A New Form of Exercise
by Peter Thorne III, MSS
Fitness Plus, May 1998, pp16-18
An ancient exercise has been gaining popularity. This ancient exercise helps people reduce stress, gives them a low intensity workout and lowers blood pressure. Is this a new discover? No, This exercise has been around for 300 years. Originally it was a Martial Art. Today it is done for good health and combating stress. This exercise, what travel writers used to call Chinese Shadow Boxing, is T'ai-Chi Ch'uan.
T'ai-Chi Ch'uan translates to English as "grand ultimate boxing". It is the most popular form of Chinese Martial Art and exercise in the world. T'ai-chi Ch'uan (pronounced tie jee chyun) is a subtype of Kung-fu which dates back to the 1700's. It is a relaxing, low intensity exercise that also has Martial Art potential. In the 1930's, the Martial version was modified and popularized as a health promotion exercise.
University of California Riverside's Chief Tai Chi's Instructor, Sifu Harvey Kurland, was trained and certified to teach by Grandmaster Tchoung Ta-tchen, Kurland, a sports scientist and leader in the field of training and health, is perhaps today's premier instructor in this ancient art form. Kurland's work in this field spans over 30 years and has been featured in the most respected scientific journals of the health sciences and medicine.
T'ai-chi Ch'uan is primarily practiced to promote good health, improve coordination, balance and body awareness, calm the mind, reduce stress and practice "dynamic relaxation" which harmonizes the mind and body. It is practiced as a functional movement based, low intensity, exercise, an esoteric Martial Art and for sport and competition.
Like many other Chinese arts, the history of T'ai-Chi Ch'uan is lost in antiquity. We do know, however, that it began as a Martial Art with the same functions as Karate and Kung-fu. T'ai-Chi Ch'uan uses a combination of hits, kicks, throws and wrist locks, but several styles have evolved over the years. Major styles include Chen, Woo and Yang, the most popular being the Yang style. T'ai-Chi Ch'uan doesn't require any special equipment or uniforms for practice. Once you learn the basic form, it can even be practiced at home. Most people find social settings work better. According to Kurland, "group practice is more fun and adds to the 'energy' of the practice." Kurland, who is also a leading exercise physiologist, quotes his new research that demonstrates that T'ai-Chi Ch'uan helps improve balance and states that seniors who do T'ai-Chi Ch'uan are less likely to fall than their peers. Students who once participated in more vigorous Martial Arts found they were often injured. T'ai-Chi Ch'uan is a painless substitute. Even students who have black belts in Karate and other arts have found those sports can be hard on their bodies. They too discovered that T'ai-Chi Ch'uan is an excellent alternative. Tai Chi adds a new dimension to their training. People with bad backs also find T'ai-Chi Ch'uan helpful. As a bonus, each technique has a protective function which a student can choose to learn or not as they wish. T'ai-Chi ch'uan is taught in a systematic way. Similar to Karate, you learn basic techniques and forms first.
Forms are actually techniques linked together. According to Kurland, "The first form is done slowly as if reeling silk from a cocoon. All the movements are relaxed and the body alignment must be correct, with the back straight and the head up. Posture is very important to prevent injuries and allow the body to relax." Kurland claims that the body mechanics learned in T'ai-Chi Ch'uan class will carry over to daily work. Tai Chi practice would be an excellent for those industries that produce a high incidence of back injuries.
The Chinese have demonstrated that the rhythmic, flowing movements of T'ai-Chi Ch'uan have therapeutic effects on the internal organs and balance of the Ch'i. Ch'i (not to confused with the Chi or jee of T'ai-Chi) is the bioelectric energy of the body; also translated as breath, oxygen and air. T'ai-Chi Ch'uan's aim to balance the Ch'i, its exercises and what Kurland calls "dynamic relaxation" are what causes this Martial Art to fight stress so effectively. This is also how T'ai-Chi Ch'uan promotes good health. Chinese Traditional Medicine teaches that an imbalance, too much or too little, stagnation or blockage of the Ch'i's movement results in mental or physical problems. Along with all these benefits, Kurland's research on T'ai-Chi Ch'uan found that its slow form can be used as a mild form of aerobic exercise, equivalent to a moderate walk. According to Kurland, "this will give may people low intensity, cardio-pulmonary exercise. While the Chinese don't do T'ai-Chi Ch'uan as exercise, they walk and ride bicycles as part of their daily routine and slow T'ai-Chi Ch'uan can hardly thought of as much more taxing." What you really achieve with T'ai-Chi Ch'uan is a subtle mind and body exercise.
T'ai-chi Ch'uan also strengthens the legs and improves the balance. It is significantly better at improving balance than more expensive techniques. It has shown to have the same relaxation effect of Yoga as well. Perhaps the new wave of senior citizens will discover what the Chinese new centuries ago. Tai Chi is for everyone who wishes a more healthy life in mind and body.
Peter Thorne is well known in the sport of powerlifting. His strength training column, Power Training has been a regular feature in a leading men's strength and bodybuilding magazine. Thorne has a Master of Sports Sciences and 40 years in the field of strength training and most recently was a delegate to the World Games Congress in Monaco.