Tai Chi: Mining A Rich Tradition

From the space he calls his office in Boston’s Fenway — a grassy circle under a maple tree’s canopy, where he practices tai chi — Al Clay recounts a saying of his tai chi master, John Chung Li. “Tai chi like gold mine. How rich you become, how deep you dig.” Then pointing to the tip of the little finger, he continues, “You take only this much?” In baseball cap, khaki shorts, and sneakers, Clay, a 28-year practitioner of various forms of this Chinese martial art and private teacher of the Hwa Yu style, looks decidedly Western. 

The Eastern accent is adopted in affectionate imitation. But the practice and principles of this time-honored tradition are being absorbed by Clay and other Americans ever more seriously and in growing numbers.

Watching the fluid spiraling and circling motion as Clay demonstrates his tai chi form, you get the impression of stability in the midst of constant change. Tai chi involves a dance-like sequence of postures and continuously connecting movements — called a “form” — that vary with each of the five major tai chi styles and their multiple branches. A short form — 16 moves, for instance — may take four minutes to perform, unless you choose to linger five minutes on each posture; a long one, say 107 moves, can take upwards of half an hour, even at a relatively fast clip. You find that time doesn’t work in a particularly Western, linear way in tai chi. Specific moves have names as lyrical as White Crane Spreads Its Wings or Carry the Tiger Back to the Mountain. The major styles are usually considered to be Yang, Chen, Wu, Hao and Sun, all sharing essential principles but each with distinctive features in its form.

The earth under the tree still bears an imprint from Clay’s early a.m. practice of Taoist standing meditation, clearing the mind’s traffic well before the workday’s clatter begins. Meditation is considered either integral or an adjunct to this movement practice, depending on which style you choose. Tai chi is both a spiritual and a martial arts system of long standing which emerged when marital practices that originated in a 17th century village known as Chen, were fused with the ancient Taoist principles of energy cultivation called chi gung. Currently, some 300 million people worldwide — only about a third of them in China itself — use the slow-moving, meditative exercise for relaxation and health.

The days when tai chi martial artists made up the Emperor’s bodyguard are distant. The “enemy” that now requires dispelling is the daily onslaught of mental and emotional stress in a time of technological hyperchange. Classified as one of China’s three internal martial arts, along with ba gua and hsing-i, tai chi focuses on relaxing the body, developing and circulating energy, and strengthening the mind more than on the body strength and speed of more familiar external martial arts such as kung fu. Even Clay’s short demo has created a momentary time out from the city’s rush-hour pace and a chance to return energized, as from a vacation.

There is no doubt that tai chi has come of age in a new age and world stage. A quick hit on a Web search engine turns up 647,000 sites dedicated to the subject. In the decades since 1981, when China officially opened to the West, tai chi masters have gravitated to hubs in Boston and San Francisco, Chicago and New York. Over the past five years, local instructors have seen a great surge in tai chi’s popularity, with burgeoning public awareness of “energy arts” that not long ago were considered esoteric. Tai chi’s popularity is reflected even in the workplace, such as Lotus Development Corp. in Cambridge, MA, where tai chi in the software developer’s hallways has at times been as common a practice as the traditional coffee break. In addition, tai chi has even made it’s way onto the big screen in popular movies such as “Notting Hill,” where a tai chi group makes up part of an idyllic backdrop in a London park.

What You See, What You Get

The serene image of tai chi practitioners communing with the world of nature in a spiritually-centered state is sometimes a source of parody. Teenagers, usually attracted to the more flamboyant kicks and punches of external martial arts, are particularly good at making fun of the nearly motionless, sage appearance of the tai chi practitioners you so often see in parks. The modern outdoor practice harks back to the ancient Taoists’ model, in which natural settings were the original laboratory for bringing what they called “the energy of heaven down to earth” — a concept that would attract some and seem utterly implausible to others these days.

