Ancient Exercise Popular Today

by Ann Marina

IT'S THURSDAY AFTERNOON, and a group of women are gathered at a community hall in Fort Myers Beach. They move slowly in unison, arms waving, weight shifting from side to side. It often looks like they're holding a ball that's ever-changing in shape and size.

The women are practicing Tai Chi (pronounced ‘tie chee’), a centuries-old exercise that originated in China. Americans have come to enjoy ‘Chi’ exercises for improving their balance, joint flexibility, mental clarity and stress reduction.

If you happen to be in a Chinese city and outside early in the morning, you'll see people gathered in outdoor parks, sometimes hundreds at a time, practicing Tai Chi or Qigong (‘Chee Gung’).

What is this ‘Chi’, or ‘Qi’?

In Chinese medicine and philosophy, ‘Chi’ is the vital force that animates the body. Tai Chi and Qigong help circulate the ‘Chi’ within the body, allowing practitioners to feel their own vital energy emanating from the ‘dan-tien’, or core of the body, located just below the navel center.

Nancy Baker has had chronic pain and stiffness in her neck for many years. “Sometimes I'm miserable the whole day, but when I come to Tai Chi, I'll forget the pain,” she says. “It's relaxing and calming.”

A retired teacher from Ohio, Baker recently took the Tai Chi class at Fort Myers Beach. All the students were seniors. “When your body ages, your balance and flexibility begin to go,” she says. “It gets harder to do some of the activities you've been doing.”

“After we'd been in class several weeks, one of the women told me, 'It's amazing how much better I can balance',” Baker says.

“I like how it keeps your brain active,” she adds. “It takes concentration to learn the moves, because your hands and feet are going different ways all the time.”

Baker feels that Qigong is a better choice for people who are not commited to learning ‘the dance’ of Tai Chi. “You can drop in any time at most Qigong classes,” she says. “It involves short, repetitive exercises that you don't have to memorize.”

“Qigong is the root of Tai Chi,” says Walter Hayley, an acupuncture physician and Qigong instructor in Bonita Springs. “The word Qigong was coined in the 20th century; it's a broad umbrella for many different Chi exercises from long before that time.”

Hayley leads Qigong classes at the Way of Wellness center in Bonita Springs. His car bears a bumper sticker that reads: ‘Got Qi?’

“It's a take-off on the 'Got milk?' ad, of course,” Hayley smiles. “I get some funny reactions. People come up to my car at red lights, knock on the window and say, ‘What is 'kee'?’ Hayley explained the discrepancy in the ways Tai Chi and Qigong are spelled and pronounced. There are two Romanizations of the Chinese language. The Wade Giles system spells it ‘Chi Kung’, and the official Chinese Romanization, called ‘Pinion’ system, spells it ‘Qigong’. Hayley says ‘Chi’ is easier to pronounce, but lately more people are using ‘Qi.’

“To me, Qi means vitality, that joy of living that makes you want to get out of bed every morning. It's a shame to go through life having to drag yourself around, aching, not enjoying every single day.

Breath is the basic element of Qigong, Hayley says. “The word ‘Qi’ often is translated as ‘breath’ or ‘life force’, and ‘Gong’ is ‘work‘ or ‘exercise activity’, so we're talking about breathing exercises, or life force exercises.”

Many studies conducted over the past two decades have given favorable reports on Tai Chi. Regular practice can boost the immune system in older adults, according to a recent UCLA study. The participants, who suffer with varicella zoster virus (which causes Shingles), showed significant reduction of pain, and improvement in vitality, mental health and immune function. The report appeared in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society's April 2007 issue.

The Arthritis Foundation has a program of Tai Chi designed to “improve the quality of life for people with arthritis.” As stated on the foundation's website, the program offers a simple style of Tai Chi, “which does not require deep bending or squatting.”

Younger adults are also attracted to Chi exercises, as evidenced by student enrollment at colleges and universities.

Greer Spicer is 30, and the mother of twins who are six months old. She has seen people practicing Tai Chi in a park in San Francisco, and on a dock in Annapolis, Maryland. “I was intrigued by the fluid gracefulness of it,” she says.

Spicer attended a class at the Bonita Springs YMCA. “After the babies were born, I wanted a workout that's not too vigorous,” Spicer says. “I like to let my mind go, and just move with the rhythm. For fifteen minutes you get to relax.”

