Tuesday, June 28, 2005

So what is T'ai Chi anyway?

“Understanding [energy], how can one not be prudent in regard to such habits as sitting, sleeping, walking, standing, drinking, eating, urination and defecation in order to promote the best results?”
--excerpt from the Yang Style Family Manuscripts, compiled and translated by Douglas Wile

So what is T’ai Chi anyway? And how can it save America?

T’ai Chi literally means “grand ultimate point.” From my studies and readings, I define the grand ultimate point as being the balance point of any object. Every object on this planet must have a balance point unique to its mass and structure in relation to gravity.

T’ai Chi (formally known as T’ai Chi Chuan) is represented first and foremost by a symbol that we in the West know as the yin/yang symbol, which illustrates a balanced interrelationship of opposites. For example, night and day, hot and cold, etc. This symbol dates back to around 1100 BC. The oldest known writing that discusses yin-yang is the “I Ching,” or “The Book of Changes,” a book that describes the natural ebb and flow of energy in the universe and how that effects change. It was written about 3,000 years ago.

Eventually, someone got the idea that this concept could be used to defeat an opponent. Martial arts already existed, but someone looked deeper into the interplay of gravity and leverage. Out of this exploration was born a host of martial arts, including T’ai Chi Chuan, Judo, Sumo wrestling, Aikido and Jiu Jitsu. These arts all originate from the same starting concept (yin-yang energy). They differ in how each style trains and how they apply the concept. What sets T’ai Chi Chuan apart is that its creator incorporated Qi Gong techniques into the martial movements. So T’ai Chi also contains self-healing principles in its martial movements. (An essay explaining the healing art of Qi Gong is coming soon.)

The Chinese credit the celebrated hero Zhang San Feng with T’ai Chi’s creation. Legend has it that he observed a hawk attacking a snake. As the battle between the two animals ensued, the snake repeatedly used relaxed evasive movements to elude the aggressive attacks of the hawk. Finally, the exhausted and frustrated hawk flew away. There are several versions, using different birds, but this is the basic myth.

The Essence of T’ai Chi

T’ai Chi is a series of martial techniques that are performed slowly, with mental awareness of each micro-movement that puts the practitioner in the most advantageous position in relationship to gravity. They are low impact, which is good for the joints. The moves involve natural gross motor movements that every human is wired to perform. For example, Ward Off is a posture in which, while sinking your lower body to drop your center of gravity, you simply put your forearm horizontally in front of your body. Humans do this a lot as part of daily life—for example, when walking through a crowd of people or when a dog tries to jump on you. It is a basic movement that keeps your vital organs (or simply clean clothes) protected. Most of T’ai Chi’s moves have this kind of inherent practicality.

In the long evolution of T’ai Chi, practitioners sought to attain the biomechanical perfection of each position. They asked such questions as, how can one extract the most power from the simplest movement? They integrated the results of their research into forms, which tie all the moves together into a choreographed, martial, healing dance called T’ai Chi. This dance also uses the biological systems and rhythms of the body to increase both physical power and health.

Slow and Relaxed

Many westerners scoff that T’ai Chi can’t be “real” exercise because it is practiced so slowly. What they don’t understand is that T’ai Chi trains the nervous system, which develops the good habits best for living a longer, healthier, independent life. And by soothing the nervous system, one is more likely to train. The more relaxed you feel, the more your body craves practice. The hard working out of much western exercise often causes the body to revolt, eventually convincing the mind to stop the training altogether.

The nervous system is the network of communication for the entire body. A tense nervous system inhibits the flow of blood and other fluids, as well as all communication between body parts. By releasing tension, the nervous system can open up (relax) and flow with its natural cycles. The health of your internal organs, including your brain, is largely determined by the health of the nervous system. Just look at all the diseases that are related to too much stress. What is stress but the nervous system out of control? This alone supports my claim that T’ai Chi can save many Americans who suffer from high stress.

The United States has been a Super Power for a while now, fueled by coffee, fast food, and intense competition. We gulp down fast foods and high-sugar/low-nutrition soft drinks. We multi-task, rushing from one obligation to the next, driving through red lights. The “flight or fight” nervous system cannot sustain this pace without “burning out,” literally burning up the adrenals. This is what we as Americans are currently experiencing. Most of us are simply burned out. And, unfortunately, this is the standard we are spreading through much of the world.

Shake Things Up

We need something to catapult us out of this quagmire we have gotten ourselves into. This requires a serious shift in the way we do things. I believe we need to move away from short-term thinking and into sustained, steady, mindful living.

If you want to sustain power you must learn to carry it evenly for an extended period. And the more power you have, the more responsibility you have. You must be sensitive not to abuse that power, not to be “care-less,” which is the opposite of “mind-full.” I think one of the best ways to learn the skill of mindful living—including mindful eating, mindful relationships, etc.—is through practicing mindful movement, which is the essence of T’ai Chi.