Like any stereotype, the image has some roots in reality. The real work of this internal art is (as the characterization implies) not visible from the outside. Practicing a tai chi form requires intense inner focus trying to keep the mind from moving ahead of the body or the body ahead of the mind at any moment. The effort demands constant, minute adjustments to both posture and presence of mind, a centering of awareness that can have some interesting effects. Clay is bemused to tell of two wayward ducks who once dropped down from flight to take a short nap within the circle where he was practicing. If you think of tai chi as a kind of moving meditation, the feeling of stillness that can spill into the surroundings begins to make sense.

Increased interest in researching the health effects of tai chi have produced an amazing array of encouraging results. Studies have examined the influence of regular tai chi practice on blood pressure (reduced more than through moderate aerobic activity); falls among the elderly (reduced by 70 percent over age 70 because of improved balance); arthritis (increased range of motion and decreased levels of pain relative to a control group); and a litany of other complaints. In the 4,000-year-old practice of traditional Chinese medicine, the long list of health hazards you see in modern life — heart problems, poor circulation, asthma, backache, neck and joint dysfunction, repetitive strain injuries, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, anxiety and depression, etc., — would all be considered mere symptoms of a deeper source. Blockages to the smooth flow of qi [pronounced “chee”], the life energy or force that everyone has, are at the true heart of the matter. Qi is said to run through pathways (such as the acupuncture meridians) that can’t be seen or X-rayed unless you are seeing and sensing with more than the physical or mechanical eye.

Qi, it should be noted, is not the same as the “chi” in tai chi, which is actually a transliteration of taijiquan or t’ai chi ch’uan, translated as “supreme ultimate fist” or “boxing” or “fighting art.” The confusion is noteworthy. Pinning down even the name is not straightforward. Talking about the art without sounding cerebral is even more slippery. Ask too precise a question in a tai chi class and you’ll most likely be told to “Experiment a bit. See what it feels like.”

What research has just begun to validate, tai chi practitioners have known all along: doing tai chi feels good. It gets the qi going. When you finish a class or solo form feeling better than when you started, it’s palpable proof that something is working.

Says Robert Goodman, owner and sifu (respected teacher) at Tai Chi Arts Association in Shrewsbury, MA, “You’re talking to a man who used to take twelve aspirins a day for arthritis. No more.” He goes on to note that “Everyone feels better but no one is quite sure why. That’s a compliment to tai chi.” He tells of doctors scratching their heads and asking, “What are you doing differently?”

“I sometimes get tired of talking but I never get tired of doing the postures,” says Trudy E. At 81 years old and practicing tai chi for 16 years, she maintains a full schedule teaching Yang style at Lexington Sacred Heart Church, Country Club Heights retirement facility in Woburn, and privately in Belmont, not to mention giving piano and French lessons elsewhere. She tells her students she’s 39 and, more to the point, can bend, move, and recover from falls with a flexibility and speed that startle people who expect her to act her age. Except for the white hair, she doesn’t look it. Talking to her, you’re struck as much by agility of mind.

“Growth, that’s the real focus,” she says, “not to beat up the guy across the street. I never think of aging, I just keep going. What else can you do?”

Peg, a 62-year-old studying Wu style for only a year and a half, calls it “Amazing stuff. I feel like I’m getting younger instead of older.” The visible change in her posture and release from sciatic pain have convinced her husband to come and explore tai chi as well.

“Mainly, I find myself wanting to come back,” says Akira, after two and a half years. “It’s subtle.”

The stories testify that tai chi can live up to its reputation as a highly evolved health maintenance system. Yet such benefits are more a byproduct of the tai chi experience than the gravitational pull that holds long-time practitioners to it. No one is out to quantify.

“Quality of life, harmony of life,” is what Aihan Kuhn talks about getting back. Kuhn is director of Tai Chi Healing Center at Chinese Medicine for Health in Holliston, MA and a 24-year practitioner of chi gung and tai chi (Chen and Yang styles plus tai chi sword). “We don’t try to convince anyone. It’s not a cult. We’re educators. We accept old, young, male, female, sick, healthy, anyone who would like to correct the body landscape and get their energy straight.”

