The Gentle Way to Fitness: Healthy by Choice

Includes related information on finding a tai chi instructor

Spirits were high when Randy Jong, a San Francisco schoolteacher and musician, set out with his wife and four children for a vacation in August 1994. But as the family minivan cruised toward Los Angeles, a rear tire suddenly blew out. The vehicle spun across the road, flipped over twice and screeched to rest, a pile of mangled steel. Jong’s wife and children managed to struggle from the wreckage, but 42-year-old Randy, still conscious, lay pinned inside as gasoline poured from the tank and spilled across the highway.
Rescuers used the “jaws of life” to extricate Jong, who was flown to the hospital and diagnosed with a compressed vertebra. His spinal cord was intact, but he had broken his neck. Doctors told Jong’s family that he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Jong’s family kept the news from him, however, and he worked to walk again with a diligence he says he developed from studying tai chi chuan (tie jee chwan), an ancient Chinese exercise that looks like a combination of dance, slow-moving martial arts and meditation. On his back, he practiced deep breathing exercises and mentally rehearsed the tai chi movements he once performed every day. After two weeks he moved a finger; weeks later, he managed to move a toe. “Practicing tai chi all those years before the accident helped me recover,” says Jong. Not only was he in excellent physical condition, with flexible muscles and a strong cardiovascular system, but he was also in good mental shape, with a well-developed ability to relax and concentrate that helped him persevere.

Jong’s recovery was nothing short of miraculous. Less than six months after the accident, he appeared at his regular tai chi class and, unaided, performed the beginner’s exercises. “I was slow,” he recalls, “but I could do it.”

You don’t have to have a health crisis like Jong’s to benefit from tai chi; a growing number of Americans are discovering that this exercise can enhance their everyday well-being. A series of exactly prescribed movements that flow into one another in slow motion, tai chi increases balance, joint flexibility and proper alignment of the musculoskeletal system. The exercise also builds muscle strength, especially in the legs; stimulates deep breathing, which promotes blood circulation and enhances cardiovascular health; and promotes relaxation. In contrast to such Western-based exercises as aerobics and running, which stress speed and intensity, or weightlifting, which builds specific muscle groups, tai chi conditions the entire body, aiming to build long-term endurance rather than strength.

“Tai chi teaches you to pick up 10 pounds 500 times rather than 500 pounds once,” says Terry Hall, M.P.H., chair of the Health Science department at City College of San Francisco, where he teaches a course called Tai Chi for Health. Although tai chi is often performed outdoors, the exercise can be done anywhere and in any type of clothing, making it the perfect antidote to complicated exercise machines and flashy workout wardrobes.

The slow, almost hypnotic style of tai chi can be deceiving. “Tai chi looks easy, but if you do it right it is very hard,” says tai chi master Bill Chin, who has been practicing tai chi since the 1950s and appears in the photos here; every weekend he leads students in his free tai chi class in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The movements of tai chi are extremely subtle and precise, with an emphasis on creating balance by shifting one’s weight in a particular way. Classic Yang-style tai chi, the type most commonly performed, consists of about 100 moves, each with its own name, from the mundane “press forward” and “pull back” to the poetic “stork cools its wings” and “play the fiddle.”

Although the learning curve for tai chi varies with the individual, most people who practice regularly can learn the entire sequence of moves in about a year. You control your own pace, so the level of exertion also varies; beginners may not break a sweat, while more advanced students may push themselves harder by bending lower and stretching more. Although Hall says that once the forms are learned, three years of consistent practice are usually necessary before one reaps psychological benefits, beginners still experience gains. Just doing the forms regularly for a month or two develops deep breathing and concentration that bring an enduring sense of calm.

The term “tai chi” stems from the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism, which believes that everything in the universe is governed by the ever-changing relationship between the opposing principles of yin and yang; yin represents femininity, darkness, cold and water, while yang represents masculinity, sun, heat and fire. “Tai” means “supreme” or “ultimate.” “Chi” refers to the concept of an all-encompassing life force, similar to the concept of spirit or soul in the West. One is healthiest, the Taoists believe, when yin and yang are balanced and chi flows unimpeded throughout the body. When chi is blocked, for physical or emotional reasons, illness results. “Chuan” may be translated to mean “form.” Thus, “tai chi chuan,” roughly translated, means “behavior or forms designed to promote development of the supreme life force.”

