Why do so many Chinese practice Tai Chi and Qigong?
One explanation comes to mind. Many people in China see and admire the strong, happy and healthy elders who practice Tai Chi and Qigong. People see that these practitioners are vital and energetic and carry themselves like people many years younger.
In China the healthcare and social welfare systems are less advanced than most Western countries, and so individuals must rely more on themselves when they reach old age. The wise ones begin preventatively, making time to nurture themselves in mind and body, thus preserving their youthfulness.
Methods for cultivating youthfulness through movement and meditation are readily available in China. These developed over centuries through trial and error and are drawn from the areas of martial arts, medicine, healing practices and philosophy. Such practices have the potential to address the physical, emotional and spiritual brought about by modern sedentary lifestyles.
How do we define youthfulness?
Rather than offering technical definitions, let me offer responses of the students from my Sunday morning class in New York who explain why they get up early to come, some even traveling from more than two hours in one direction.
"I am more energized that I was a few years ago."
"I am now more optimistic about my health than I used to be."
"I have less pain that a few years ago."
"When I was doing the kick we practice my daughter saw me. She said that even her teenage friends could not do it."
"My 90 year old mom asked if I was getting taller when I visited at Christmas. I told her was a little taller from my WaQi practice."
"I am sleeping deeper and longer like I did when I was young."
"I am feeling stronger."
"I was approached by a young stranger at the airport asking how at my age I was able to do the agility drill I was practicing before boarding my plane for Europe.”
Why the focus on youthfulness?
I have been trying to figure out why my students go to such lengths to come to my classes or to my annual training events—in many cases for more than 20 years. These are people with many different interests, at many different ages and in varied physical condition. I have come to believe that it is the youthful, vibrant, optimistic feeling they get in body and mind from the training—and the knowledge that they can sustain or develop this further over time. It is the power to affect one or more of the aging dimensions in perceptible ways. This is why I chose the motto, "be youthful at all ages."
You are a Tai Chi master; why do you call your method WaQi, youthful energy?
Tai Chi is a profound, effective and powerful martial and healing art. It is difficult to learn the essence of this art without long term, dedicated study with an unselfish and open-minded teacher from an authentic lineage. Because of its growing popularity, there is much variation in the quality of its teaching throughout the world. While this popularity has broadened the appeal of Tai Chi and has led to the sharing of elements of Chinese culture, it has also led to misinformation and misunderstanding. Recently a student of mine asked his life long friends to consider learning, but both said no: It's too slow. It's too boring. They do not understand that there is a slow part— meditation and meditative movement—and a fast part—agility training that comes from traditional practice. These two together, the slow and the fast, make Tai Chi a balanced, well-rounded, efficient practice leading to optimal health.
Instead, then, of trying to correct misperceptions I decided to name the art we practice WaQi. Literally this means youthful energy. The name indicates its deep roots in traditional practice, honoring the legendary teachers I was able to study with in China. It also refers to the wisdom I have gained from my students over the years. And it points to my own healing experiences, namely the curing of my congenital heart condition and the complete recovery from a devastating bike accident in 2014 that left me with chronic and severe back and hip pain.
Do you teach Tai Chi for health or for martial art?
This is a good question, especially because some teachers state that they only teach one or the other. Henan Province in China where I grew up is one of the cradles of Chinese philosophy, healing and martial arts. Shaolin Gongfu (Kung Fu) and Chen Style Tai Chi were developed there. Based on my "home town" experiences, I would like to provide my own perspective.
Hundreds of years ago Tai Chi was developed as a powerful martial art. But it's approach was different from the external schools that developed impressive martial skills by tireless physical training--the kind of training the yields impressive results in a relatively short period of time. The appeal of a fast track to martial skill is obvious. Internal training, however, takes a slower, subtler and more balanced track.
Like the external approach, the Tai Chi and Qigong method was also developed as a powerful martial art, but one designed to simultaneously build health, strength, speed and calm mastery. That is, it emphasizes nurturing the body, elevating the mind and spirit and attaining martial virtue. By martial virtue, Wu De (武德), I mean cultivating a kind, compassionate and giving spirit. In this way the practice of fighting arts is transformed into a mental, physical and spiritual path to and for peace within and without. In other words, trained correctly, Tai Chi leads in the direction of wisdom, lasting happiness, and enriched longevity.
There is a specific reason why Tai Chi is slow, precise and holistic. Chinese philosophy states that if you truly wish to accomplish something you begin with its opposite. In this case to develop explosive speed and power you begin with slow, smooth and soft movements. And further, to deepen relaxation, attain powerful body alignment and accumulate internal energy and tranquility, you train stillness: standing, sitting and lying down meditation. This is not a fast track, microwave style process.
The health benefits of Tai Chi however—like reduced pain, improved balance, sleep and immune function, and decreased stress and anxiety,for example—canbe experienced quickly. Nevertheless from the point of view of physical strength and speed internal stylists catch up over time and indeed go ahead. By middle age many external stylists reduce their training or cease altogether due to injury and/or damage done by the heavy wear and tear of the practice regimes. By contrast feats of power, speed, skill (and excellent health!) are earmarks of Tai Chi in middle age and beyond.
This balanced training method—combining slow, moderate and quick speeds with stillness practice (standing, sitting, and lying down body positions)—is crucial in preventing injuries. The wisdom of this training method has tremendous potential for helping professional athletes stay healthy and extend their careers. One can also see its potential for rehabilitation work, especially in relieving pain, improving balance, and speeding recovery following cancer treatment.
Of course one can train internal arts incorrectly as some do when their pursuit is purely martial. When power and dominance are the primary intention, some parts of the holistic internal practice are neglected—namely those that nurture the body and spirit—while others are over trained—namely the explosive power dimensions and/or dominance in pushhands and martial application. Despite having trained in Tai Chi fundamentals these individuals too can destroy their bodies by driving it beyond its natural limits.
Following the full, balanced physical, mental and spiritual curriculum leads to happiness, astonishing skill and the highest quality of life. (Note: A more detailed version of this discussion is available in the Blog, Article # 17.)