Energy for Life

T’ai chi as a tool for healthy aging

by Ferrell Mercer

FerrellBorn in 1952, I am at the tail end of the Baby Boom. However, I am old enough to remember “Never trust anyone over 30.” We could not imagine ever being thirty years old much less retirement age. For many of us the words of my late friend Jim Kellogg ring true. He said “If I had known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

As I have gotten older it has become more and more important to me to be and stay healthy. The principle tool I have found to do that is the Chinese art of t’ai chi chuan. Below I will describe

the benefits I get from the practice of t’ai chi, but before I do that I want to make an important distinction. In his book “The Power of Internal Martial Arts and Chi”, Bruce Frantzis talks about the difference between being fit and being healthy. He says:

A person who is considered to be fit in the West may be able to do over 100 push-ups, run a marathon, possess a beautiful, muscular physique – and yet not be internally healthy. He or she may have a bad back, damaged joints, liver problems, unbalanced emotions, an inability to handle stress, and sexual weakness or dysfunction.

So I practice t’ai chi for health in all aspects of my life — physical, emotional and spiritual

I came to t’ai chi in my early 40’s. As a young man, I played sports and focused on building strength and endurance paying little attention to flexibility and balance. I worked designing high tech products for one of the largest companies in the world, eventually leading teams of other designers. In my early 40’s I had quit exercising, was working 60 to 80 hours per week, wasn’t eating well and was constantly feeling stressed. I was not healthy. Fortunately, one day I saw a flyer for a beginning t’ai chi class and decided to try it.

For the first couple of years, as I learned the outward movements of the t’ai chi form, what I remember most is the constant reminders from my teacher to relax. Often the reminder was not spoken but took the form of the instructor simply touching the area in my upper back between my shoulder blades. When my awareness was brought there, I realized that my shoulders were hunched and tense. With that gentle reminder, I would relax my shoulders and feel my whole body straighten a little and relax a lot. I began to breathe deeper. I felt better.

Later I was introduced to the two-person exercise of t’ai chi push hands. There I learned to confront my fear, tension and imbalance when working closely with another person. The lines from the Tao Te Ching that I had read many times became very physical and very immediate in push hands: “Soft overcomes hard, weak overcomes strong. Everybody knows it, nobody uses the knowledge.” (Tao Te Ching verse 78 in the version by Ursula K. Le Guin).

What I learned in push hands about yielding to incoming force and remaining balanced soon showed up in how I handled confrontation in meetings at work and it definitely affected how I interacted with my teen-aged children.   Learning to breathe, to relax, to stay balanced and focused, to sense the energy of someone else in push hands helped me cope with my life.

I do not mean to say that I am good at t’ai chi, I am not. I mean to say that I am better because of t’ai chi and what it has taught me.

Throughout my time as a t’ai chi student, I have had difficulty balancing when all my weight was on one foot. After years of frustration, some talented teachers helped me see that my ankles have structural issues and weakness perhaps related to the severe ankle sprains I got playing high school basketball. I am working to slowly strengthen and relax my ankles using the t’ai chi form and exercises suggested by my teachers. Progress is slow but whenever I get frustrated or discouraged I think of T.T. Liang who became a t’ai chi master with feet deformed by torture during his time as a prisoner during World War II.

I will describe the benefits I see of the Cheng-Ming t’ai chi that I do. While some of these things are specific to Cheng-Ming, most are generally available in any t’ai chi form and school.

We start with a warm-up sequence that gently and systematically moves all of the joints starting from the top of the head and going down to the feet. Often in the morning, I get out of bed feeling stiff. By the time I have finished this warm-up, I feel more limber and free to move. Next is a series of repeated movements taken from the t’ai chi form called tan ren. These movements continue to loosen my joints and also work with the energy channels of my body. As I do tan ren I begin to feel energy moving in my body. After tan ren we do some standing chi gung meditation. Standing still in a sequence of postures, I can really focus on where the tension lies in my body on any given day. When I feel the tension, I can begin to release it and relax as new areas of tension come into focus and I again release them. As one of my teachers pointed out, the stillness makes facing the tensions inescapable.

After these warm-ups I do the actual t’ai chi form. Its slow movements work to improve my balance as I move from posture to posture. Maintaining a relaxed, slow, deep breathing calms my mind and brings focus.   The sequence of postures in the form alternates putting all of my weight into first one leg and then the other. Alternating using and relaxing the legs helps the circulation of the blood by promoting venous return. By the time I reach the last posture of the form, my hands tingle with energy and I am feeling much better than when I got out of bed. That more than anything is why I start as many days as possible with t’ai chi. I tell people that I can either do t’ai chi or take medicine, and I’d rather do t’ai chi.

Other benefits of t’ai chi come from learning to move from the center of the body (what the Chinese call the lower tan tien).  T’ai chi teaches you to engage the whole body in tasks as simple as opening a door which makes them much easier and less stressful. T’ai chi teaches you to pour the weight smoothly from one foot into the other when stepping, decreasing the jar of each step. T’ai chi teaches relaxed straightness of posture. Some years ago my wife taught an ergonomics course at my workplace. As she described each recommended posture or way of moving, I thought “just like in t’ai chi”. The modern science of ergonomics is teaching what t’ai chi teachers have taught for hundreds of years.

Increasing amounts of medical research are available these days on the benefits of t’ai chi. If you are interested in more, I can recommend “The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi” by Peter M. Wayne and Mark L. Fuerst.

In addition to all of its health benefits, t’ai chi is a very effective and highly respected martial art.

With all these benefits, what is bad about t’ai chi? According to Wolfe Lowenthal in his book “There Are No Secrets”, the Chinese t’ai chi master Cheng Man-ch’ing who was among the first to teach t’ai chi in America asked this of some of his senior students. When they failed to answer him, his answer was “What is not good about Tai Chi Chuan is that it is so very difficult to achieve.”

That said, a modicum of daily practice has consistently yielded big results for me over the years. It is said that three things are necessary to be skilled at t’ai chi: natural talent, good instruction and persistence. If you try t’ai chi, perhaps you will find that you are gifted with natural talent. If, like me, you find your natural talent limited, you can still make progress only more slowly. In Charlottesville, we are fortunate to have good teachers available. I cannot say enough good things about my teachers at Hiromi T’ai Chi and I know there are other good instructors in town. The last area of persistence is perhaps the most important. It allows whatever talent we have and the instruction that we receive to bloom in our bodies and give us the health we seek.

I end with a bow to all my t’ai chi brothers and sisters around the world. Three bows to my first t’ai chi teachers Carla Van Arnem, Lee Felton and Judith Sullivan. And three times three bows to my current teachers John McCullough, Master Hiromi Johnson and Grandmaster Wang Fu-Lai. Finally I express eternal gratitude to those who created and spread the art over the centuries.