Tai Chi: Loss and Gain

  tai chi agingIt’s true. The older you get, the more people want to force feed you a philosophy of loss. Everything appears to dwindle, leaving whatever you were gripping to stabilize yourself, a phantom in a shadow. 

Sometimes the effect of this “negative advancement” is itself positive and salubrious. But even in positive circumstances this proper condescension doesn’t really lift the spirit. It’s like counting your problems before they’ve hatched. 

I’ve been lucky in my practice (so far, knock wood). Being a martial arts teacher, I am the recipient of people bringing me all sorts of information about aging, slowing down, restricting physical ambition—some of it digestible, some of it bringing back the taste—if you can call it that—of cafeteria food, especially Fish Stick Friday.

It’s no surprise that I take an opposing stance on this business of aging or, at least, a modified one: while everyone agrees that Tai Chi is a good practice for older people, I think of Tai Chi as being not only positive, but in many cases rejuvenating. Instead of being just corrective or preventive, I have time and again been impressed by Tai Chi’s ability to encourage “wiggle room,” enough to let the practitioner discover the advantages that inhabit the slowly revolving world of this “double fish.”

The first of these boons is its gift to the player of “inner space.” For many, the process of aging is a not-always-slow process of collapse, not just the body, but the space around the body. Older people will sometimes talk about feeling invisible. Tai Chi counters that directive giving, among other things, a sense of self that is approached with caution and respect. The sense of self expands like ‘beng;’ posture improves, steps are more self-assured, ‘space’ is reclaimed.

The roots of Tai Chi come from a retired Chinese general (‘retired’ is a clue in itself). In his post-war life, he developed a number of martial routines, two of which have effectively swept through the world, gathering acolytes as it goes. Shyly, you might confess that you have no interest in that whispered association, “martial art,” but it is likely that it is just its martial structure which enlivens this art; without it, you’ve got waving hands on a cliff at sunset—possibly pretty, but also empty.

Tai Chi students must acknowledge a debt to their senior artists (Kung Fu came before Tai Chi). There are certain skills best obtained through the martial. Among these are postural control related to—some people say—being able to freeze without moving when you are preparing to launch an attack, or as a preventive to keep the other fellow from knowing where you are. This postural method, extremely slow, requires a subtlety of listening and touch rarely found outside extensive training, yet so important to getting the benefits from Tai Chi practice.

Tai Chi takes a radical approach to what might be called Complete Body Integration, and this is another unexpected benefit for those of us getting older. For instance, the entire right side of the body—from the toes on the right foot to the upraised fingertips on the right hand—is described in Chinese martial arts as the right arm. This integration counteracts the daily news of this stiff joint and that wobbly knee and this sore elbow…Tai Chi does not ignore these areas, but in seeing them as part of a system, it takes a different approach to dealing with them. I can’t count the number of times a student has complained of a sore shoulder, only to find that the opposite hip is the real culprit.

What about the slowness of Tai Chi? Many think that it ‘fits’ the slow pace of senior movement, but I have found that it also encourages speed; by ‘mapping’ certain pathways through repetition, it actually allows people to move more confidently (also reducing falls).

Tai Chi’s benefits are too numerous to detail, but let me include one last treasure: that Tai Chi is a personal practice, generally taught in a room full of others. It is both cultural and private, something that belongs to the student, and the student belongs to the group. It is expansive, just the opposite of the closing down we are so used to seeing.


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One Response to “Tai Chi: Loss and Gain”

  1. Kim Hoag says:

    This piece is very well written. Thoughtful as it is, there is little here that is new to me. Yet it’s incisiveness has allowed me to think of these concepts in new ways. This is much appreciated, thank you.

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