Tai Chi For Fitness: Slow-Moving Chinese Exercise Can Improve Health
By Dorene Internicola
NEW YORK, June 17 (Reuters) - For modern, harried lifestyles focused on getting and spending, fitness experts say tai chi, the ancient Chinese slow-moving exercise, can be an ideal way for anyone to stay fit.
A staple in senior citizen centers and a common dawn sighting in public parks, the practice can offer long-term benefits for all age groups.
"In this high-tech world that's all about speed, greed and instant gratification, tai chi is the antidote to bring us back to balanced health," according to Arthur Rosenfeld, a tai chi master and the author of a new book called "Tai Chi - The Perfect Exercise: Finding Health, Happiness, Balance, and Strength."
"It doesn't mean you can win the marathon or clean and jerk 750 pounds or win a cycle sprint," said the South Florida resident, 56. "It's not about getting there sooner." Tai chi is more about how the body works than how it looks, and is about aging gracefully and "with less drama."
"The last time I looked, there were some 500 studies about the various physical benefits of tai chi, from improving balance and attention span to boosting the immune system to beating back the symptoms of arthritis, asthma and insomnia," said Rosenfeld.
An estimated 2.3 million U.S. adults have done tai chi in the past 12 months, according to a 2007 National Health Interview Survey.
The practice is not perfect. Tai chi "does not supply the cardiovascular component that we'd be looking for in a well-rounded routine," said Jessica Matthews, a San Diego, California-based exercise physiologist. "The exertion level, while challenging, is not going to increase your heart rate."
'GRAND ULTIMATE MOTION'
T'ai chi ch'uan, as it is formally known, derives from a form of Chinese martial arts. Explaining the slow, circular movement of the practice, Rosenfeld said tai chi is a philosophical term that means the harmonious interplay of opposing forces.
When nature encounters a strong force, the way it answers that force to maintain harmony in the world is with a spiral, he said. "Astronomers see galaxies moving in spirals, water goes down the drain in a spiral, tornados form as a spiral. We spiral in tai chi because the most effective way to move fluid through solid is a spiral."
Hawaii-based personal and group-fitness trainer Jordan Forth, who has studied tai chi since 2006, said one translation of tai chi is "grand ultimate motion."
"I recommend it to everybody," said Forth. "It teaches people to move well in multiple planes of motion with a state of awareness not cultivated in everyday fitness. Most people check out on a treadmill or during high-intensity activity."
Forth said tai chi improves mobility, movement and flexibility and can be even more dynamic than yoga, which the 35-year-old has studied since he was a teenager.
"With tai chi you're grounded the entire time," he said. "For me, (it) translates more into functional everyday movement."
Matthews, who is also a spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise, said because tai chi is slow motion and low impact, many assume it's just for older people or not a viable means of exercise.
Not so, she said: Research studies have found that the practice increased mineral bone density, boosted endurance, strengthened the lower body, and eased depression.
The T'ai Chi Ch'uan Study Center--Warren D. Conner
The T'ai Chi Principles
The T'ai Chi principles are even more important than the movements for they are directly based on the laws of nature that shape us every moment. Moving in slow motion while listening internally promotes calmness and sensitivity to the eternal laws and rhythms of our universe. T'ai Chi starts out as primarily physical; then, as we learn the movements of the body, it eventually becomes more mental and meditative.
Relaxation is the first and foremost principle. Not at all weak or limp nor tight and stiff, this is an alert, vibrant condition that promotes fluid gracefulness while enhancing sensitivity, a prime requirement in our world of constant change. T'ai Chi coaxes the body into loosening and opening so that internal energy may flow freely. Blood circulation is enhanced as the capillaries open, for example. Tension is a blockage resulting from stress and/or trauma. Regular practice with mental concentration provides early recognition and amelioration of physical and mental tension.
Verticality of the spine is another important principle. Leaning even slightly in any direction means tensing the body in a losing battle with gravity. The top of the head is kept horizontal and the spine upright and open so the muscles along the spine may relax. The spine is a major energy path that deserves close attention. After the common cold, back pain is the most frequent ailment reported and it is often caused by tension due to poor posture.
The center leads the movement of the energy and the body. The waist area just below the navel is the central axis or hub of the body and the limbs may be thought of as spokes. Paying attention to the center on the physical level gradually leads to the meditative aspect of T'ai Chi as well. Breathing is deepened and enhanced by concentrating on the center.
Differentiate yin and yang and perceive substantial and insubstantial. Initially, this means to separate the weight completely in the legs. T'ai Chi is called one-legged boxing because of this emphasis on standing on one leg at a time. Obviously, this builds strength and balance. Gradually, one becomes more sensitive to other differentiations as well.
Beautiful lady's wrist refers to a straight and relaxed wrist. During the form, the wrist is almost always straight in order to enhance the flow of energy. If a soda straw, for example, is bent or twisted, the flow through it is reduced. Precision of wrist position also requires concentration and practice to attain and thus builds awareness.
Medicine, meditation and martial arts are the three interwoven elements of T'ai Chi, providing also a ladder of progression. Initially, emphasis is upon the health aspects. As the movements become second nature, the meditative elements emerge. Later, the martial art proves the principles on another level while helping us learn to deal gently with others.
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