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Finding the Way of Nature in Tai Chi

By Taylor Smith | Photo by Shutterstock.com

The origins of tai chi harken back to ancient China. Today it is used by people around the world to improve balance, mental health, and rehabilitation, and to ease physical pain and/or discomfort. As an activity that promotes gentle, thoughtful movements, and conscious breathing, tai chi is a surprisingly effective way to incorporate exercise into your own life, no matter what your age.

One of the key tenets of tai chi is qi, which represents inner life energy. The goal is to get qi flowing smoothly and strongly throughout the body. Breathing effectively is essential to qi, and the movement of qi is both a physical and mental experience.

Corresponding to conscious breathing are fluid, graceful, and circular movements with the upper body. These can take the shape of forms or even “push hands,” which can help energy flow more effectively, even from one practitioner to another. An additional tai chi concept is yin and yang. Often depicted as two black-and-white halves within a round circle, yin and yang represent opposing elements that are said to keep the universe in balance. This might also be described as the female and male counterparts or dark vs. light. This kind of syncopated duality is present throughout tai chi and is a hallmark of Chinese philosophy.

The movements associated with most locally taught tai chi classes are slow and low impact. However, low impact does not mean low benefits. As students gracefully engage almost all the muscles in their body for the sake of balance and breathwork, the teacher will direct forms, which are oftentimes named for animal actions (health.harvard.edu). The five animals in tai chi are tiger, deer, bear, monkey, and crane. The five forms are tiger, crane, leopard, snake, and dragon. The intent is for students to discover within themselves the swiftness of a bird, the strength of the tiger, and the dexterity of a monkey. This animal-related tai chi practice relates to Chinese medicine in the sense that each animal is said to correspond with different organs in the body. This is sometimes referred to as Wu Qin Xi.

When preparing for your first tai chi class it is recommended that you wear loose, non-restrictive athletic clothes and flexible shoes. Thick-soled running or tennis sneakers may alter you balance and reduce a sense of connection to the earth. Don’t forget to bring a water bottle. Observing a tai chi class, or asking the instructor some questions beforehand, can also be helpful.

Harry Legg teaching tai chi. (Photo by Nath Kaplan Photography)

Tai Chi and the Outdoors

Harry Legg, founder and instructor at New Jersey Tai Chi. (Photo by Frederick Schmitt)

Tai chi can be practiced anywhere, but preference is given to the outdoors, when possible, since nature plays such a pivotal role in the tai chi experience. Harry Legg, founder and instructor at New Jersey Tai Chi (newjerseytaichi.com/welcome) in Verona, says, “when we can be out in nature, that’s ideal. I’m very fortunate to have an amazing park in Verona, New Jersey. We train in the park whenever the weather allows.”

An interesting aspect of doing tai chi outdoors is that it asks the students to adapt to their surroundings. For example, practicing in the sand on a quiet beach is going to be much different than trying to loosen your mind and let the background noise disappear in a crowded urban park. Outdoor practice also engages what tai chi considers to be your outer lung — the skin. At a time when most of the population is vitamin D-depleted and starved for natural light, tai chi is a great excuse to get at least one hour of outdoor time per day.

Finding a Teacher

Legg has been a tai chi instructor operating his own studio since 2015. “A good teacher is a student first and a teacher second. I have a master level teacher, Richard Clear, and at New Jersey Tai Chi, we teach his style, which is Clear Tai Chi Chuan. Clear Internal Push Hands involves softly placing hands on your training partner or teacher and learning to feel tensions, structural deficiencies, and other issues with their body — push hands could also be called sensing hands.”

Legg emphasizes that breath is a key element to any study of tai chi. Learning to coordinate body movement with breath, and directing breath to areas of the body where there might be pain or discomfort, are ways of utilizing the balance, breath, body, and life aspects of the tai chi art.

In terms of the treatment of ailments, Legg has seen relief and/or improvement of lower back pain, hypertension, depression, anxiety, and asthma in his own students. Legg is also certified in teaching tai chi to Parkinson’s disease patients and says that it is a wonderful treatment for Parkinson’s sufferers.

“I have 80-plus-year-old students who love seeing and carefully working with the martial applications to their tai chi form,” he says. “It makes their form better, their energy flow better — and that is another huge part of tai chi, your energy or flow.”

Legg adds that from a health perspective, he is a strong believer in tai chi’s ability to boost immunity, offer some arthritis relief, reduce hypertension, and lessen anxiety. Many recent medical studies support this, including a May 24, 2022 article published by Harvard Medical School that states, “Tai chi is often described as ‘meditation in motion,’ but it might well be called ‘medication in motion.’” Furthermore, the article points out that tai chi can be modified to fit any physical level, be it those recovering from surgery or someone just beginning their exercise journey (health.harvard.edu).

