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Tai Chi

Tai Chi what goes on in the body and mind?
By Birgit Schoeniger

The air is fresh, and a peaceful atmosphere permeates throughout the house. It is 6 o'clock in the evening. I am standing still; comfortably settling into the first of the learned Tai Chi positions. The mind is focused on every tiny move about to be taken.

These are flowing, slow movements without pain, without hassle, almost effortless. It feels smooth, even gliding from one posture into another. Calm settles within the restless mind that always seems to race ahead. Today's clutter of thoughts, experience and emotions drain away. A feeling of relaxation, completeness, harmony and calm pervades the body. At this moment in time I am simply 'being'.

How does one bring the body and mind in harmony with each other and at the same time learn about the self? I went to find some answers by speaking to Tuan Yu, a PHD student, teaching Tai Chi Yang Style at the University of Kent. Tuan, born in Malaysia, was introduced to Tai Chi more than twenty years ago. He was taught how to teach Tai Chi from the Dong family, a well-known Tai Chi source in China. The Yang Style is the most often taught form of Tai Chi in the western world.

Where does Tai Chi come from?
Generally, Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese health system (more than 3000 years old) with the original purpose to enhance health and physical fitness but seems otherwise difficult to define exactly nowadays. Tuan adds that this is because there are many different approaches to practice and teaching of Tai Chi. It is also seen as part of the Martial Art training. Its basic philosophy comes from Taoism and the philosophical writings of Lao Tsu. But Chang San- feng is seen as the founder of Tai Chi in its original form, creating thirteen postures or movements.

However, Tuan understands it as an active philosophy of the body. It is body intelligence. He believes, doing Tai chi can help you to understand philosophical ideas, not only intellectually but also its meaning on an deeper level. This complete and true understanding is qualitatively different as the body experience makes it more significant. It is a body mind habit. I always try incorporating it in everything I do. It becomes part of you and the way you approach things in life. Tai Chi can be seen as a philosophy based on an entirely intellectualised concept but understood with an active experience via the movement system of Tai Chi.

The movements
The Tai Chi movements, as taught by Tuan, consist of a three-part set called form or format that include different postures. These movements are performed in a slow and graceful way with smooth transitions between the postures. Naturalness is an important quality of the movements.

'The formats or forms dictate the way of the energy flow in the body automatically. But some teachers prefer to focus on one point and let the energy flow from one point to another', says Tuan. This energy flow is part of the sensation or benefits to be felt while practising Tai Chi.

You can take it at any level you want slow or fast. Slow movements are practised for health purposes in that Tai Chi offers similar to a combination of yoga and meditation. Practising the moves in fast mode as you would in any Martial Art will give you a totally different experience.'

What about the body mind interaction?
'Many people feel that the mind and body are separate entities but while practising, the mind links to the body. You feel connected. The body seems to be together your mind and you body as one. The challenge is to calm your mind, to be responsive and sensitive toward yourself and achieve some kind of predictability', says Tuan.

He mentions a further development possible (needed if Tai Chi is practised with focus as in martial arts). It is also learning about other people that is 'getting to know others'. The focus changes when practising with other people; the flow of energy between them. It is a different experience and more enriching.

Tips for calming your mind

Tuan says 'Most peoples minds race throughout the day. I think calming the mind is a skill that has to be learned. With repeated attempts you will get better and an attitude forward or towards continuation. Step by step like running a marathon. You will not be able to do it the first day.'

Calm your mind
(meditation sets in when your mind is calm):

Concentrate on breathing
Get ready to practice for some time, you will need patience and persistence
Allow yourself to calm down
Don't try to stop yourself from racing thoughts
Try counting the breath you will be surprised at how this helps to calm the mind

What to expect
Be aware of what is going on. When your mind is calm your sensitivity is higher in my experience. The skin's feeling more intense. The more practice the higher the sensitivity level. It feels empowering, energized; some kind of warm gentle and soothing sensation. Some people feel hot, as if hot water runs through their body.

Balance, body awareness and overall body response improve. People who are more accident prone could use Tai Chi to help them find balance. We can learn to rise above daily irritations and not be emotionally attached. This enables us to act, be detached; we are able to make good rational decisions and lessen the emotional impact on our daily lives.

As you work with Tai Chi you look at yourself as a reflection. You can then constructively evaluate and criticise yourself giving you more control over yourself. Know how you are, not making things worse. - You can choose to do something different if you are aware.

Mastery or lifelong integration?
Don't think you will ever master Tai Chi. There are no limits in trying to understanding the system (body or whole system of life). What level a master is varies depending on what expectations people have. Tai Chi is ideal for integration into daily life and best practised when it is quiet - in the morning or evening.

You can find more information about Tai Chi on Tuan Yu's Tai Chi website www.taichisociety.org You can also email Tuan direct with any questions you may have. For details of clubs near you please look at the Alternative Guide for your region as their are hundreds around the country.

This article was written by Birgit Schoeniger who has practised Tai Chi for 3 years, is a keen fencer and lives in London.
Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.