Tai chi and the art of well-being, self-defence
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Tai chi is a Chinese martial art form that was first developed in the 17th century by Chen Wangting. Many styles have developed since, including the Yang and the Sun, each with its own features, some easier to practise than others. The Chinese characters for tai chi literally mean “one centred person between heaven and earth who knows how to stand like a tree, be relaxed as a pine tree and uses the hand and the mouth in a balanced fashion on earth”, according to an expert, Richard Leirer.
That may be the ideal one strives for as a tai chi practitioner, but as a newcomer to the Yang style, I feel energized after a tai chi class. Curiously, the infusion of well-being that I experience after a tai chi session is qualitatively different from the calmness that is all-enveloping post a yoga class.
Cicily Thomas, a tai chi teacher and founder of Vitale Force, Bengaluru, isn’t surprised that I find tai chi energizing. “Tai chi is about harmonizing the mind, body and soul. And one just needs to experience it to know how energizing it can be,” she says. It cultivates the life essence, which the Chinese call chi, and research suggests that the health benefits are extensive and wide-ranging. A particularly compelling piece of evidence is the comprehensive review of 77 randomized control trials of tai chi by Roger Jahnke and colleagues from The Institute of Integral Qigong and Tai Chi in the US. The authors chose to combine the studies in tai chi with Qigong (an ancient Chinese healthcare system that integrates physical postures, breathing techniques and focused intention)—these are operationally equivalent forms of ancient martial art, with the teaching of tai chi incorporating elements of Qigong and vice versa.
The Jahnke review article, published in the American Journal Of Health Promotion in 2011, found that the practice of tai chi and Qigong had the same effects as conventional exercise—improving bone density and reducing blood pressure. There was a significant reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression in patients who practised tai chi or Qigong, compared with patients who were inactive. However, when patients who exercised were compared, the findings suggested that exercise and tai chi work equally well for anxiety and depression.
There is value in this evidence because even if someone can’t or won’t exercise in the conventional sense, the practice of tai chi or Qigong can provide the same medical benefits with far less physical effort.
Delhi-based psychiatrist Sanjay Chugh agrees: “Tai chi is an ancient form of martial art strongly believed to have huge benefits on one’s mental and emotional health. This Chinese practice of gentle, continuous body movements is supposed to relax the mind as it conditions the body towards greater flexibility, balance and strength. With focused mental attention, controlled breathing patterns and body alignment, a perfect balance of energy is created that keeps the body and mind in sync. For many, tai chi is a way of life that has yielded noticeable health gains. Those who practise it regularly have experienced excellent results in managing their stress and other psychological problems related to depression and anxiety.”
Usha Nayar, 56, from Bengaluru can attest to this. She has suffered from chronic knee and back pain, caused by rheumatoid arthritis, for many years. She says: “I was unable to move my shoulders and my knee pain was excruciating. After six-eight months of regular tai chi practice, I was able to move my shoulders easily. It has been two years since I started my tai chi practice and I find that I no longer have any rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and have been able to get back to full-time work with young children at my pre-school Kinderland.”
Susan Fernandes, 51, designer, has seen the benefits of tai chi practice too. “I had shoulder pain because of an impinged nerve that wouldn’t go away and after six months of tai chi practice, the pain has finally gone,” she says.
Given the gentle, flowing movements, there is a common misconception that tai chi is for older people. Having experienced its energizing serenity as a beginner, I am all for the practice of this ancient form of moving meditation at any age. An unexpected upside of practising this form has been learning gentle yet highly effective self-defence moves.
Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, is a wellness expert and a certified life coach. She has formerly worked as a clinical scientist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US.