Tai Chi

By EVELYN D. HARRIS For the Maryland Gazette

The ancient Chinese martial art of Tai Chi, with its graceful movements and poetic names, is becoming increasingly popular.

Practiced at a slow, contemplative pace for its health benefits, Tai Chi provides better breathing, balance and flexibility.

There are three styles of Tai Chi taught in this county: Yang, Chen and Sun.

"Tai Chi is the most widely practiced martial art in the world, because people of all ages and conditions can do it - even very old people in wheelchairs," says Sean Marshall, who teaches at the Jing Ying Institute in Arnold.

Mr. Marshall, who lives in Cape St. Claire, has been practicing martial arts since childhood and began teaching as a teenager.

"When I was 18, my teacher said I should learn Tai Chi. I thought it was boring and slow at first, but I quickly grew to love it. It is so satisfying to see the benefits in my student's lives," he says. "Many of my older students will come to class and say they were starting to fall and did not because they remembered to lower their center of gravity.

"One of my students was a man in his 90s named Charlie. Charlie came out of the door of a shop on Main Street in Annapolis and walked right into a group of teenagers who were fighting. He instinctively lowered his stance and raised his arms into a Tai Chi holding move to deflect a large youth who was about to knock him over. The young man went to the ground. The others immediately stopped fighting and apologized to Charlie. They thought he was some kind of master and did not want to mess with him!"

Of the three styles of Tai Chi taught in this county, Yang is probably the most popular. Mr. Marshall prefers Chen, which involves being lower to the ground with sinuous, snake-like movements, because it has a "larger vocabulary of moves," and includes forms done with swords and other weapons.

The Chinese word "chi" (sometimes spelled "Qi") is usually translated as "vital energy." Practicing Tai Chi helps energy flow through the body, but that is not the origin of the name.

"Tai chi is actually pronounced 'tie-jee,"' says Mr. Marshall. "It means 'supreme ultimate' in Chinese and is represented by what most Americans would call the Yin-Yang sign. Many of the Tai Chi warm-up exercises come from Qi Gong, a discipline that focuses on strengthening the body's flow of energy."

The Chinese say that whoever practices Tai Chi gains the flexibility of a child, the strength of a lumberjack and the wisdom of a sage. Although that's a bit much to expect, medical researchers have found Tai Chi is helpful for stress reduction, balance, flexibility and breathing.

Bill Ray credits the Tai Chi classes he's been taking at the Odenton Senior Center with helping preserve his memory. His intermediate-level class is learning Yang Tai Chi and one move flows into the next as it would in a dance routine. On this day, the class is focusing on "White Crane Spreads Her Wings" and the preceding moves, three repetitions of "Part the Wild Horse's Mane."

"Tai Chi is good for memory, breathing and balance. When you get older, you're constantly looking for reasons to make yourself remember and keeping all these moves straight is a good discipline. We have to balance on one foot for some of the moves and I find this comes more easily with practice," says Mr. Ray.

Learning to shift one's weight smoothly is one of the key elements of Tai Chi practice. While doing the basic Tai Chi walk, students are reminded to put the ball of their foot down first and gradually move weight into the foot.

Julie Jaeckels, who's taking a beginning-level class at the Odenton center, practices the walk every morning as she moves from the bedroom to the kitchen.

"My dog looks at me like I'm crazy, but it's a great way to start the day," she says.

Dr. Glen Cocoros of Crofton has recently been certified as a Tai Chi instructor so he can teach the class when the regular teacher, Crofton resident Karen Miller is traveling. Dr. Cocoros, a dentist, has been studying Tai Chi with Mrs. Miller, Mr. Marshall and others for more than five years.

"Tai-Chi is not just something to do in class, it's something to do every day and work into your life. Start your day with a warm-up exercise like 'painting the wall.' The relaxation will add greatly to your energy. When I do the exercise in the morning, it relaxes my shoulders and I realize they have been tense the whole time I was sleeping," said Dr. Cocoros.

Tai Chi is not just for older people either. Some of Mr. Marshall's best students are teenagers who do Tai Chi in addition to Kung Fu, and Mrs. Miller's class attracts a number of younger people.

Tai Chi also helps with a condition called Raynaud's Disease in which the fingers turn stiff and pale.

"A friend of mine who is a registered nurse suffers from Raynaud's," said Mrs. Miller. "One day, when her symptoms struck, I suggested she assume the standing meditation pose. The color started to come back into her fingers almost as if red liquid was being poured into an empty vessel. I could see her Western-trained mind trying to explain the phenomenon. She had never experienced the power of increased chi flow, nor had her scientific training provided any insight into its benefits."

For standing meditation, stand with your head erect but shoulders relaxed, feet about shoulder distance apart and bend your knees. Hold your arms out, wrists below elbows, as if you're loosely hugging a tree. Breathe in slowly through your nose, filling up your abdomen and chest. Breathe out slowly. Mrs. Miller suggests imagining the air is coming in through the crown of your head and going out through the soles of your feet.

There are several theories on how Tai Chi came to be practiced at its slow pace.

One legend, according to Mr. Marshall, has it that after the Manchurians conquered China, they asked a master to teach them Tai Chi. He did not want to teach a martial art to the conquerors, but he was afraid they would kill his family if he refused. His solution was to slow it down and teach it as an art to be practiced for health reasons.


Evelyn Harris is a freelance writer.

Published 03/17/04, Copyright 2007 Maryland Gazette,
Glen Burnie, Md.