Like much in Chinese traditional belief, the origins of tai chi chuan are lost in secrecy and legend. According to one story, tai chi forms were developed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.), possibly by a legendary fighter named Chang San-feng. One of Chang’s students was challenged to a boxing match by a family named Chen, whose members considered themselves experts in martial arts. Chang’s student defeated every one of them. So impressed were the Chens that they persuaded him to teach them his secrets, which the family kept to themselves for 14 generations. In the 1800s a martial arts student named Yang Lu-chan took a job as a servant in the Chen household so he could learn tai chi on the sly. His subterfuge discovered, Yang proved so adept at tai chi that he was accepted as a pupil by the patriarch and later encouraged to establish tai chi schools in Beijing. Yang’s sons and grandsons, the last of whom died in the 1930s, continued teaching tai chi, and their students spread the practice around the world.

Westerners began to take notice of the exercise after China opened its doors in the early 1970s; few visitors would forget the sight of hundreds, even thousands, of people performing tai chi chuan in parks and gardens, or of individuals doing tai chi by the side of a road. But it was a segment on tai chi in Bill Moyers’ 1993 PBS television series “Healing and the Mind” that caused an explosion of interest in this country. “Enrollment in classes doubled,” says Patricia Yu, director of the Tai Chi Center in Madison, Wis. But American students, perhaps unused to the slow movements or uncomfortable with the necessary concentration, often left after a few weeks or months. “Tai chi is not a quick fix,” Yu says. “The process of doing it daily keeps you attentive to yourself, and as a result it’s like preventative medicine. One remains aware of the body’s process.”

Those who stick with tai chi reap many benefits. Studies in journals of sports medicine in the late 1980s reported that tai chi increases cardiovascular strength, flexibility and respiratory capacity. Other research has found that tai chi can improve balance, which becomes increasingly important as we grow older. Nearly one-third of persons over 65 lose their balance and fall each year; unintentional injury is the sixth leading cause of death in this age group, with the majority of these deaths attributed to falls. A recent three-year study published in the journal of the American Medical Association (May 3, 1995) examined the effects of various exercises in reducing falls in more than 2,000 elderly patients. The study group that did tai chi showed a 35 percent reduction in the likelihood of falls, a greater reduction than any of the other groups.

Furthermore, Steven Wolf, Ph.D., one of the study’s co-authors, professor of geriatrics and director of rehabilitation services at Emory University in Atlanta, where the tai chi group was studied, says he and his fellow researcher noted that the tai chi group also showed an increase in cardiovascular strength. Wolf plans to publish a report on major cardiovascular effects from tai chi in the journal of the American Geriatric Society.

For patients with arthritis and chronic pain, Patricia Yu and occupational therapist Diane Harlowe devised the ROM (range of motion) Dance, which incorporates traditional tai chi moves with guided imagery. At the ROM Institute Yu and Harlowe have introduced thousands of patients to the ROM Dance; they also offer ROM training programs to physical therapists and other health workers. One former trainee is physical therapist Chris Zampach, who now uses the dance in her work with chronic pain patients at the University of California-San Francisco. “Unlike traditional physical therapy exercises, which are boring, the ROM Dance is pleasurable,” says Zampach. “Patients like it, so they do it.”

But for those of us who aren’t thinking about the ailments of old age just yet, one of the greatest benefits of tai chi can be its ability to help us stay calm on a daily basis. Larry Tuft, 52, an insurance broker, has been doing tai chi for the past two years and has noticed improved flexibility in his back, which he injured many years ago. Even more important, though, he’s developed a new attitude toward life. “Before, I used to worry a lot and get very angry,” he says. “Now, whatever happens, it’s just `out there.’ I don’t get excited about it.”

Joan Aragone is a San Francisco-based free-lance writer who has been studying tai chi chuan with master Bill Chin for two years.

How To Find a Tai Chi Instructor

Because tai chi chuan is such a precise art, it’s best learned from an experienced teacher; using books or videos just doesn’t allow for the personal attention beginners require.

Tai chi is often taught in martial arts schools, which advertise in the Yellow Pages of the telephone directory, in neighborhood newspapers or publications devoted to alternative healing. Classes in tai chi chuan are also offered through many community colleges, university extension programs, YMCA/YWCAs or health clubs. Check out the teachers’ credentials; ideally, an instructor should have mastered all forms of tai chi, from the slow beginner’s exercises to the most advanced use of tai chi as a martial art. The term “master” is applied to a teacher who studied at an advanced level for many years and whose students in turn have taught others. References from several students are the best recommendation.

Once you locate a class, ask to attend at least one session before signing up. Observe the teacher’s style and the attitude of students toward each other. Do students receive individual attention, or are they left alone to follow the teacher’s example? Do students help one another, or are they encouraged to perfect the forms by themselves? Take the time to shop around for a class that feels like a comfortable fit. After all, you might be studying there for many years.

“The Gentle Way to Fitness: Healthy by Choice” by Joan Aragone was originally published in Vegetarian Times on October 1, 1995

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