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Tai Chi for the New Year

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This morning I got a phone call from a student to reschedule his private tai chi lesson. He's done a lot of that lately, and when I said so he replied that it was a bit hard for him to afford the lessons just now. This particular student is well employed and earning strongly, in fact just the other day he regaled me with a list of electronic goodies he had bought for himself for Christmas, so the exchange got me thinking about the way so many of us spend time and money and the unspoken priorities such choices represent.

At a time when affording healthcare is a dicey proposition for many of us and the future seems more uncertain than ever, it's important to examine the investments we make, or don't make, and perhaps resolve to invest with greater consciousness in the New Year. If we take stock of where we invest our resources--our time, our money, our energy--it only makes sense that we would choose happiness and health over behavior that causes health problems we may not be able treat or leaves us empty and hollow wondering why we did this or bought that.

Financial investments may disappear in a puff of smoke these days, but those made in our health and happiness keep paying dividends no matter what the financial or political climate. Imagine how much sweeter life would be if we could keep our cool most of the time, if our moods rose and dipped with the ebb and flow of days but didn't soar with irrational exuberance only to crash and burn. Suppose we could appreciate the sublime in life but not get into the kind of trouble that leads to pain and suffering, that we could finally lose the weight we want to lose, finally get in the kind of shape we've wanted to be in, and as if that weren't enough, learn a new and different way of looking at the world--one that breaks all our old habits with little effort and crushes all our old traps like soda cans underfoot.

I'm talking about mind/body practice, of course, and the one I like best is tai chi. Think of tai chi as a kind of internal alchemy, a system founded on a set of guiding principles and deepened by a unique study of body mechanics and energy. This most exalted of the Chinese martial arts is interesting not so much for its self-defense properties, which flower only with long and disciplined practice, but for what it does for the body and spirit. Studies show tai chi can build strength, increase flexibility, boost energy, improve awareness, sensitivity and balance, diminish pain and stiffness, lower blood pressure, boost immunity (http://www.nih.gov/news/pr/apr2007/nia-06.htm), contribute to longevity, and offer us a healthier way of looking at conflict and challenge. It's ancient, it's wise, and it's a real gift. You can see what tai chi looks like, and learn more about its benefits at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbUhZp4hd3w

Tai chi was very nearly lost during China's so-called "Cultural Revolution" when the armies of Mao Tse Tung gelded, killed, or banished its masters. These days the art is practiced worldwide by people of all ages. In this country the New Age movement has done much to spread the word about this wonderful form of exercise, but rising popularity also means the authentic art is threatened with dilution. The original system was created by Chen Wang-ting (1597-1664), a 9th generation member of the Chen family and resident of a small village in the north of China. Chen constructed the system upon a tripod of Daoist thought, traditional Chinese medicine, and proven martial techniques, and the Chen family style still offers the greatest benefits, although it is also the most physically challenging of the different varieties of tai chi.

Daoists believe there is a benign underlying force or intelligence to the universe. They call this force Dao, which means The Way. In the Daoist view opposing forces, yin and yang act upon the world, and tai chi brings them into harmony. Examples of yin and yang include light and dark, male and female, up and down, day and night, hot and cold. The human body is ruled by this interplay, and movements contain both yin and yang elements. Tai chi so directly embodies this worldview that there may be no system of movement anywhere that more closely obeys a particular set of metaphysical rules. I like Daoist ideas so much I weave them into my novels, particularly The Cutting Season, The Crocodile and the Crane, and, forthcoming, Quiet Teacher.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) differs from Western medicine in significant ways. Broadly put, TCM costs less and has fewer side effects than its Western counterpart and may be less effective for certain acute health crises and more effective for other, chronic conditions. TCM sees the body in terms of systems rather than organs. In the TCM model the body is crisscrossed by meridians, channels through which a life force called qi flows like water through a garden hose. Practicing Tai Chi increases this energy, opens the hoses, and aligns them for maximum flow.

China has a long and illustrious martial tradition. Conceived by monks, doctors, scholars and warriors, numerous martial systems were derived from the movements of animals and the forces of nature. Early fighting techniques were tested in combat, and were lost if ineffective. The ones used in tai chi are many of the very best techniques to survive the ages, and what made those techniques martially effective also assures they build strength, immunity and vitality. Learn more about tai chi at http://www.playtaichi.com

A tai chi class is a wonderful experience. It's usually quiet, it affords you time to pay attention to your body and your thoughts, and it puts you in the company of people whose values support peace and health and longevity. Look for classes at local parks, community centers and health clubs. You may also find classes at martial arts schools, though most often these are given as a sideline to the school's primary offerings. The best way to know if you're getting authentic teaching (yes, it matters, the benefits will be much stronger it the teacher is properly trained) is to ask the teacher about her lineage. True teaching is handed down person to person in a very traditional fashion. A qualified instructor will be enthusiastic about her lineage. Evasiveness on the subject is a red flag.

Any reputable teacher will allow you to try a class, usually for free, though she may ask you to sign a liability waiver. If she won't at least let you watch, leave immediately. Be sure and talk to other students, too. Ask them what they're getting out of the class, how they feel about the material, the teacher, the schedule, the availability of deeper study, and whether they feel their questions are adequately answered. The atmosphere should be upbeat, positive--peaceful but enthusiastic.

Whether tai chi is right for you or whether you find yoga or one of the other offerings in the rich panoply of Asian martial arts more attractive, do consider an investment in a mind/body practice as a life-affirming resolution for the new year.

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