I was surprised when I saw a sign announcing tai chi classes on a grassy town square in Truro, a tiny burg of barely 1,800 residents near the tip of Cape Cod. Tai chi in little Truro? The ancient exercise regimen, it seems, has finally come of age in this country.
Tai chi is one of several closely related exercises that include qigong and related martial arts like kung fu, taekwando, judo, karate and jiujitsu. Although some are aggressive--and others, like tai chi and qigong, more passive-- they all have a common philosophy prevalent throughout Chinese medicine.
That is the fundamental belief that illness results from an imbalance of internal opposite and complementary universal forces called yin and yang, and that "chi" (sometimes spelled qi or ch'i) is a vital energy or life force that flows through the body. When chi is in balance--not too much, not too little flow of energy--we have good health.
Even though these ideas are thousands of years old, modern medical science has found value in some of the activities they produced. We've learned that tai chi is a valuable gentle exercise, particularly for older folks. There have been three major studies reported in respected U.S. medical journals showing that tai chi can improve physical balance, reduce the risk of falls and decrease the incidence of hip fractures. This exercise regimen also can help lower heart rate and blood pressure.
Tai chi expresses motions according to the yin and yang of ancient Chinese philosophy. Movements are usually conducted in pairs of opposites to achieve balance and harmony.
A turning movement to the right, for example, may begin with a slight move to the left. It is not difficult to see some relationship to the more aggressive martial arts in tai chi movements. Some steps, in fact, originally were designed to absorb the energy of an opponent's attack, or to turn the attacker's energy back upon him.
Tai chi, though, is more than the gentle movement of arms and legs that we've seen in photographs of elderly Chinese practicing in the early morning in parks or plazas. Proper breathing and meditation are essential. One must breathe from the diaphragm, concentrating on a point just below the navel. This point is considered to be the center of chi--the core of life energy.
One cannot simply begin practicing tai chi and expect therapeutic benefit. Properly executed tai chi requires months of training and practice. The regimen consists of specific movements that are completed in forms. Each form consists of 20 to 100 different but related motions, practiced at a slow, deliberate pace.
The philosophical and spiritual constructs on which tai chi is based have remained unchanged over the millennia. They are reported in the Tao Te Ching, a book written in the 6th century BC. It describes the components of Taoism, an ideology that outlines some of the most fundamental concepts of ancient Chinese wisdom.
Every form has a descriptive name, often based on nature: "Wave Hands Like Clouds" or "Grasping the Bird's Tail." And the movements are, in fact, based on those of trees, clouds, animals and other of nature's expressions. After learning basic forms, tai chi students progress to a "push hands" exercise, working with a partner. Partners stand face to face, extending their arms in constant contact with one other and following a prescribed series of movements. In the advanced form, each person tries to upset his or her partner's balance without losing contact.
Should you try tai chi? If you take it seriously, you almost certainly will benefit. Older people may well find that arthritis pain is reduced and cardiovascular fitness improved. It helps reduce stress for many of all ages. It can increase muscle strength and balance generally, and improve overall functional status.
You can buy tai chi books and tapes to learn more about this unique exercise. For maximum benefit, it is best to learn from a properly trained tai chi instructor. One information source is the nonprofit Taoist Tai Chi Society of America, headquartered in Florida. There is also an international Tai Chi magazine. There are related listings in dozens of California communities. To find an instructor or class near you, check your local health club or phone book business pages, or search the Internet.
Barrie Cassileth is chief of integrative medicine at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Send questions to DrCassileth@aol.com. Her column appears the first Monday of the month.