Tai chi master Yang Xinhua (center) helps international students at Nanjing University to perfect their skills (DMITRIY SHOUTOV)
It's not easy for people to understand tai chi. The traditional Chinese exercise is not a religion, a science or a sport. Instead, it can be thought of as a system for developing people's ability to connect with their inner energy, or life force, and to use it to empower the body and mind.
Tai chi was likely first practiced by Taoists centuries ago with the objective of purifying the mind and building the body's ability to ward off disease. Many practitioners succeeded: Generations of masters have enjoyed anxiety-free pure souls over the course of disease-free long lifespans.
Yang Xinhua is a highly regarded tai chi master teaching at Nanjing University. She is the daughter of a great master, Yang Chenjie, a descendant, in the 19th generation, of tai chi creators. Today she is in her mid-60s, slim, with a smile radiating calmness and joy—a token of harmony and happiness. I met her for the second time in the summer of 2016. She looked identical to when I saw her four years ago. Asked about trophies, Yang replied that the list is too long to mention. She considers having the opportunity to teach "slow and mysterious motions of tai chi to repair people's hearts" to be the greatest blessing given to her by heaven.
Over the past couple of decades, tai chi has surged in global popularity. It has also gained approval from international authorities on health. Both the World Health Organization and the Harvard Medical School have praised its benefits.
This spring, I took tai chi classes with Ken Nelson at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Massachusetts. Nelson has been engaged at his school ever since starting it from scratch over 20 years ago. His class brought new depth to the understanding of tai chi I acquired in China. His pleasant voice accords well with his gentle teaching style, and both combine to put students at ease.
An estimated 60 million people in the United States presently suffer from loneliness, which has been described as an invisible epidemic, and I asked Nelson whether practicing tai chi can help deal with this.
"Loneliness is a crisis of identity," he said. "Many people suffer from this crisis, which can be called a case of mistaken identity. For example, one great myth of American culture is the fictionalized self-made man or woman. [This] is played out in movies, and in many of our lives, as a rugged individualist who survives by his wits and climbs the ladder of success. Carried to its extreme, this notion creates a lot of lonely people disconnected from themselves, their communities and the whole of nature. Qigong and traditional wisdom help [us] to see through this myth. The regular practice of qigong can restore our hidden wholeness and reconnect us to the web of creation." Tai chi is a type of qigong, which includes a range of exercises aimed to cultivate qi, or energy.
Nelson introduced me to his qigong teacher, Robert Peng, with whom I chatted for a while in an open hall at the Kripalu Center, while through the windows, a picturesque lake and distant hills appeared to be awakening from winter.
Peng was born in central China's Henan Province—home to the renowned Shaolin Temple, one of the iconic cradles of Chinese martial arts—and learned qigong from a high-ranking Buddhist monk. Today, Peng, a trainer, healer and author, teaches qigong in the United States and around the world. His energy gives the impression that there is nothing beyond his comprehension. I asked him what aspects of qigong can easily and swiftly comfort people who live in modern societies and lead high-speed, corporate lifestyles.
Peng's response was surprisingly simple, highlighting three of the many techniques he said exist: make every minute meaningful, breathe, and always be truthful to yourself and to others.
Interestingly, the composition of the main Chinese word for health denotes how Taoists viewed health as a process, not as a state. The word is written with two characters: the first (pronounced jian) is primarily composed of another character that can mean establish or build; the second (kang) can mean healthy or peaceful.
Whereas the word health is often used in Western cultures to refer simply to a state of not being ill, Chinese traditional wisdom views health as the continuous creation of a strong body and tranquil mind. Now, this thinking is increasingly being adopted by the inhabitants of modern societies the world over.
The author is a freelance writer living in New York
Copyedited by Chris Surtees
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