[Written, published and copyrighted by Atlanta Health and Fitness magazine in 1998.]
T'ai Chi Ch'uan -- A Lifestyle
Are your workouts working for you? Or are you like many exercisers who fall into the trap of working out, not getting results, working out harder or more frequently, still not getting results and ultimately giving up? If you answered "yes" to the first question, you are fortunate to be one of those people who has figured out the combination of exercise, rest and nutrition that allows you to attain your goals. If you answered "yes" to the second question, however, you probably haven't found your middle ground and are caught up in the vicious cycle of either doing too little or too much.
That's understandable. We've all heard the "No pain, no gain" theory. We have all thought, at one time or the other, that sweat, blood and tears lined the path to fitness. However, somewhere along the line some of us finally noticed that the fittest amongst us -- professional athletes -- are often put out to pasture at relatively young ages, courtesy of their competition training regimen. Could it be that harder isn't better?
Enter the new era of fitness training -- mind-body exercise.
The "up dogs," "down dogs" and "airplane" movements and poses of Kest's videos reminded me of the more eloquent descriptions used in t'ai chi ch'uan -- "Golden Cock Stands on One Leg" or "Parting the Horse's Mane." A martial art that has been referred to as meditation in motion, t'ai chi means different things to different people. As Herb Goldberg points out, practitioners may view it as an exercise, as meditation or as a martial art... or as a combination of the three: "T'ai chi ch'uan isn't one thing -- there are numerous kinds of forms and quite a few different perspectives on it."
"A lot of the fundamental aspects of t'ai chi require you to focus on how and what you're feeling," he explains. "Paying attention to that feeling directs your mind. Many aspects require you to be in a certain posture, structure and breathing. In order to do it successfully, you must develop a mind-body connection."
For this reason, he says, "Fewer things could develop the mind-body connection more than properly learned and performed t'ai chi." Not that you can just pop into the occasional class and pick it up, an attitude Goldberg likens to thinking you can learn to play the violin in 12 weeks from not knowing how to read music!
In Goldberg's classes, beginners start with chi kung or "energy-developing" exercises which focus on body structure or posture and breathing and in some cases may look similar to yoga. (Goldberg says that many practitioners come to t'ai chi simply to learn chi kung exercises). Once they have gained an understanding of what to expect in t'ai chi, they are given fundamental exercises to help develop their stance and movement. After that, they move on to forms, which at T'ai Chi Ch'uan Atlanta means the Yang Long form.
Goldberg, a member of the National Board of Advisors of the Wushu Kung-Fu Federation and a national -judge of forms and pushhands, says that while t'ai chi has been developed more as a relaxation and spiritual exercise in recent years, many of his students are interested in the martial arts aspects, which include push-hands, throwing, grappling, punching, kicking, joint locking, explosive power and sword and staff techniques.
"T'ai chi is formless because it becomes a part of your life," says Goldberg. "Not hunching your shoulders while you are driving, paying attention to straightening your back, reducing your tension throughout the day... all are ways that you live t'ai chi." As another local instructor, Dr. Tingsen Xu, says, "T'ai chi teaches balance, not only in the physical movements of the solo sequence, but also in the lives of its practitioners, both psychologically and emotionally."
Goldberg (T'ai Chi Ch'uan Atlanta) teaches classes at Yeshiva Atlanta High School in Doraville from 7 to 10:30, Mondays, Wednesday and Thursday and at the Georgia State University Recreation Department from 1:15 to 5:15 on Thursdays (no longer offered).
Goldberg points out that to Westerners, "to relax" often means "to collapse on the sofa with a beer" or something along those lines, while Easterners believe that you can be relaxed doing anything, as long as you have achieved balance. Thus, while I referred to t'ai chi as a lifestyle, the truth is that all mind-body exercises share the purpose of effecting lifestyle changes and inviting balance into our lives.