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THE WAY YOU MOVE
Tai chi movements improve physical and mental well-being, practitioners say
By Johanna King
The ancient art of Taichi with its slow, methodical moves and controlled breathing has found a niche in this modern fastpaced world, thanks to its physical and mental health benefits. Masters of the exercise say it can reduce stress, improve muscle strength and definition, lower blood pressure, improve cardiovascular fitness and increase feelings of wellbeing. It gives you what you lack, and restores, says Marilyn Feeney, a Taichi master instructor and owner of the Garuda Studio of Tibetan Taichi at 10900 Menaul NE, Albuquerque, NM. Master instructor Charles Lin of the Chinese Culture Center defines tai chi as the exercise of immortality because of its regenerative powers and overall health benefits. Chi is a life force, said Lin (ed. who died peacefully in 2018 from brain cancer at his Albuquerque home. He was 66. Obviously one’s life span depends on several factors in addition to Taichi). The gentle, flowing movements of Taichi center on balance, physical strength, flexibility, mental awareness and chi which is defined as vitality: the internal energy inherent in all things. what makes you alive, explains Feeney. Chi, she says, comes into the body through breath. Tai chi takes breathing to a thoughtful level. Every move has a coordinating breath, she explains. You have to pay attention to each breath as well as your position in space. The discipline demands regulated deep breathing from the diaphragm. This controlled, relaxed breathing brings a lot of oxygen, a lot of chi, into the body, which helps strengthen it, heal it, and rejuvenate it, Feeney says. Deep breathing comes from the core, the center of the body, or what the Chinese call dantian. Tai chi helps strengthen this core, internally and externally. The physical benefits of Taichi come from its deliberate, controlled moves. As one portion of the body moves, the rest of the body follows. You have to coordinate and flow. The synchronized, dancelike motions can be compared to swimming on the ground with resistance coming from unseen forces of air and also of the body itself. Taichi also focuses on flexibility, improved coordination and balance. The maximum benefit comes not from learning the moves, but from learning how to move, says Feeney… right with left, inhale with exhale, flexibility with strength. Michelle Swanson, a master instructor at Garuda, says Taichi is a whole-body, non-aerobic exercise that gets many of its movements from the animal kingdom. There is some disagreement as to the origin of the ancient art form, but most say it was invented more than six centuries ago by a monk who, in his search for the secret to immortality, observed the movements of animals such as the crane, snake, tiger and praying mantis. The monk was impressed by their suppleness and grace, and began emulating their moves. Many of the tai chi moves used today are patterned after animal gestures: Feeney teaches advanced students birdlike poses, Lin has a poster hanging in his studio that instructs students to be as flexible as a snake; as stable as a crane. And Swanson shows beginners how to walk like a tiger: low to the ground with very soft, quiet steps. You should be able to sneak up on a deer in the forest, she says. Other forces in nature influence Taichi moves as well: flowing water, floating clouds, drifting leaves. In addition to the breathing and physical aspects of tai chi, an important element is the mental engagement, say the masters. You have to think while you exercise, explains Lin. Feeney agrees. Because Taichi moves are so intricate and deliberate, the body has to do what the mind wants it to do. It’s mind over body, she says. Adds Swanson, You can’t be thinking about what you’re going to be cooking for dinner when you do Taichi or you’ll soon make mistakes. Newcomers to workouts often find the required focus one of the most difficult skills to master. It makes the brain work, and that’s another muscle in our body that resists work, Swanson says. You have to be in one place with yourself. How many times in a day are we like that, if ever? In some forms of Taichi, self-defense is another aspect of the discipline. Lin calls it a true martial art that utilizes internal as well as external power. The essence of defensive moves in Taichi involves borrowing strength from one’s opponent; offensive strength comes from the ground and the surrounding environment. Strength is floating in the air, Lin says. The experts recommend attending classes taught by trained masters who can teach specific positions and how to regulate breathing. To keep it a vital art, it has to be done correctly, says Feeney. Her studio offers classes several times a week, and provides introductory instruction for newcomers.