Being mindful, sensitive, thoughtful, careful—these all mean pretty much the same thing. Paying attention to the details of a situation. Nurturing, growing, evolving. T’ai Chi is a proven method of training the mind and body (or mind-body) to be on the same page in their endeavors. T’ai Chi teaches the martial artist to resolve a situation using a win-win model. Instead of bullying the other guy until he agrees with me, I should practice a type of physical negotiation of energy and mass. And this process is as much mental as it is physical.

Negotiating a win-win position is the way to get the best results from any team or partnership. As Dale Carnegie once noted, “Someone convinced against his will, isn’t.” Bullies might win for a short time, but as people start to evaluate the reality of the relationship, they begin to get upset. They feel robbed or cheated, which can make them be hostile or uncooperative. Or maybe they just won’t put real energy into the end result—be it a work situation, a marriage, or an international treaty—which jeopardizes the outcome or relationship.

Mindfulness and the Body

So what does all that mindfulness have to do with the fate of America?

As a cultural whole, Americans are so dependent on power tools and labor-saving conveniences that we are losing the skill of using our bodies. Most of us no longer do the kinds of hard physical labor that previous generations were used to doing on a daily basis. Sweating in public is only sanctioned if one has the proper exercise attire.

But hey, isn’t it good that we no longer have to do all that hard stuff? Yes, it’s nice to have the option of saving ourselves from back-breaking work. But the simple fact is that most people in this culture no longer know how to move their bodies to do work properly. This is dangerous to our bodies—because we end up hurting ourselves, not to mention the host of diseases and conditions that are caused or exacerbated by bad posture and poor body mechanics—and it is dangerous to our future generations. The so-called Third World has got something on us: hunger and the ability and know-how to do efficient hard physical work.

Working with elders who lived through the Great Depression has taught me a lesson. A few of them were candid enough to say that they don’t think my generation could make it through another great depression. Do we have what it takes to work seven days a week, maybe without adequate electricity, heat, or water? Could we make our own clothes, grow our own food, provide our own fuel? Now think if these things had to be fueled with your own body’s power. You would have to know which foods could sustain that kind of energy expenditure. And if you think healthcare is unaffordable now, how much do you think it would cost if there were an economic crisis?

Wait a minute, you say, America is Number One. There is no threat of another great depression. For now, no—but how long will it last? Even if none of us witnesses a swing in the other direction, future generations will undoubtedly have to face this kind of shift. Let’s just say something like that happens 100 years in the future. By then it will be too late—we will have severed the threads of physical awareness by not passing on this information to our children.

It is awfully short sighted to focus our children’s evolution strictly on mental skills—how to use a computer, or a video game, or even a garbage compactor—without giving them a solid base in knowing the proper way to use the body. Observing history and humanity tells us one thing for sure: abundance comes and goes, and the human animal must be adaptable to change. We need to prepare future generations for using both the mind and the body.

The T’ai Chi Solution

T’ai Chi is the way back to understanding human movement, while connecting it to exercising the mind. It prevents injury and disease. It is great for any body, including those who are “disabled” or have little physical aptitude. It sharpens the ability to listen. And if you can listen to the early warning signs, you can catch a disease before it builds a home in your body.

Once you learn to listen to your own body and identify the sources of disease, then you can extend that outward. When you can really listen, you become aware of how anger, prejudice, racial insults, exploitation, and lack of education feed disease in our society as well as others.

Such listening skills lead us toward being proactive. If a storm is coming, one prepares for the bad weather. Old farmers and homesteaders knew about living this way. If they didn’t put up crops for the winter or cut firewood, they either begged or died. Being proactive in our time means educating the poor, seriously addressing environmental concerns, developing healthcare systems, and making wise financial plans.

T’ai Chi as a mental-physical training holds the key to mastering the essential abilities a human being needs to thrive on this planet. Understanding body mechanics, controlling the nervous system, listening to your body, nature, and others—what more could you need to make good decisions for yourself, your family, your community, and your country.


  1. Excellent essay, Chris. As I was reading about the hawk and the snake I thought of an image that often comes into my mind during a conflict... a bullfight. Flash that red flag and then just step out of the way at the right moment. Maintain calm focus. Eventually the opponent is worn out and frustrated, then you can stick it to them at just the right moment, when they least expect it! LOL.

    I also love the part when you talk about how Americans are losing the skill of using their bodies, and the potential for problems in our future. Also the comparison to the people you've met who lived through the depression is very interesting.

    And as for the bullying part... very true. I need to watch out for this myself. I can be overbearing at times without even realizing it, and many people are easily intimidated, but if they agree to something for that reason it isn't usually a good solution.

    Hey, just to go off on a tangent...do you ever dream about doing Tai Chi or Chi Gong? I'm curious if people who do martial arts dream about it.

  2. Yes, I dream about T'ai Chi and Qi Gong all the time. A few weeks ago, I had a dream about a master I respect. He was Instructing me how to move a certain way. It felt so real.

    One hundred and four year old T'ai Chi master had a dream that he was doing T'ai Chi with all the immortals in heaven. He reported it was the most peaceful beautiful experience ever.