| At first glance they look as if they are swatting flies in slow motion. 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
The roots of tai chi probably run deep into the Indian practice of yoga. Yoga is actually a lifestyle and overall method of healthy living over 6000 years old. But most of the world associates yoga primarily with the activity of body positions and poses that comprise the exercises we see people doing in yoga studios.
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 tai 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 tai chi movements are named White Crane Spreads Wings, Snake Creeps Down, Repulse Monkey and Return to Mountain. Both yoga and tai chi incorporate breathing as part of the exercises. Both stress mental awareness. Perhaps the greatest difference is that tai 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 tai 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, tai 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 tai 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 tai 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 tai chi in America.
Cheng simplified the 128 movements of traditional tai 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 tai chi has never been more popular.
Heartland Healing examines various alternative forms of healing. It is provided as a source of information, not as medical advice. It is not an endorsement of any particular therapy, either by the writer or The Reader. Access past columns at www.HeartlandHealing.com
Strike the Pose
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 tai 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. Tai chi can even be done in a seated position if necessary.
Tradition identifies five basic qualities to tai chi.
Slowness: Movements are easy and deliberate. Nothing is rushed. The easy pace develops awareness.
Lightness: This aids in staying within the flow of natural energy.
Balance: This places the body in an unrestrained position and has the added benefit of developing good posture.
Calmness: Created by the even flow of continuity of movement, the benefits of calmness are self-evident.
Clarity: Focused awareness and mental acuity is increased by the circulatory benefits realized.
Benefits of practicing tai 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 tai 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.
Heres your chance
Bruce Ballai, a student of the Cheng school of tai chi, is senior instructor for the Omaha Tai Chi Association. He has over 20 years experience and now offers classes open to the public. The Association was formed in 1998 to promote the practice of traditional tai chi. Ballai moved to Omaha from New Jersey and is an attorney at Peter Kiewit and Sons. Ballai has studied under some of the most renowned teachers from mainland China and teaches the traditional forms that have long been associated with health.
Each Monday and Thursday evening, the Association holds meditation and tai chi classes at the Papillion City Municipal Building, 84th Street and East Third in Papillion. Classes are from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. There is no charge and new students are welcome any time. Attendees are encouraged to bring a pillow or chair for the meditation. For more information visit the events calendar at HeartlandHealing.com