A doctor in both Western and Eastern medicines, Kuhn is Massachusetts organizer of World Tai Chi Day events every April. Every other year she leads a tai chi group to China “so we can see from our eyes” and has recently started up classes for children, aiming to get under the radar before drugs, alcohol, and other socially-induced programming takes hold. “Tai chi is about your mind,” she says.

These thoughts are echoed by Bill Ryan, head of Brookline Tai Chi in Boston, MA. “I never say tai chi heals,” he says, though students regularly report the loosening up of long-time ailments. “This is an area of exploration. It’s very individual. Here’s the theory of what tai chi does. See what it does for you.”

Practice Makes Perfect

Actually, the art of tai chi seems to revolve around not being perfect, at least in the Western sense of striving for control.

Traditionally tai chi development has been viewed in terms of decades. Grandmasters still pass down lineages, the inherited teachings that characterize a style. The depth of tradition is so respected that no one you talk to will admit to mastery. In all humility, every teacher also considers him or herself a student and most teach while studying with someone at the same time. Lineage is still very much of a living concept in this tradition.

Tai Chi Arts Association’s Goodman, practicing 19 years, says of his own master Bow Sim Mark (third in line in the lineage of the Fu style), “Every time I master something she has taught me, she opens another door and puts me in the beginning.” Aihan Kuhn will talk only of depth of daily practice, not chronological years in classes. At the 22-year mark working with the family of energy arts, Brookline Tai Chi’s Ryan calls himself an advanced beginner. Bruce Kumar Frantzis — founder of the Brookline school, the first Westerner certified to teach the full Chinese national government-sponsored system of tai chi, and the only Westerner officially designated a lineage holder (from Wu Jien Chuan, founder of Wu style) — is after 40-odd years referred to in China as “young master.”

The bar for “serious” practice among long-time practitioners seems to be set somewhere around three to four hours a day. Even Clay says, “I’m not that serious.” In the old days, a student might spend ten hours for days on end just focusing on the opening move or any one posture. In modern China, the majority now turn to tai chi in their fifties, looking simply to restore quality of life.

You’d think the extent of what there is to learn could get discouraging but the opposite actually holds true. If plumbing the depths takes a lifetime, there’s no hurry or stress to get anything “right.” The sense of infinite possibilities, the opportunity to get better and better, is part of what is so freeing about tai chi. Only consumer cultures look for instant gratification rather than satisfaction from sustained effort. Ask a random sampling of tai chi students what holds them to the practice and you’ll hear variants of the “better and better” refrain. “Peeling back layers and layers of myself,” one eight-year teacher calls it.

This is not to say that the practice isn’t user-friendly for beginners. Tai chi is a fun, sociable activity that gets you inside yourself and starts changing your awareness, coordination, and balance pretty much from day one. Some schools recommend a mere 20 minutes of solo practice daily to keep healthy and just to wash away the accumulated clutter of the day. Instructors generally agree that with a regular half hour and beyond, tai chi can slowly seep into and transform the nature of your consciousness, releasing the “stuck stuff” of a lifetime.

There’s no substitute for practice, of course, and “no magic” to learning, says Trudy, who tells people to repeat and repeat and repeat until the form becomes automatic. “One of the things I always say is you’ll get to know your body — where your weight is, if your hip is out, if one shoulder is higher than another — and to control these very precious parts, and that in itself will be a blessing.” It astonishes her that “people don’t know anything about the vehicle they own. Some of us take better care of our cars than we do of our bodies. I don’t know anyone who has got another vehicle like this in the garage.”

Shifting Paradigms

Getting buff is not the tai chi body model. Tai chi’s fitness aim is a baby’s flexibility and energy rather than an Olympian’s muscular form. Process not product. The body functioning as an integrated unit rather than just reduced to its component parts.

