TAI CHI CH’UAN – Past, Present & Future

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Eastern_exercise_theraapy

TAI CHI CH’UAN – PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE

As a form of dynamic meditation, it has no equal, whilst in both the external arena of the martial arts as well as the internal realm of the healing arts it is superlative. However, regardless of whether it is considered from the healing, spiritual or martial arts perspectives, TCC is far from comprehensive, and in that respect fails to adequately address certain important aspects of training for health, strength, fitness, agility and acuity.

David Labuschagne

September 11th, 2023

Tai Chi Ch’uan (TCC) has been slowly gaining popularity amongst Western physical therapists, health / wellness practitioners and health-conscious individuals as a low-intensity mode of exercise therapy.

TCC has a documented history of some three centuries (although according to folklore it is considerably older), while its origins may be attributed to a variety of military conditioning exercises that emulate animal movements. Currently there are a handful of major TCC styles (or schools), but what they have in common are their martial art origins.

Tai Chi translates from the Chinese as the “supreme ultimate”. However, TCC (lit. ultimate fist), as it is taught and practiced is somewhat less than ultimate when it comes to its application in the sphere of therapy.

As a form of dynamic meditation, it has no equal, whilst in both the external arena of the martial arts as well as the internal realm of the healing arts it is superlative. However, regardless of whether it is considered from the healing, spiritual or martial arts perspectives, TCC is far from comprehensive, and in that respect fails to adequately address certain important aspects of training for health, strength, fitness, agility and acuity. As such, TCC requires adaptation and/or augmentation with supplementary exercises.

At this juncture, the TCC practitioner may well respond with “tell me something I don’t already know”. After all, aren’t these shortcomings the reason why various warm-up, cool-down, stretching and energy- flow routines are incorporated into the practice sessions? Yes, true enough, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that those supplementary exercises are either sufficient or the most appropriate. In my experience, these ancillary Qigong and stretching routines—irrespective whether of ‘internal’ (medical) or ‘external’ (martial) derivation—tend to be yet more of the same. Given the common Oriental ancestry and ideology of these modalities, this should come as no surprise.

Over the course of the last few decades, TCC has been adapted as a therapeutic modality by modifying its movement patterns, tempo, performance intensity, and duration.

In the West, these modifications to the TCC kata forms (movement sequences) have turned a powerful therapeutic cum personal transformational tool into a pleasant recreational activity with limited application. The original “supreme ultimate fist” katas have been reduced to insubstantial “flower-fist” forms that are best described as low-intensity calisthenics, and that ultimately are more soporific than therapeutic.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the great cultural divide—i.e., the East—TCC has devolved into a competition event in which strict adherence to choreographed form is sacrosanct. What’s more (in actuality, less), the doctrine of materialism that underpins both communist Chinese and Western medical science has been instrumental in removing life force, chi, élan vital, prana, etc. from its central role. In other words, spirit is dismissed as insubstantial malarkey, or tolerated as an inconvenient myth.

A further consideration is that TCC is a complex movement form requiring many hours of concentrated instruction and practice for the practitioner to master at a basic level. Whilst the research literature attests to TCC’s effectiveness in dealing with a number of health issues, it fails to mention the steep learning curve associated with it. Part of the challenge with TCC is that the health gains attributed to it depend on the individual correctly performing the movement sequence. That is to say, s/he needs to not only be familiar with the choreography, but also to be comfortable in performing it, failing which the movements are executed in robotic, unnatural, and rigid form. In order to realise the benefits of TCC, the practitioner needs to be relaxed, fluid, focused, in balance, and natural.

Where these considerations assume particular importance is in the area of program adherence. Many neophytes become discouraged by the rigour associated with learning TCC, and generally discontinue the practice feeling inadequate and confused. Or they dismiss TCC with a “been there, done that, got the T- shirt” attitude.

Accordingly, I have taken the liberty of “deconstructing” kata from the dual perspectives of Western biomechanics (i.e. human movement and ergonomics) and Eastern bioenergetics. The intention has been to adapt the “classical” TCC form and movements in order to make them more relevant to 21c lifestyles.

Now, before the TCC traditionalists (or modernists) take offence, let me qualify my remarks. I have been an avid practitioner and teacher of this discipline for over forty years. Moreover, with the passing of time, I have increasingly come to appreciate the subtlety, sublimity and depth of this moving meditation form, which in transcending its martial origins has found direct relevance and applicability to many aspects of daily living. However, TCC is not a static, strictly codified formula or choreography that is, so to speak, ‘carved in stone’—a metaphor more in keeping with its spirit would be ‘writ upon water’. Indeed, according to the dictates of both nature and need, TCC is a dynamic, constantly evolving, and adaptive / adaptable philosophy, art, science, and discipline.

Accordingly, in classroom as well as clinic, I present innovative programs that integrate the best of Western and Eastern therapeutic methods (a.k.a. Kinergetix Movement Therapies). The Kinergetix modality is the formulation of the synthesis of Western exercise physiology, human movement, fitness, rehabilitation and sport sciences, with Easter mind-body therapies and martial arts. In the context of this topic, I will however discourse only on the TCC component that is taught in Kinergetix.

The kata that Kinergetix clients are trained in is comprised of 128 steps and requires some 30 minutes for its performance. This form was taught to me by my Sifu, Simon Lim (who in my opinion was one of a very few Taiji grand masters of the 20th century). His kata is distinctive in the following respects:

  • It is performed on both sides (opening Left & Right;
  • The form is compact, being performed on the spot, hence requires only a few meters of floor space;
  • It combines elements of Yang and Chen styles, hard and soft, internal (medical) and external (martial) schools;
  • The focus is on Qi generation, circulation, refinement, storage and expression;
  • Qigong is integral to the routines.

Succinctly, this form is “pure” TCC – it transcends form (and is not a limited application of such as practiced in many TCC schools). My contribution to the evolution of this form has been the deconstruction and inclusion of applied biomechanics (the what, why, how and quality of human movement); and ergonomics (how efficiently and effectively we interface, interact with, and manipulate the material world around us).

There are TCC practitioners (and self-declared masters) who will doubtless take umbrage at my remarks and audacity in daring to alter something they regard as ancient, established and sacred. My response to such is that the world we live in, our lifestyles, and medical science have all changed dramatically over the millennium since Chang San Feng first formulated TCC, and that TCC needs to adapt accordingly in order to maintain its relevance to modern times.

At the end of the day however, beautiful words, marvelous theories and persuasive arguments have little substance. All that counts is whether this 21c evolution of TCC and its integration into the Kinergetix modality is effective as a therapeutic tool. And the answer is yes … very! Over the course of the last 20+ years Kinergetix programs have been productive of significant and enduring outcomes in the management / prevention of a broad range of chronic and ageing-related diseases and disabilities.

 

Kinergetix — the best investment you can make in your health and wellbeing, both for now and the future.

 

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The range of exercises prescribed by physical therapists are basically limited to traditional gym-style exercises for rehabilitation.