I have traveled to China twice with groups led by Jesse Tsao. Both trips were wonderful. In 2017, we spent the last weekend in Wuhan. I’m not sure I’d ever even heard of the city before that trip—I certainly didn’t know anything about it. I have only the best memories of it now.
We visited the marvelous Yellow Crane Tower, which is set on a hilltop and surrounded by a beautiful public park.
We visited a huge lake, also set in a beautiful park—the Chinese do not skimp on parks!
But the best thing was Tai Chi in the middle of the city. On Saturday morning we walked to a nearby mid-town park which was, like all the city parks we saw in China, full of people dancing, walking, working out, playing games and—what we were looking for—doing tai chi.
We had no plan, no appointment, nothing set up in advance. We just went to the park. And there we found the lovely Master Tan, dean of martial arts for this whole city of 11 million!
She led us through 24, the 108, Laojia, and a couple of qigong routines I wasn’t familiar with. It was thrilling. We agreed to meet again the next morning.
Sunday morning, in addition to everything we did on Saturday, she demonstrated Wudang Tai Chi sword for us. The whole encounter was unforgettable.
On our last night in China, several of us went walking in a long, wide pedestrian mall not far from our hotel. There is no crime in Wuhan; we were assured we would be perfectly safe, and it certainly felt that way. Safe and relaxed. Throngs of people strolled and shopped into the evening hours, and we joined them, feeling what it might be like to live in China, in Wuhan. I loved it.
Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art that has evolved over the last couple of centuries into a popular practice with multiple applications, including self-defense, exercise and physical conditioning, stress relief, disease prevention, and improving overall health. Many people (myself among them) consider it the ultimate age-defying art. Why?
What is so special about Tai Chi?
Tai Chi, in its martial aspect, is founded on the principle that a smaller, weaker person can prevail over a bigger, stronger opponent. The most basic tenets of Tai Chi, as explained in the Tai Chi Classics, address how this is possible. [See The Origins of Tai Chi, on the Taijiquan Jing and Taijiquan Lun.]
Tai Chi is said to be an internal martial art, more concerned with cultivating and issuing internal energy than with developing muscular (“external”) strength. A person who seeks only to build muscles and deliver heavy kicks and punches will always be pitting strength against strength, and the bigger, stronger opponent will always prevail.
The person who practices Tai Chi uses technique, intention, and natural movement to capture a stronger opponent’s energy and turn it to advantage. To do this, it is necessary to achieve the frame of mind most effective in fighting—which is not anger, fury, desperation, fear or any other such strong emotion, but calmness and presence of mind.
The goals of Tai Chi
The goals of Tai Chi therefore include cultivating internal energy, adhering to the body’s most natural ways of moving, and practicing deep, deliberate relaxation. The value of these goals is obvious, even for a person who has no intention of fighting.
Another important objective lies in achieving balance—not just the ability to stand on one foot or to avoid falling, but balance in the broader sense of managing opposite tendencies. In traditional Chinese philosophy, this means balancing Yin and Yang—yielding energy versus warding-off energy. Earth-energy versus sky-energy.
In more Western terms, this means maintaining balanced emotions and a balanced center, both literally and figuratively: being aware of one’s center of gravity, being alert yet calm, aware of both one’s internal state and external surroundings, which might take the form of an adversary (physical or otherwise) or the natural environment.
The free flow of Qi
According to traditional Chinese medicine, the foundation of health lies in the free flow of qi throughout the body. Qi is variously defined in English as vitality, life force, or simply as energy. The channels for the flow of qi are called meridians, and they are mapped in traditional Chinese medicine much as we map arteries and veins in the West.
The free flow of energy is not exactly the same thing as what we call good circulation—the latter refers to circulation of the blood and delivery of Oxygen. But the two are analogous. In both cases, the general idea is that blockage and binding are damaging and unhealthy, while free circulation throughout all parts of the body is beneficial and enlivening.
Whatever the technical explanation or scientific theory behind this concept of free flow, it works. A steadily increasing body of evidence shows that people who practice Tai Chi regularly experience improved overall health and balance, lowered stress levels, and greater resistance to disease.
Those of us who have already incorporated Tai Chi into our daily lives gain a whole new level of well-being that has to be experienced to be believed. As a form of physical training, it is gentle, effective, and free of drudgery or injury. Having once tapped into that, who would give it up? Most of us will do it for the rest of our lives.