Tao of tai chi
You’ve probably seen tai chi practiced at a local park or schoolyard: people, some young, some old, moving in constant, slow motion – like plein air performance artists. As if choreographed, they take purposeful steps, legs slightly bent, center of gravity lowered. Making fluid gestures with their arms, they move first in one direction, then another, raise a bent leg, momentarily freeze, and lower that leg to take another step.
Extraño, ¿sí? Are they channeling David Carradine? Marcel Marceau? ‘Twas my naïve impression the first time I witnessed this Chinese form of exercise. I found it strange that an assorted mix of humans, of all ages and colors, would be out in the open for everyone to see, paying no attention to anything or anyone as they did their deliberate dance.
Tai chi para todos
Tai chi, or tai chi chuan, is not a dance but an ancient Chinese martial art created thousands of years ago by a Taoist priest during the Sung Dynasty, legend tells it. Tai chi chuan was kept as an elite form of self-defense and meditation known only by the Chen family for hundreds of years. Since then, it has become more popular, and several styles of tai chi have been developed over the centuries. Today, tai chi is commonly practiced all over the world.
Although it is a martial art, the more common intent of tai chi is physical exercise and meditative movement. The practice of rhythmic movement and coordinating it with the breath keep the practitioner in the moment and elicit a sense of relaxation – very much like yoga.
To watch tai chi in practice, I wondered how a series of slow movements, mime-like in their quality, could be of any benefit. It looks so easy, so effortless.
The truth is, tai chi offers many health benefits. It’s known to improve balance, flexibility and muscle strength, and improve sleep quality. It can also reduce anxiety and depression and relieve chronic pain. The beauty of tai chi is that virtually anyone can do it, alone or with others. It requires no special equipment or clothing, and you can practice it just about anywhere.
Tai chi is especially beneficial for seniors. Based on “softness and awareness” rather than “force and resistance,” tai chi “helps us stay younger as we grow older,” purports the New York School of Tai Chi Chuan.
“It lowers blood pressure and helps prevent falls,” says David Block of T’ai Chi Ch’uan Academy in Phoenix. Block has been teaching tai chi since 1978, and has studied under Tung Kai Ying, a third-generation tai chi chuan master. Block’s white hair and crinkled laugh lines somewhat divulge his age, though his poise and vitality make you think twice.
I decided to catch Block in action at his academy studio one night. Several people showed up for class, men and women anywhere from 25 to 75 years of age. One woman was there on advice from her doctor, who said it would help improve physical coordination.
The degree of skill varied, with some of the more seasoned practitioners occasionally guiding the fledgling tai chi students, on Block’s behest. Block, his voice low and soothing, led the class mostly in silence, except for the occasional comment or lesson, sometimes eliciting soft laughter from his students. He also quietly reminded them of the benefits. “As we age, we contract,” he said. “We’re practicing expansion.”
One student, originally from Mexico, was only two months into Block’s tai chi class and said she could already feel a noticeable difference in her well-being, physically and mentally. Laurita Castillo said after just a few sessions, she feels stronger, more fluid. She also feels more at peace and claims the practice helps release energy. She quickly corrected herself and said more pointedly that it balances energy. “Hay que liberar la energía,” Castillo told me. “No – mejor decir equilibrar la energía.”
“It connects body, mind and soul,” she added with a smile and a wink.
I felt myself become more relaxed as I watched the group gracefully move through the steps. Maybe it was Block’s voice. Or maybe it was the overall sense in the room. An hour passed before I knew it.
Practice for life
Mark Fischer took tai chi classes from Block many years ago, and wants to get back into it. He appreciates that Block is rooted in the martial art side of tai chi, something not commonly found with many masters of the practice, at least not in the Valley. Fischer is approaching his 60th birthday and knows he could benefit from it, despite the fact he’s in great health and swims and hikes on a regular basis.
Fischer says tai chi is more physical than it appears. “I remember when I first started tai chi, I was amazed at how it affected my whole body, especially my core muscles,” he recalls. “The slow movements are deceptively effective.”
Block backs this up. “When you move slowly, you have to stabilize your core. You’re forced to balance.”
The slow movements of tai chi also help those who practice it to listen and learn. It’s all part of being in the moment and tuned in to physical and mental being. “Tai chi [is about] learning to listen to ourselves,” says Block.
Tai chi for free – or almost free
Saturday mornings, 9:50 a.m. Coronado Park, 13th Street and Palm Lane in Phoenix
Sunday mornings, 8 a.m. Asian Arts Center Phoenix, 5th Avenue and Van Buren Street
Thursday evenings, 5:30 p.m. Desert Song Yoga & Massage Center, 4811 N. 7th Street ($7)