Westerners, whether athletes, business execs, or the person on the street, are geared to push ‘til we drop. You’ll recognize the do-or-die messaging in advertising jingles. “Go for the gold.” “We try harder.” “You only go around once so grab for all the gusto you can get.” The opposite concept could be called following the path of least resistance, or energy conservation. The minute you’re trying too hard, you’re not doing tai chi, which abides by a 70 percent training rule: figure out what your maximum range of motion or effort is and do less. The principle — together with its corollary of letting go not only tension but also striving for strength — is a forgiving one, and is part of what makes tai chi so laid back and energizing. “Winning without fighting,” as Aihan Kuhn describes it.

“People have trouble realizing they can be relaxed and still get things done,” Ryan says. Struggle and strength as attractive ways to achieve goals are programmed into the Western mindset. “Screwball tai chi” is one of Brookline Tai Chi’s antidotes. After an hour intent on doing the form, tuning to details, smoothing the flow, students do a final run-through with a fraction — say 30 percent, or 20, or 10 — of the intention, precision, and effort. Letting down looks funny but works fine. You get a glimmer of what body intelligence means when you find you can keep your balance without stressing about it.

Paradoxical as it may sound, the extreme slowing down is what eventually creates the capacity for skillful speeding up, much as reviewing a slow-motion sequence helps athletes improve future performance. If you’re thinking tai chi is just about peace, it’s easy to forget its power as a martial art. The “supreme ultimate” is actually one of China’s most seriously regarded ones, with every move of a form designed to defeat an opponent in mortal combat. There’s a different perspective on power at work here.

“Stillness, slowness, and softness are the foundations of motion, speed, and strength,” as Goodman explains it. And it works. The tai chi fist preparing to throw a punch is called “iron wrapped in cotton.” Ask Al Clay to demonstrate and he’ll point out some untoward flabbiness in the appearance of his arm at rest a second before you notice the ripple pulsing in his forearm and feel jolted by the force of the wave of energy coming at you.

In the underlying yin-yang tenets of Taoist philosophy, seeing the harmony of apparent opposites is central. It makes sense that tai chi is complementary rather than contradictory to athleticism and other fields of intense endeavor. You’ll find winning professionals — not surprisingly, Chinese national sports teams but also, for example, former Olympic wrestling gold medallist Dave Schultz — who have incorporated tai chi into their basic rhythm as a “train sensibly” principle that reduces physical injuries and increases mental edge. According to Goodman, “A lot of people who are excelling at what they’re doing are probably quietly practicing tai chi.” Getting Started Since tai chi is for opening up body, mind, and spirit, teaching environments tend toward accessibility. No gizmos or accessories are required beyond a pair of Chinese slippers or socks if you don’t like barefoot. There are no body type preferences nor ties to any religious beliefs. Even the underlying Taoist concepts of tai chi don’t take up a significant chunk of class time. Though some students work with Taoist meditation, others practice TM, Buddhist, or raja yoga meditation without apparent conflict or simply appreciate the feeling of stillness that a form meditatively generates. The one commonality teachers notice in the profile of typical tai chi students is open-mindedness, whether they’re interested in things that aren’t mainstream or just sensitive to flow and movement. Some, they say, come simply to see what it’s all about and others can’t get enough.

The pros and cons of tai chi’s many styles and forms resist blanket statements. Teachers of one form are respectful of others. Many teach several different styles or combined forms. Most offer related courses in the extended family of energy arts. The study is highly individual; levels of involvement are open-ended and your individual level of exertion can always be adjusted. Different people will have different experiences of the same form. One person will experience a form differently on different days or even at various times of the day.

Tai chi is about working with however you are at each moment. Teachers will tell you that if you’re a willing student, you’ll find a willing teacher. Call it prospecting.

Ruth Hobeika is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a two-year student of Wu style tai chi. She can reached at hobeika@gis.net.