January 24, 2000
Volume 52, No. 18
Tai Chi: A lifelong obsession
Tingsen Xu is an associate professor in rehabilitation medicine and physical education.
During my first year of high school at the age of 15, I enrolled in the Jing Wu School of martial arts in Shanghai, China. Like most young men, I was interested in martial arts as a means of fighting and defense. I soon, however, became curious about tai chi and its slow, smooth movements. So I started taking classes.
Did you know that tai chi is the result of 5,000 years of traditional Chinese medical theory? Following the yin/yang theory of balance, we should avoid extremes and strive for mental and physical balance in our daily lives, in our relationships, in our mental and spiritual lives, and in the world around us.
An important tenet of traditional Chinese medicine is the integration of mind and body as a whole. Rather than focusing on treating only physical symptoms in one part of the body, traditional medicine stresses prevention and treatment of the entire body. Balance in nature and in ourselves became our goal.
During my time in Shanghai, I had the opportunity to study with some very skilled grandmasters in tai chi. Those teachers saw their goal as not only teaching a physical skill but also teaching life lessons to their students. Health, life skills and values, as well as hard work, were taught in those classes.
We learned from those grandmasters that a martial artist needs the ability to heal as well as to destroy. Often the martial artist treated patients for illness in one part of his house and taught tai chi in another. When applied to the martial arts, tai chi becomes tai chi chuan, or "Grand Ultimate Fist." This is a very high level of martial art. It represents a peaceful martial art, using the opponent's force for defense and using only the strength necessary to perform a movement, thereby conserving energy.
Those who practice tai chi do so with fluid, slow, graceful and smooth movements, like a cat. Tai chi movements relaxe muscles, restore balance and relieve stress. Students learn deep breathing and discover the meditative aspects to tai chi. Several recent scientific studies have begun to prove some of the claims made by those who practice tai chi.
For instance, in the School of Medicine Steven Wolf and I conducted an important frailty reduction study that was sponsored by the National Institute on Aging. It found that older people taking part in a 15-week tai chi program reduced the risk of multiple falls by 47.5 percent. With tai chi's focus on balance and stress reduction, it has been demonstrated as helpful in preventing cardiovascular disease, pain, arthritis, high blood pressure and mental disruptions. Jorge Juncos, Steve and I have applied for a new grant using tai chi to help people prevent Parkinson's Disease.
Tai chi is also of great benefit to young people through the development of coordination, strength and the ability to defend oneself. There are also many social and psychological benefits. Television, music, movies and the Internet often convey much of what young people learn--depicting an unbalanced lifestyle. The pursuit of money, material possessions, extravagant expenditures, heavy drinking and eating, and violence are often characterized in a positive light. A balanced lifestyle, integrity, health and valuing the family are basic true paths to happiness and peacefulness.
Participation in tai chi is another channel where a positive role model can make a great difference in a young person's life. The ability to perform difficult moves and to defend oneself also leads to tremendous self-confidence. If young people have confidence in their abilities, they are more likely to take on new challenges and succeed in school as well as other areas of their life.
I recently taught a class in an elementary school in DeKalb County, and not only were the students involved--but also their parents. As the class progressed, the bonding between the parents and the children could be seen; the children's behavior improved as well.
Many of these same benefits are important in the university environment. The greatest challenges in a young person's academic career take place in the university. This is combined with the stresses that are involved in developing independence, new social relationships and taking on adult roles. We often do not prepare people well for all of the pressures that they will face at this time of their life.
While it is widely accepted that exercise can help reduce stress, the focus required in tai chi removes participants even more from thoughts about their problems. The slow, meditative movements produce a relaxation that is the opposite of many systems of exercise, while still producing the physical benefits.
Even in the short time I have taught introductory tai chi classes in the physical education department, a number of students have told me about reduced stress, improvements in their studies and increased energy-which they attributed to tai chi.
Tai chi has been offered at Emory through the support of Daniel Adame, chair of the Department of Health, Physical Education and Dance. In the future, I hope to gradually open higher level classes to students. President Bill Chace and his wife JoAn practice tai chi every day for 20 minutes. Their support and encouragement has been most appreciated.