Tai Chi: the ancient art of going with the flow

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - It happens every spring. Along with April showers and that red, red robin, Tai Chi devotees return to the public parks.

A man leads participants to perform Taiji, a traditional form of Chinese martial arts, in Liu'an, Anhui province July 13, 2008. REUTERS/China Daily

They reappear like lilacs - men and women, dressed in loose clothing and cotton shoes, gliding in silent unison through their ballet-like exercises.

“There’s more energy in the air outside, especially early in the morning or evening,” George Kormendi, the program director of the New York School of Tai Chi Chuan, said in an interview.

“So sometimes I’ll bring my students outside to the park,” said Kormendi, who has been teaching Tai Chi, indoors and outdoors, for 20 years.

Literally translated as “Supreme Ultimate Fist,” Tai Chi Chuan is an ancient Chinese martial art based on the idea that in softness there is strength.

The short form of the popular Yang style of Tai Chi consists of 37 postures.

With names such as “Grasping Sparrow’s Tail” and “Fair Lady Works with Shuttles,” these “forms” are performed in a slow and continuous sequence. The entire exercise can be completed in seven to 10 minutes.

“The slow movement trains our awareness of energy and use of force,” Kormendi explained.

“To follow it and get out of the way without resistance. So we meet another person with a calm mind and without emotion.”


For Valerie Sannino, a 60-year-old receptionist with two herniated discs, exercise was just about impossible until she discovered Tai Chi.

“My spine doctor suggested it,” she said. “Now I can more freely, my sense of balance is much improved and I’m not in constant fear of hurting myself.

“I’m grateful for these exercises,” she added.

Research has shown that stroke patients who practiced as little as six weeks of Tai Chi improved their balance. Another study found that healthy seniors improved standing balance after only four weeks.

“This is good stuff,” said Dr. John Kelly, spokesperson for the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.

Kelly, an orthopaedic surgeon and associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the 2000-year-old exercise can improve the balance, increase the flexibility, reduce the stress and boost the strength of the 21st century practitioner.

“I’m happy to promote it,” he added.

Kelly says it’s particularly good for older people.

“As folks get older they lose their sense of balance. Tai Chi promotes balance. More and more data shows that balance training prevents hip fractures, which are almost always caused by falls,” he said.

Patrick McNulty, an actor and director in New York City, has been doing Tai Chi since 2001.

“It’s been really terrific in terms of reducing stress,” he said. “It works your whole body. You get quite strong, core and legs. But you don’t look like a muscleman.”

Even for the non-practitioner enjoying the park on a lovely spring day, just to watch these students, calm, disciplined and engrossed in the sheer grace of the sequence, is relaxing.

Tai Chi has been called “meditation in motion.”

As the return of spring confirms and the I Ching (Book of Changes), one of the oldest Chinese texts, states: “Nature is always in motion.”