By Swati Chopra August 2000 T’ai Chi, an ancient Chinese system of exercise, cultivates energy for physical, mental and spiritual well-being. Now you can learn it in India Hefty goons accost a slight figure in a dark alley. As they menacingly close in on him, he is suddenly transformed into a mass of limbs moving with lightning speed. With swift, precise movements the lone ranger fells his opponents easily. A familiar scenario for martial arts film buffs. There was a time, not so long ago, when Bruce Lee was God and the place to be on sunny winter afternoons was the neighborhood karate class. The dream of every adolescent braveheart was to metamorphose into a lean fighting machine, with the secrets of the Oriental ‘martial arts’ at his disposal. Stereotyped for long as means of physical combat, the strong spiritual tradition underlying eastern health systems has been sadly ignored. Most, such as judo, tae-kwon-do and T’ai Chi Chuan integrate well-being of the mind and body with the evolution of the spirit. Among these, T’ai Chi has gained much fame in the West as an exotic stress buster. Once a jealously guarded preserve of the Chinese elite, today T’ai Chi has millions of followers around the world. Its 108 basic forms involving every part of the body are more like graceful dance movements than exercise. Regular practice of T’ai Chi renews vitality and ensures longevity, the Chinese believe. Named after its founder, Yang Lu Chan (1799-1872), Yang style T’ai Chi has been handed down the generations in the Yang family for the past 170 years. From the original 108 basic T’ai Chi forms, 85 have been incorporated in the Yang style. Over 700 movements make up the 85 forms. These were standardized and photographically recorded in the 1920s by a scion of the Yang family, Yang Cheng Fu. The Indian chapter of the Fu Sheng Yuan T’ai Chi Academy has been founded by Master George Thomas in Chennai. About the quest that took him from Chennai to China, he says: ‘In 1996, I saw people practicing t’ai chi in open places in Singapore and Malaysia. Then I happened to meet a t’ai chi practitioner, Dr Darrell Johnson, and trained with him. My growing interest led me to Australia in 1998 to study under Fu Sheng Yuan, the National T’ai Chi champion of China. As his student, I was invited to China where I honed my skills.’ On his return, Master Thomas decided to create awareness about T’ai Chi in India, where it was virtually unknown. Hence the academy. People of all ages and from all walks of life throng his academy and workshops. He prefers to work with corporate employees since they experience comparatively higher stress levels. ‘T’ai chi can work wonders with stress,’ he explains. Other health benefits include an improved posture, increased resistance to disease, efficient blood circulation and a general sense of peace. Another veteran T’ai Chi exponent in India is Master Rashid Ansari. He is not your conventional master, though. Formerly with the National School of Drama, Ansari has successfully amalgamated the t’ai chi philosophy with dance movements from around the world. The result is a unique system that enables the practitioner to find his own rhythm instead of following preconceived motions. As a ‘soft’ form of Chinese boxing (Kung Fu), T’ai Chi concentrates on developing internal energy, chi, rather than superficial muscular energy. The operative word, then, in T’ai Chi Chuan is chi, the Universal Life Force that is the progenitor of all life. Acknowledged by most ancient cultures, it is the prana of the Hindus, ki of the Japanese, mana of the Polynesians and astral light of the Kabbalists. Chi is present in all; T’ai Chi and its higher form, Chu Gung, enable the practitioner to become aware of it and use it instinctively.As a ‘soft’ form of Chinese boxing (Kung Fu), T’ai Chi concentrates on developing internal energy, chi, rather than superficial muscular energy. The operative word, then, in T’ai Chi Chuan is chi, the Universal Life Force that is the progenitor of all life. Acknowledged by most ancient cultures, it is the prana of the Hindus, ki of the Japanese, mana of the Polynesians and astral light of the Kabbalists. Chi is present in all; T’ai Chi and its higher form, Chu Gung, enable the practitioner to become aware of it and use it instinctively. The ancient Chinese had developed an elaborate system of breath, posture, motion and visualization to cultivate the qi, known as Qigong. Qigong literally means, ‘work on the chi’. Buddhist and Taoist Qigong practitioners claim to attain salvation through martial arts. However, as most martial arts are vigorous, they are thought to make the chi flow under the skin instead of flowing into the dantian (lower abdominal area). Not so T’ai Chi, with its tranquil movements. T’ai Chi Chuan may be literally translated as ‘Supreme Ultimate Fist’. Fist? That is apparently what chuan means in Chinese. Contrary to popular perception, the T’ai Chi ‘fist’ does not denote violence or aggression. In ancient Chinese thought, the fist symbolized concentration, isolation and containment. It signifies mental and physical coordination in T’ai Chi. T’ai Chi stems from an intermingling of ancient Chinese intellectual (Confucian) and mystical (Taoist) traditions. Chang Sen-Feng, a philosopher-monk is credited with founding the system circa 11th century BC. Legend has it that Sen-Feng once came upon a duel between a crane and a snake. On observing the crane’s firm moves and the snake’s yielding ones, Sen-Feng created movements essentially based on contrast. For instance, elasticity as opposed to hardness, expansion to contraction, inhalation to exhalation and open to closed. Through all this, he was attempting to ‘control the active by means of the quiet’. A Ming dynasty document, T’ai Chi Chu’an Ching, written by Wang Chung Yü in the 15th century, explains further: ‘T’ai Chi is infinity… it contains dynamic and static movement; it is the mother of Yin and Yang, of everything male and female. It is the root of motion, which is division, and of stillness, which is union.’ In other words, T’ai Chi holds in balance that which exists in duality (the female principle Yin and the male principle Yang). The classic depiction of Yin and Yang as two equal curved shapes held in a circle is the symbol of T’ai Chi. As one becomes adept at t’ai chi, waves of energy (chi) begin moving through the body. The motions are designed to absorb Yang from the heavens and Yin from the earth through breathing techniques. This is ‘breathing through the feet’ and is based on the work of the great Chinese master, Chuang Tzu who explained: ‘The breathing of the true man comes from his heels, while men generally breathe only through their throats.’ The presence of five ‘essential qualities’ is a precursor to the practice of this system. These are man (slowness), ch’ing(lightness), chieh (clarity), heng (balance) and ching (calmness). These are integrated with typically soft, circular movements to give rise to the forms (T’ai Chi exercises). Each form flows into another without any gaps, somewhat like a musical symphony. Much like the Hindu concept of the Brahman or the Universal Spirit, T’ai Chi has no beginning or end. All elements are fused together in a constant state of harmony. All T’ai Chi forms have names. Although the English translations may seem obscure, each name is significant. Some may describe the technical aspect of the movement, such as Brush Knee Twist Step. Certain others, like Hand Strums the Lute and Jade Angel Works at the Shuttle are named after the actions they are based on. The most unusual are the ones that imitate animal movements, such as White Stork Flaps its Wings and Golden Cockerel Stands on One Leg. T’ai Chi is practiced taking directions into account. Although the sun’s true directions may be disregarded, spatial directions still need to be observed. The side of the room faced while practicing the exercise may be taken as north. The movement of the feet is designed to cover more area towards the west than the east of the starting position. In accordance with the cyclical motion of life, the exercise ends at exactly the same place where it started.
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