Origin and Styles

There are numerous theories as to the origins of Tai Chi. Many schools believe the founder was the Taoist monk Chan San Feng, who lived in the Sung Dynasty (AD 960-1279). Legend states that he watched a battle between a snake and a bird ten times its size. As the bird lunged at its prey, the wily snake dodged and weaved, lashing back with relaxed lightning speed. Eventually the exhausted bird flew off for easier prey. In that instant, the art of Tai Chi was said to have been born.

Chan San Feng was a master of Shaolin martial arts, and he applied the fluidness he'd seen in the movements of the snake to his martial arts expertise. The snake's actions reminded him of the Taoist principles of softness, relaxation, and flexibility.

Tai Chi has several styles. Chen is the oldest, and all the other styles derived from it directly or indirectly.

Yang Style, being simple and comfortable to learn, has become the most popular. Its short form has 37 moves; the long form has 108 moves and takes about 15 minutes to practice.

Tai Chi for Self Defense

At American Kenpo Karate in Bonita Springs, the short form of Tai Chi is taught with the practice leading beyond the form to ‘push hands’ and then ‘sword form.’

“People familiar with the art today think that Tai Chi is not practical for self defense, but that was its original intention,” says Barry Polonitza, studio owner. “The purpose of Tai Chi is on one hand to overcome an enemy, using the soft over the hard, and on the other it is for meditation and healing.”

The sword form teaches how to move your body correctly with the weapon in your hand. “You move the sword with your waist movement,” he says. “The correct strength is soft and internal. If you start grasping the handle and forcing it, you've lost it.”

In ‘push hands’ Polonitza says you learn to yield, stick and follow, meaning you attach yourself to the threatening force and express its energy. “You get the attacker off balance by moving with their energy. People throw each other in this class, so we use pads against the wall,” he says.

It's All in the Game

Aida Kaplowitz teaches Chi Kung (as she spells it) at the World Tennis Club, a residential community in Naples. “We practice in a garden area, between the lake and a preserve, so the setting is ideal for this activity,” she says. “I don't have to try too hard to get people to relax and enjoy it.”

Kaplowitz has a chronic knee problem, which has been helped by Chi exercises. “I've been strengthening my knees, and it's teaching me balance, so I'm less apt to get injured,” she says.

Chi exercise fits perfectly with tennis, Kaplowitz adds: “Turning at the waist, your arms move with the waist, and that's just all about tennis.”

“The relaxed wrist also helps with tennis. People get injuries in their elbows and shoulders because they're gripping the raquet too tight,” says Kaplowitz. “You need a balance of soft hand and strong arm. That's the ‘Yin and Yang’ of it.”

Chi Kung is something you can use in day to day life, Kaplowitz says. “If you're sitting in traffic and late for an appointment, there's nothing much you can do, so you just relax and breathe and find center.”

Self Awareness, Self Help

“The exercises bring a greater awareness & sensitivity of your internal landscape — how do I really feel right now?'', says Hayley. Some people would rather walk around in the bliss of ignorance, but awareness of what's going on with your body and how you react to different foods, exercises, and patterns of stress can help you stay well.”

Breath awareness enhances self-awareness. Instructors say this comes as your practice deepens. In Chi exercises, you breathe in as you lift your arms, and out as you sink down.

“It's natural and pleasurable that way. I relate it to the 'sea of Chi', similar to the ocean,” says Kaplowitz. “When you're swimming or floating, you'll go up when breathing in, and sink down while breathing out.”

“I like to focus on optimal wellness,” adds Hayley. “That is, functioning as best you can under your particular circumstances.”

“All of my acupuncture patients get prescription Qigong,” Hayley says. “Once you understand Qigong, it's very empowering, kind of like self acupressure. You can do it whenever you need it, in a very limited space, with no special equipment. You just need the knowledge.” •

from the July-August 2007 issue

Many studies report regular practice can boost the immune system in older adults.

Qigong is the root of Tai Chi. It's a broad umbrella for many different Chi exercises.

(Yang Style - Long Form Tai Chi)

To allow fluid, graceful movement, keep the muscles neither tight nor limp.

Top of the head is kepthorizontal, so you can move without leaning and struggling against gravity.

Arms follow the waist movement and you can feel the 'Chi' emanating from your center.

Shifting weight from one leg to another, and bringing the movements inward or outward, you become aware of opposites.

Keeping a straight and relaxed wrist, to enhance teh flow of energy.