We see them in parks all over the city, especially early in the morning. Groups of mostly older Asian men and women, moving slowly and deliberately, limbs extended, torsos gently twisting in unison, practicing the ancient art of tai chi. But what is this exercise, who is it good for, and can anyone join in?
MEDITATION IN MOTION
Often referred to as “mediation in motion,” tai chi (shortened from tai chi chuan) originated in China centuries ago as a martial art. Most of us think of martial arts as kicking and punching designed to fight off an enemy, and while tai chi began as a means of self-defense, its slow, relaxing, flowing movements have long been used by the Chinese to also benefit health. Legend has it that ancient tai chi masters were able to use internal energy or force to throw an attacker to the ground. While historical accounts of the origins of tai chi vary, and there are different styles of the exercise, its movements are said to support qi (pronounced “chee”), the life force or energy that flows throughout the body, and yin and yang, opposing elements in the universe that when kept in balance aid the flow of qi.
Like yoga, which also originated in Asia, tai chi links deep breathing, mindfulness, and movement. All styles of tai chi, such as yang, wu, and tai chi chih, incorporate a set of specific movements (the longer forms include 108 movements; basic tai chi style has closer to 20), involving slow, graceful motion, each movement flowing into the next with careful attention to posture and breath. Because the poses are relatively easy to learn and adapted to those of varying fitness levels, tai chi is an excellent exercise for people of any age. And all you need to participate is loose-fitting clothing that allows you to move and a pair of comfortable, flexible shoes.
ROOTS IN MEDICINE
In an article published in Harvard Magazine, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School Peter M. Wayne, who directs the tai chi and mind-body research program at the university, said, “Tai chi’s roots are also intertwined with traditional Chinese medicine and philosophy, especially Taoism, and with another healing mind-body exercise called ‘qigong.’ Though these roots are thousands of years old, the formal name tai chi chuan was coined as recently as the 17th century as a new form of kung fu, which integrates mind-body principles into a martial art and exercise for health.” Wayne also says that a growing body of research is building a compelling case for tai chi to supplement standard medical treatment for the prevention and rehabilitation of many conditions associated with aging, such as arthritis, hypertension and heart disease, and low-bone density. In China, it is believed that tai chi cannot only delay aging but it can also increase flexibility, muscle strength and tendons, and balance.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, part of the National Institutes of Health, much scientific research is being done of the health benefits of tai chi for the elderly, including its potential for preventing falls, improving cardiovascular fitness, and overall well-being.
But you don’t need to be old or ailing to benefit from practicing tai chi. Christopher S. Lynch is an independent consultant providing services to financial institutions and government organizations who travels frequently from his home in San Francisco to the East Coast. He is also a longtime tai chi practitioner and instructor, teaching up to five free classes a week in Golden Gate Park when he’s in town. He has developed tai chi programs for many corporations, health care providers, community groups, and schools and helped to develop California Pacific Medical Center’s Chi Kung Wellness program in 1997.
How did Lynch discover tai chi? “Early in my career I was living in New York and working 18–20 hours a day, six days a week, and despite running and cycling, I still had a lot of stress,” he says. “I became interested in tai chi, and when I transferred to the West Coast, I found a tai chi teacher at a gym in Los Angeles, and I actually would fly down to L.A. to train with him in the evenings and then fly back to the city. I teach in the park because I think practicing tai chi outdoors is the best place to do it; I’ve practiced in alleyways in New York wearing a suit and in zero-degree weather in mittens. Tai chi is the perfect exercise because it focuses awareness on the body and the mind.”
Lynch leads his morning classes in the area between the California Academy of Sciences and the deYoung Museum; his weekly schedule can be found at his website, which is best accessed by an Internet search of his name followed by the name of his company, Ancient Advantage. Regular tai chi classes are also held at Spreckles Lake in Golden Gate Park on Saturday mornings at 36th Avenue and Fulton Street through the Taoist Tai Chi Society of the USA
(taoist.org/usa) and at other gyms and community centers throughout the Bay Area.
If you like the idea of combating stress and being mindful outdoors, you might want to try tai chi.