The sun rises in China, peeking into tree-lined parks and spotlighting people of every imaginable size, shape and age performing what appears to be a slow-motion ballet. The faces of the dancers are calm and serene, their motions so soothing and hypnotic that even onlookers seem to relax, as if they too were part of the dance.
This mysterious morning ritual is actually a type of martial art called Ta'i Chi Ch'uan (pronounced tie-chee-chwan). Translated, it means Great Ridgepole Boxing.
Part dance, part exercise, part self-defense, Ta'i Chi Ch'uan has been practiced in China for centuries and is based on ancient Chinese wisdom: Treat your body gently and it will reward you many times over. The smooth, graceful stretching movements of this martial art coax the body into increased flexibility and calm--an ideal antidote for fast-paced lives.
With no paraphernalia to cart around, Ta'i Chi Ch'uan is also the perfect exercise for the person on the go. It requires no special equipment--just a 10-by-5-foot space. You can practice it in your home, at the office or in your hotel room when traveling.
Of the five types of Ta'i Chi Ch'uan, the Yang and Chen methods are by far the most popular in the United States. The Yang style is a gentle, non-stressful type of exercise especially suited to beginners and those recovering from cardiac surgery. Characterized by slow, graceful, dancelike movements that promote relaxation, concentration, balance and flexibility, it's an ideal companion to vigorous aerobic exercise. While not a substitute for aerobics, Yang can enhance aerobic performance by increasing flexibility and improving balance.
In contrast, the Chen style, the oldest type of Ta'i Chi Ch'uan, employs fast, powerful motions and a concept called summation, or moving the body as one unit. Summation is achieved by a technique called Chanssu Chen ("reeling energy"), a spiraling motion that transmits energy from large to progressively smaller muscles in the body.
Summation promotes balance and good posture and decreases energy-wasting movements that overtax muscles and result in soreness, fatigue and slowed reaction time. Though second in popularity to Yang, Chen is quickly gaining ground in the United States as a new type of aerobic exercise for advanced Ta'i Chi Ch'uan students. Once you learn the basics of Yang, you can graduate to the more difficult and taxing Chen. Less common types of Ta'i Chi include Wu (a subtle variation of Yang), Sun and Lee.
"Parting of the Wild Horse's Mane," "Playing the Harp," "Golden Cock Stands on One Leg," "Snake Creeps Down," "Fairy Works the Shuttles"--with imaginative-sounding moves like these, who can stay still for long. But there is nothing of a fairy tale about the benefits of these exercises, each of which has a specific purpose and goal.
If you are interested in learning Ta'i Chi Ch'uan, you should take lessons from a qualified instructor. (Check the "Martial Arts" listing in your local phone book for nearby studios.) Here is a brief description of some of the more common moves.
* Beginning Standing Pose: quiets the mind and helps you focus.
* Parting of the Wild Horse's Mane: strengthens and tightens muscles of the neck and face, almost like a natural face-lift.
* Brush Knee: strengthens leg muscles.
* Playing the Harp: tones and firms arm and shoulder muscles.
* Single Whip: contracts muscles in the front and rear of the legs and hips.
* Snake Creeps Down, Single Whip, Low Stance: invigorates the entire body and increases flexibility, strengthens muscles of legs and hips.
* Golden Cock Stands on One Leg: works abdominal muscles, improves balance and strengthens leg muscles, as well as muscles of the lower back.
* Turn and Chop with Fist: strengthens the abdominal and upper-leg muscles.
* Fairy Works the Shuttles: decreases cramps and stiffness in neck muscles.
* Needle on Bottom of Sea: strengthens front and back of thighs and calves, stretches lower back.
* Pushing the Tiger Uphill: strengthens the back, shoulders and front of thighs.
Whether you use Ta'i Chi Ch'uan to relax or rev up, it will renew you physically, mentally and spiritually. If you feel stressed, tired and fragmented, and seem to be going in 20 different directions at once, let Ta'i Chi Ch'uan bring your inner world into a clearer focus and you'll feel more peaceful, centered and whole.