August 3, 1998
Volume 50, No. 36
Need relief from stress? Try t'ai chi, say Chace and Xu
The slow motion movements of the Chinese martial art t'ai chi ch'uan may at first view appear to pantomime kung fu. However, the fluid and graceful steps of t'ai chi are actually a gentle form of exercise that can relieve stress, strengthen balance and improve overall health, its proponents say. Its full name means "the supreme ultimate (t'ai chi) art of fighting with the fist (ch'uan)."
On Emory's campus, t'ai chi's best-known boosters are JoAn Chace, senior lecturer in English and wife of President Bill Chace, and Tingsen Xu, associate professor at the Center for Rehabilitation Medicine. Chace, who first discovered t'ai chi when she co-wrote a book on the subject, "Ride the Tiger to the Mountain: T'ai Chi for Health," has practiced t'ai chi for about a decade. "From very early in the process I began to relax my body and to breathe more deeply and easily. I also felt nimbler and firmer on my feet, better balanced," she said.
After her husband noticed the change in her demeanor, he joined her in practicing the martial art. "At the beginning we did about 10 minutes a day," JoAn Chace recalled. "We now do about 25 minutes and have no need for a longer session. With t'ai chi you have time to do your regular aerobic exercises as well."
Xu is a t'ai chi grand master who first came to Emory in 1989 as a visiting professor of biochemistry and began studying the martial art more than a half century ago in his native Shanghai. "More than 20 million Chinese practice t'ai chi every morning, especially in cities, public parks," he said. T'ai chi is a defensive martial art, Xu is quick to stress. He called it "the art of health-building defense," where harnessing both mental and physical energy are important.
Chace's book describes t'ai chi as "a set of slow, continuous, evenly paced and carefully patterned natural movements based upon the principle of shifting one's weight while keeping the body stable and upright." Not as easy as it might sound, but it's easy to see why the practices help people regain better balance.
Americans were introduced to t'ai chi after World War II, Xu said, but it has become better known since the 1970s, mostly through the proliferation of martial arts studios. "T'ai chi is still a long way from being a mainstream practice, but it is no longer esoteric either," Chace said.
When Xu arrived at Emory and began doing t'ai chi on the Quad to relieve stress, colleagues began to ask him about the practice. He soon had a class of Emory faculty and staff. Now Xu is a man on a mission. He not only wants Emory and Atlanta but people all over the world to learn more about t'ai chi and its benefits. In June he taught a free class in DeKalb County's Maloof Auditorium that brought in about a hundred people, he reported. His own for-credit P.E. class in beginning t'ai chi here at Emory had more than 30 students in its inaugural run, and Xu is planning to add a second, advanced class next year.
Most notably, Xu has seen great benefit to elderly practitioners of the art. He began a class at Wesley Woods were participants included Frances Pauley, 95, who has practiced t'ai chi for six years. "It's an exercise that includes your entire self," she said on a CBS News broadcast. "The longer you do it, the more meaning it has to you."
An Emory study conducted by Xu with lead investigator Steven Wolf, a professor of rehabilitation medicine, showed that regular practice of t'ai chi reduced the risk of falls in the elderly by almost 50 percent. For people over 85, falls are the leading cause of death and a third of those over 65 fall annually. The study was part of a federally funded study on preventing falls in older adults that was carried out across the country, and Emory's 200-person investigation was the largest study ever to document the affects of t'ai chi.