article appeared, I was inundated with calls. When a significant number of people asked me if these exercises were a part of t'ai chi, my resolve to learn t'ai chi in its fullness got strengthened.
T'ai chi is as much about mastering the mind as it is about disciplining the body
The moment I finished my first session at Dr Bob Bacher’s Academy in Germany in 1997, I knew I had made irreversible ties with this art. Having practised Karate for 19 years and having attained the rank of fifth degree black belt in Okinawa, Japan, I could quickly sense that t'ai chi was a work of a very high order and that I would have to cultivate patience if I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the art’s unique principles. But I felt, it was made for me. The art has ruled my heart to the extent that a day is not a day unless I have put in at least a few hours of practice.
In the recent times, my experience has gone even deeper. I have had the rare opportunity to learn the art in its purest state under the strict supervision of Chen Zhonghua, the Standard-bearer of the Chen Style TaijiQuan Practical Method.
In this age of stress, where compassion and a sense of wonder are deserting people, t'ai chi is an ideal art to realise the greater human potential and restore a sense of meaning to your life.
How is T'ai Chi different from exercise?
When it comes to exercise, people tend to think of activities like gymming, running or walking. However, these activities are pretty simple in their approach. You do them without engaging your mind. In comparison, t'ai chi demands that you bring every faculty into play during every move that you make. That’s why it is often referred to as ‘meditation in motion’. The inability to concentrate on the present moment is often the reason why people struggle with t'ai chi.
Nothing captures the essence of t’ai chi more beautifully than this quote by the Chinese scholar Lao Tzu, “Softness overcomes hardness.” This cryptic sentence might intrigue you. Well, it means that although t’ai chi is a martial art, it doesn’t put premium on fighting with muscular strength. Instead it relies on achieving unity through separation that results in the body unleashing explosive power.
A version of this article was first published in the June 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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