It seems clear that tai chi is good for mind, body and spirit—especially for older folks who may not want to pump iron, run marathons or engage in other physical activity that might just be a little bit beyond their (physical) reach. What may be missing in these summary exhortations/invitations, though, are some further specifics about what tai chi does for someone who practices it regularly. In this entry: An “inside tai chi” narrative from the viewpoint of this senior citizen, who’s been enjoying those benefits for over ten years.
Tai chi was developed in ancient China as a martial art. Absent any accompanying armaments—spears or swords—a practitioner of tai chi could engage in one-on-one physical combat successfully. Practiced slowly as a kind of meditative exercise, these movements could also improve bodies and minds.
When I engage in the various forms, I think how I might defend myself when in physical danger. I know how an elbow-thrust or arm-wave could severely harm an attacker. I know that I can disarm great strength with unexpected yielding. I feel strong and capable because of this practiced knowledge of self-defense.
At the same time, I’m aware of tai chi’s restorative power. The slow movements of tai chi engage almost every part of my body. Because they are low-impact actions, they are easy on joints, muscles and tendons. Blood flow increases, nerve bundles are energized, weight-bearing functions are engaged. Balance and flexibility expand to involve my entire torso, interacting to improve my posture, deep breathing, gait, muscle tone and strength.
Tai chi increases mind/body integration. Even though I’ve practiced the movements to the point of automaticity, I am always focused on the tiniest details—the flow of one movement into another, the positioning of limbs to achieve maximum thrust, the subtle positioning of hands to protect my face. At any moment, my entire mind is always engaged in what my entire body is doing. I wonder at the application of physics to my movements.
There’s something spiritual about tai chi. I have learned self-forgiveness, as well as empathy for new students. I am continuously humbled—even after ten years, I am still working on hundreds of details that characterize this art! I realize that I am practicing a form of healthy exercise that has lasted for centuries, and has benefited millions of people around the world.
I am always amazed that this body—fearfully and wonderfully made by God–can increase its capabilities: I can stand balanced on one foot and kick with the other! Self-confidence about my small physique remains strong. I rejoice in the pure physicality of exercise—in this case a martial art—that helps my outlook on life. I imagine God smiling at my sudden discovery of the profound consequences of the smallest capability—foot position, eye movement or stance.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of tai chi for my spiritual side is to rejoice in slow change. None of these benefits have come easily or quickly. I have often been frustrated with the difficulty of a particular movement, but try to remember the value of persistence and patience. I think of God’s movement in other areas of my life, and realize that the same phenomenon is true everywhere I look: Change happens slowly, and God will accompany me along the way.
I think about the metaphorical connections to the rest of my life: What does it mean to be fully aware? How does yielding actually increase power? What other senses and intuitions do I possess? Where else in life do I remain a perpetual learner? What danger would compel me to use tai chi’s movements—to defend myself physically, perhaps thwarting or disabling a dangerous person? Where else in life do simple things—tai chi is embodied simplicity—have profound results? What more can I be thankful for?
Because I am “inside tai chi”, I am truly glad to be alive.
(To subscribe, go to the upper right hand corner of the top banner and click on the three parallel lines. Scroll down to the subscription form and enter your information.)