Monday, January 17, 2011

The History of Tai Chi and Health-Part I: Tai Chi and Traditional Chinese Medicine

This series of blog posts will be in 5 parts. Hopefully providing a broad and in-depth picture of Tai Chi. For the first installment of The History of Tai Chi, we must explore its connection to traditional Chinese medicine or TCM.

Tai Chi is part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), both of which are indigenous practices from China. Because these holistic approaches are rooted in a time when doctors did not have today’s powerful medical and technological tools at their disposal, physicians tended to treat the whole person and the environment around them (Cohen, 1997; Kaptchuk, 2000). TCM, born thousands of years ago, epitomizes this approach (Hong, 2004; Kaptchuk, 2000). Health systems of that era were radically different from today, with no medical technology to speak of; secondary and tertiary prevention was not as efficient or effective. Consequently, people who lived prior to the advent of modern medicine had to be resourceful and devise systems of primary prevention, which were essential for survival.

At the basis of the TCM system stands Qi, which is often translated as a fundamental form of vital energy that animates all living things (Yang, 2009). Some scholars explain Qi’s place in Chinese thought as “a formless ‘reality,’ which, though not graspable by the senses, is immanent in all things” (Xu, 2010, p. 967). This belief in Qi is also essential to Tai Chi, which shares many principles with TCM and has been integrated into the TCM system.

Both Tai Chi and TCM are rooted in the Chinese philosophy called Taoism, which is based on intense observations of patterns in nature, such as the movement of water, wind, and rocks. Early Taoists developed treatises on longevity, hygiene, and immortality, and these ideas fuel much of Chinese culture. Feng Shui, dietetics, martial arts, painting, and TCM all use the same paradigm or explanatory model of how the universe works (Kaptchuk, 2000; Kohn, 1993; March, 1968). The individual is but a microcosm of the universe, and to achieve harmony or happiness, one should align himself or herself with Qi to stay in harmony with the melding of energy and matter (Kaptchuk, 2000). If an individual becomes un-aligned or a blockage occurs, then disharmony can fester and “dis-ease” or disease will result (Yang, 2009).

Taoism is represented graphically by the icon known in the west as the “yin-yang” symbol, which illustrates a balanced interrelationship of opposites—for example, night and day, and hot and cold, etc. (Frank, 2003; Kaptchuk, 2000). Embedded in its Taoist roots, Tai Chi literally means “grand ultimate point,” (Yang, 2008) the point of balance in the yin-yang. The oldest known writing that discusses yin-yang theory is the “I Ching,” or “The Book of Changes,” which describes the natural ebb and flow of energy in the universe and how that effects change, written during the Bronze Age, 1100 B.C. (Hong, 2004) (Yang, 2010). Tai Chi’s main aim, to harmonize or align oneself with Qi, was summed up by the Taoist sage Chuang Tzu in the 4th century B.C.: “Set your body straight, see everything as one, and natural harmony will be with you“ (Lan, 2002, p.217).

Next post will explore the beginnings of Tai Chi.

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