by Timothy Martin
Americans seem to be constantly seeking new and exhilarating ways to exercise. After all, who gave the world such great inventions as the hula hoop and EZ-Glider, bicycles that don't go anywhere and stairs that sink when you step on them?
Despite this impressive list, we have yet to come up with an enjoyable, effective, low-cost exercise that can be done anywhere, anytime and by anyone, regardless of resting pulse rate or VO2 max.
But if we go back about 2,500 years, we may find what we seek in China. The Chinese call it Tai Chi.
If you stayed awake in Eastern Philosophy class in college, you probably remember that Tai Chi has its roots in Taoism and traditional Chinese medicine. According to those who teach Tai Chi, it is more than an exercise. It is a curious blend of martial arts, meditation and mind-body awareness.
Eureka's Orient Tuan, 87, was the first Tai Chi sifu (instructor) on the North Coast. Born in mainland China, Tuan worked as a nurse in Hong Kong for a good part of her life. Then she came to Humboldt County in 1967 and began teaching Tai Chi. Her students today number in the hundreds.
"I like Tai Chi because it is good for the health," Tuan said. "American people are learning that it is a good exercise."
Tuan teaches Tai Chi as a form of exercise and stress release. Twice a week she leads her class through a workout in the traditional Chinese method - with no verbal explanation.
Her movements are fluid as shifting sand and her style elicits the names of the 108 moves: Fair lady weaving the shuttles; Grasping the bird's tail; Shooting the bow; White stork cooling its wings; Cloud hands.
The class follows her movements in a precisely choreographed sequence of soft, slow motion, each movement coordinated with the breath: breathe in to rise up, breathe out to sink down; breathe in to pull back, breathe out to deliver strength.
In Tai Chi's long form - the full 108 moves - there are three segments, each segment a series of punches, kicks, breaking moves, pushes and pulls. The main objective is to force your opponent off his feet.
Sound aggressive? It's not. Machismo has no place in a Tai Chi workout. The beauty of Tai Chi lies in the complex integration of the physical with the mental, spiritual and psychological.
When used as a physical exercise, Tai Chi is believed to increase blood circulation, to nourish muscles and to stimulate the nervous system. As a martial art, it is a slow defense against a multiple-person attack from all directions. As a mind-body awareness, it has been touted as a remedy for high blood pressure, anemia, joint diseases and tuberculosis. Tai Chi movements have been reported to calm and relax a person, and even rid one of arrogance and conceit.
Not bad for an exercise that demands little more than a few loose clothes and a brief amount of your time.
There is a catch, however. To fully appreciate Tai Chi, one must first understand its principles, according to Fieldbrook resident Jim Brown.
"The best way to come to a functional definition of Chi is to compare it to the blood and the circulatory system," said Brown, a former martial arts sifu. "Like blood, Chi must travel throughout the body to nourish and maintain life. The conducting pathway for Chi is the nervous system, a system as extensive as the circulatory system.
"The center of your body (a spot just below your navel) is called Tan-Tien. That is where the Chi is developed. The object of Tai Chi is to circulate the Chi," he said.
Brown, who practices Tai Chi primarily as a martial art, explained that persons successful in circulating the Chi have less illness and melancholy, are more powerful and live longer. In the end (in Tai Chi's supreme form) it is said that a sifu can strike an object without touching it.
"There is a lot more to Tai Chi than muscle," Brown said. "In many American sports we equate hard, tense movements with strength and control. We believe that power comes from the ability to expend energy violently.
"Chinese exercise is the antithesis of such a point of view. Unlike other sports, the slower you can do Tai Chi, the better."
Brown explained that Tai Chi begins in stillness. The body stands upright, relaxed at all the joints so that the weight of the body sinks downward through the legs and feet. Movement originates from this stillness, not with muscular force, but with an internal energy that is the product of breathing and thought.
To experience this, stand with your feet together, shoulders dropped, arms hanging at your sides. Knees should be slightly bent. Now, close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing. Let it slow down and deepen. Try to imagine the air filling up your whole body, all the way down to your fingertips. With each inhalation try to feel the air floating your hands and arms out from the sides of your body. These small movements are Tai Chi.
William Herbrechtsmeier, of Eureka, teaches Tai Chi as a slow motion exercise and a mind-body awareness. Mind-body awareness is an area of Tai Chi experiencing the most growth, especially among professional baseball and basketball players.
"The reason I became interested in Tai Chi was because I was looking for a way to relieve stress," Herbrechtsmeier said. "Then I discovered other things about Tai Chi. I found that it is a slow, graceful way to promote fitness and health. And its structure helps to develop the mindfulness connected with Taoism and Zen."
Sifu Margaret Emerson is the author of two books on Tai Chi: "A Potter's Notes on Tai Chi Chuan" and "Breathing Underwater, the Inner Life of Tai Chi." In her Arcata studio, Emerson uses many teaching techniques to improve her students' balance, flexibility, circulation and concentration.
"I try to incorporate it all," Emerson said. "Not just physical, but meditation and martial arts as well.
"Tai Chi is really a personal experience. It tends to balance out personalities and give patterns on how to do things more graceful and harmonious. It's very practical."
There's also something in it for people who enjoy working up a good old-fashioned sweat.
"Long form, low posture Tai Chi is tough," Brown said. "It's a lot harder than most people would believe. You stay in a crouch the whole 108 moves - even the kicks.
"When I finish a Tai Chi workout, I'm exhausted. I'm covered with sweat. It's one of the hardest workouts I've ever done."
To get an idea how difficult low-posture Tai Chi can be, go down to a partial squat. Hold it for 40 minutes. You'll get an idea.
Back in the classroom of Orient Tuan, students are practicing a move called Cloud Hands. All eyes are closed. Arms turn in slow circles, swinging from the waist, again and again. Movement is fluid and graceful.
The exercise winds down and as students prepare to leave, they take home with them that evening a sense of inner peace as well as physical well being.
Tim Martin is a heating and ventilation specialist at Humboldt State University. He wrote last month's cover story on ultrarunning.
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