Regarding tai chi forms, Legg says that some forms can take as long as 45 minutes to perform. “We believe in teaching a shorter form for a good while to our students,” he notes. “This gets you to achieving real tai chi skill and the benefits, both health and martial, come much faster than spending literally a year or two of learning choreography without much else. Plus, in today’s instant-gratification society, there aren’t as many students willing to put in that much time without achieving some of the significant benefits that are to be had.”

Master Park, founder of Wuwei Tai Chi School. (Photo courtesy of Master Park)

Physics and Tai Chi

Master Park founded Wuwei Tai Chi School in West Windsor while working as a principal research physicist at Princeton University. Although he is now retired from his time at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, he still teaches Chen, Yang, and Wu-style tai chi. Park’s teaching combines traditional knowledge with scientific understanding, drawing on his background as a physicist. Park is currently offering a four-week tai chi foundations class online, through the school’s website at wuweitaichi.org.

Mackenzie Hawkins was introduced to tai chi while she was an undergraduate student at Princeton University. Through taking classes with fellow students, teachers, and staff, Hawkins’ interest in the practice grew. She now runs her own program called Inner Nature Retreat (innernatureretreat.net). The online classes support the mind-body practices that Hawkins learned in tai chi. Since graduating from Princeton University, Hawkins has also collaborated with Park on two books, which are available for download from Amazon. Nowflow Breath, Movement & Mind and Way of Now: Nowflow for Meditation, Peak Performance, and Daily Life combine elements of traditional tai chi and Taoist thinking with Park’s perspective as a physicist. Park explains, “Tao is the way of nature, and it shows us how to do better. When you do physics and tai chi you see that they are very similar.”

Park teaching a tai chi class. (Photo courtesy of Master Park)

On the subject of physics and the “nowflow” found in nature, Park writes, “One of the ways that it can be harder to see the wholeness of now is that we may be thinking about now as now shape. Perhaps without realizing it, we may assume that now is this static snapshot of the position of everything at a moment. By contrast, nowflow inherently includes the flow of change.”

The concept that nature is not static strongly relates to tai chi movement of qi energy, which is always moving and changing. We can further engage with this form of energy, and nature itself, through the study of forms.

A simple breath exercise can teach us to engage with this free flow of natural energy. Park recommends a preliminary free breath practice in Nowflow Breath, Movement & Mind that describes “breathing in, feeling the free flow of the breathing wind,” followed by “breathing out, feeling the free flow of the breathing wind.”

“It can feel soothing to feel something so fine, subtle, and free flowing,” writes Park. “If we sense that we’re gripping or narrowing too much with our attention, we can remind ourselves how soothing it can be just to watch the currents of a flowing river in nature.”

Susanna DeRosa. (Photo by Phil McAuliffe)

Tai Chi and Mental Health

Susanna DeRosa was introduced to tai chi as a college student. Since then, she has become a familiar face within the Central New Jersey and Bucks County, Pa., regions teaching indoor and outdoor classes at D&R Greenway in Princeton and Prallsville Mills in Stockton. DeRosa is available for private and group classes. Class schedules and reservations can be booked through her website at innerspacetaiji.wordpress.com. DeRosa has previously taught tai chi at Princeton University, Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey), and Carrier Clinic, where she was a regular instructor for more than 16 years. She now teaches classes at Earth House in East Millstone (earthhouse.org), a residential health care center for those with disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar.

DeRosa explains that tension in the mind and the body can manifest as emotional discomfort. Tai chi is a great way for those with mental illness to work towards relief with the introduction of new skills and new modes of awareness. Another great aspect of tai chi is that it is a moving meditation. For many individuals, seated meditations on a floor cushion for 10, 15, 20 minutes or more are nearly impossible. As a physical practice, tai chi allows for the mental benefits of seated meditation, but also the muscular engagement of a full-body workout.

“The body moves from one posture to another like clouds changing shapes in the sky,” says DeRosa. “Since the entire body and mind are engaged in the movement dynamic, a functional wholeness is achieved. The body, mind, and spirit come into harmony, creating a feeling of wellness.”

In terms of Chinese medicine, DeRosa points out that the meridians that are activated during an acupuncture session are the same as those that are engaged during tai chi. Both are wellness treatments that people use to balance the whole-body system.

“Since all of the body’s meridians relate to each other, the gentle stretches of the fluid tai chi sequence balance the workings of our internal organs,” says DeRosa. “By way of the changing postures, the meridians (energy channels) are naturally coaxed into greater congruity, allowing the organs to function in a more optimal fashion.”

Many people are looking for greater balance and harmony in their own lives. As these tai chi instructors attest, a certain type of physical, spiritual, and mental fitness can be available to all.
Most importantly, approach your tai chi journey with joy!

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