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Slow and easy movements, feet spread wide beneath them, their hands move in graceful, sweeping arcs. Their knees are bent slightly and their backs are straight and erect.
Each morning millions of Chinese of all ages take part in an ancient tradition. They are practicing what is known as t'ai chi chuan, (pronounce it: "tie chee chewon".) Though the actual origin of t'ai chi may be disputed, what is certain is that it has found its way to the Western world.
In 1970, when then-president Richard Nixon returned from China, he brought more than just a press secretary recovering from appendicitis. James Reston took ill on that historic trip and Chinese doctors used acupuncture to help restore his health. Nixon was impressed. He arranged for traditional Chinese doctors to begin an exchange program at UCLA. Combined with the sociological phenomenon known as the 60's, in which the youth culture of the day absorbed Eastern philosophy faster than McDonald's cheeseburgers, that event helped popularize a vast array of exotic and consciousness-expanding practices in America.
MR. SNAKE, MEET MR. CRANE
Most sources believe that t'ai chi developed from an early form of Chinese boxing practiced in Shao-lin temples originated by an Indian Buddhist named Dharuma. Shao-lin boxing was a form of martial art. Practiced to develop strength and courage, it was as much meditation and philosophy as it was exercise.
The similarities between the two exercise forms are extensive. Both t'ai chi and yoga use body positions as a way of exercising. Poses are modeled after nature and often named after the animals or natural events they emulate. Some yoga positions are referred to as "Down Dog" and "Lion" and "Mountain." Some t'ai chi movements are named White Crane Spreads Wings, Snake Creeps Down, Repulse Monkey and Return to Mountain. Both yoga and t'ai chi incorporate breathing as part of the exercises. Both stress mental awareness. Perhaps the greatest difference is that t'ai chi involves a greater emphasis on movement.
At the core of Chinese philosophy is the concept of chi. All traditional cultures recognize a vital force or life energy. Indian culture calls it prana. The Japanese call it ki. European tradition has called it the élan vital. It was this vital life force known as chi that Taoist boxer Chang-san Feng connected with when he began to perfect his boxing skills around 1200 A.D.
Chinese folklore tells us that one day, Feng, a Taoist monk living in the Wu Tang Mountains, observed a snake fighting with a crane while on his morning walk. Seeing the over-matched snake hold his own with the giant crane, Feng was inspired by the smooth and natural movements both animals exhibited. Their combat seemed almost dance-like. Feng noted the flow of energy that moved between the two and realized that the victor would be the one who could adapt that energy and use it best.
Later, in a meditation, Feng envisioned the entire human body as one with nature. To stretch and move his body with respect for nature developed strength, balance and health. He began to use his new form of exercise as conditioning for his boxing art. This nature-based preparation for battle became a martial art in its own right. Feng and his devotees developed it into a deadly fighting form that was handed down from family member to family member.
Throughout the following centuries, the routine formally known as t'ai chi chuan adapted as a practice of healthy exercise. The slow, natural movements illustrate a type of mindful exercise that mirrors images of nature. By being fully aware of the body at all times, staying within the realm of consciousness in completing the movement, the practitioner develops a connection of mind and body that gives instant feedback.
The original form included a series of 128 movements that were adapted from movements exhibited by forces of nature, including animals. In performing these movements, the practitioner achieves health and peace of mind by connecting mind and body in restful awareness and activity. In China, t'ai chi, along with its sister practice, qi gong, is the primary form of healing art in the Eastern philosophy of medicine.
One of the greatest proponents of t'ai chi in America was the late Cheng Man-Ch'ing. Growing up in China, Cheng was tormented by a chronic lung ailment. A Chinese doctor prescribed t'ai chi. Cheng became well and continued his practice of the ancient art. Cheng escaped to Taiwan and became a physician. Eventually he emigrated to New York and became the foremost teacher of t'ai chi in America.
Cheng simplified the 128 movements of traditional t'ai chi. He taught a composite form that ended up being 37 basics while still incorporating the 128 primary elements. Though he passed on in 1975, his school of t'ai chi has never been more popular.
The essence of t'ai chi is to maintain balance, both figuratively and literally. To that end, the movements are usually done in a semi-crouch to remain stable. Because a person moves at his or her own level of work, the practice of t'ai chi can be done by anyone of any age group. It has become especially valuable to seniors who may have limitations in other exercise forms. T'ai chi can even be done in a seated position if necessary.
Benefits of practicing t'ai chi are both physical and mental. It is a form of meditation as well as exercise. Both of those have been found to have tremendous health benefits. Traditional Chinese medicine uses t'ai chi as one of the remedies for anemia, intestinal problems, high blood pressure and immune system deficiencies. Western research is finding that those applications have basis in science.
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Michael Braunstein is Executive Director of Heartland Healing and certified by the American Council of Hypnotist Examiners in clinical hypnotherapy. He graduated from the Los Angeles Hypnotism Training Institute and was an instructor at the UCLA Extension University for 11 years.
Heartland Healing is devoted to the examination of various alternative forms of healing. It is provided as a source of information and not as medical advice. It is not meant as an endorsement of any particular therapy, either by the writer or by Heartland Healing Center, Inc.