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Flashback Friday: Tai Chi

Advocates of Tai Chi believe it transmutes anxiety and stress into useful energy.

Flashback Friday: Tai Chi
High Times

From the August, 1980 issue of High Times comes an enthusiastic testimonial to Tai-Chi from an author known simply as “R.”


Do you remember how grateful you felt to the person who passed you your first puff of Santa Marta gold? Well, someday you may feel as grateful to me for turning you on to Tai-Chi as you were to that guy. It’s that good a high.

Tai-Chi is one of the least well known, but in many ways the best, of the physical disciplines of the East to make it to America.

Now I know that it’s severely frowned upon by followers of Eastern ways to say something is “better” or “the best” way. Many ways to the One, many Paths and all that. And no respectable Tai-Chi master, teacher or disciple would talk about it or make the sort of comparisons to herb highs that I would. But I never claimed to be respectable. And face it, if you have to choose one of the many ways, if you’re looking for some physical way to raise your energy level, to get the kind of high you no longer get from herbs, sooner or later you’ll have to choose one way and I’m here to save you time by telling you what Tai-Chi can do for you.

It’s been three years since I learned the rudiments of the Tai-Chi “forms,” as they’re called. I’ve been doing them for a half hour or so daily and I’ll probably continue to do them for the rest of my life. Slow-motion kung fu—that’s probably the best way to describe what Tai-Chi looks like. But it’s not primarily a martial art. It’s a series of continuously shifting stances which the mass and energy of the body flow through with serene slow-motion grace. Certain Tai-Chi adaptations have been used by masters for self-defense purposes. My Tai-Chi teacher, a short, wiry Chinese guy, was good enough at it to be hired as a bouncer in a bar. He didn’t bounce people out, he kind of push-flowed trouble makers out the door—quite effectively I’ve been told. But for the ordinary student, don’t look to Tai-Chi for protection from muggers. Look to it for the high.

Now let’s get back to those invidious comparisons the East loathes and the West relishes. Tai-Chi is better than yoga because yoga is a series of static forms, the isometrics of energy exercises, while Tai-Chi is constant movement and flow. It offers the experience of moving muscular grace rather than the mere statuelike “correct postures” of yoga. I know yoga addicts will howl at this, but it’s true. Tai-Chi will give the spinal column, joints and ligaments the same limberness and resilience as yoga but without all that cross-legged sitting around.

In addition yoga sessions tend to leave you so relaxed and blissed out that you’re ready for a nap, while Tai-Chi relaxes and energizes—it’s more of an upper than a downer among Eastern exercises.

Now let’s compare it to some Western-type exercises. Unless you think the weird bulges on the body-building addicts look good, Tai-Chi offers you more than weight lifting. It builds the strength and resilience of the muscles from the inside out rather than just piling lumps of tissue on top. Tai-Chi in a way is like lifting weights internally—it strengthens the body by lifting and shifting one’s own weight. And it shifts more than weight; it moves harmonizing energy through your body in the way the stressful straining of weight lifting will not. This energy the Chinese call chi, and instead of “pumping iron,” Tai-Chi has the effect of systematically pumping chi throughout the body.

Tai-Chi offers more than the specifically therapeutic “bioenergetic” type exercises that have become popular in various forms of the human-potential movement, although some of those are based on Tai-Chi principles of centering and activating growth energy. Tai-Chi acts more subtly on the whole body rather than attacking specific physical and emotional complexes with the often dramatic, tearful and painful results of bioenergetics and rolfing.

The one physical exercise Tai-Chi can’t replace is running, although in many ways it’s the perfect complement to running—offering the body something running can’t. I learned this myself when I switched for a time from running to Tai-Chi. I had become accustomed to the “runner’s high,” the feeling of well being and deep, oxygenated relaxation that regular five-mile runs could give me, when a nagging ache in the Achilles tendon forced me to cut off my running one winter. Needing some way to deal with all the excess nervous energy that was cracking through me, causing me irritability and interfering with work, I decided to try Tai-Chi.

I took a month of classes at a place on the fringes of New York’s SoHo called the Ahn Tai-Chi Center. I practiced once or twice a day for a half hour or so. That was three years ago. I’ve hardly missed a day since.

The only problem with recommending Tai-Chi so highly—also a problem with writing about it—is that you can’t learn it from a book, you can’t really describe it in words—you have to see it in action. You have to learn it from a live teacher and not from stop-action still photographs of the exotically named “forms.” Because it’s the movement from one form to another, the motion rather than the postures, that is the essence of the exercise.

Tai-Chi seems to be spreading slowly and most major cities and university towns have teachers these days. But it’s still not as ubiquitous as yoga. There are several different schools or styles of Tai-Chi, but the important thing is not the denomination of your Tai-Chi teacher but whether he’s able to communicate the feeling of what you’re looking for.

You need an inspiring teacher because the learning can seem strange and mechanical at first, and it takes a while before the grace emerges in your own movements. At first it’s hard to remember all the steps and hand movements that you have to make for the transition from the “Golden Crane Stands on One Leg” to the “Fox Hunts in Thicket” posture or whatever. The connections seem arbitrary.

But if you practice it daily, slowly step by step, eventually the movements begin to lose their formal mechanistic quality. They seem to have a flowing liquid muscular logic to them; each one grows out of the other. Each becomes inevitable, satisfying, graceful, just. Your mind becomes more absorbed by the movements and they seem to propel themselves as you fill and empty one form after another.

It’s hard to explain the purpose of the slow-motion movement through the exotic forms but an oceanic metaphor helps.

If you imagine rows of ocean waves rolling toward a shore, think of the body as the mass rolling its liquid weight through the rising and falling wave forms of the Tai-Chi movements. Indeed there is something oceanic about the deeply satisfying rhythms of Tai-Chi movement. People who meditate and are used to achieving the experience by keeping the body still and rising up through the mind will be pleasantly surprised by the way Tai-Chi allows the body to become the ground of meditation, the site of transcendence rather than something to be escaped from. People familiar with Taoism will discover that Tai-Chi incarnates Taoist principles in the flesh, that it is a way to the consciousness described in the Tao Te Ching of Lao-tze. Yoga students will be amazed that the prana, or life energy, can be evoked and propelled throughout the body by the exercises.

People who aren’t interested in the Eastern religious mystical side of it will find all sorts of Western physical benefits to Tai-Chi. It communicates a sense of purposefulness, for instance, to the other areas of life, a sense of the way to gather energy, concentrate, direct and fulfill it in movement, whether it be planning a project, writing a story, making love or playing music.

Tai-Chi can take the jangling discordant mental electricity of nervous energy, anxiety and stress and channel it through the passageways of the body, transmuting it into harmonious and useful energy.

It can center you, get you back in touch with your body, gradually break up neurotic character armorings and all those things bioenergetic therapies focus on. It’s better than Valium for tension and works more quickly.

It will subtly, gradually but permanently transform your internal musculature so that your breathing and posture will naturally fulfill their greatest potential for energy and power. Even the very act of walking becomes a newly pleasurable experience of rising from and sinking into the propulsive forces of your body.

No, it’s not a panacea, but as people get more sophisticated about their physical highs, looking less to drugs and more to the potentials of the body as a source of transcendence, Tai-Chi has a lot of unique advantages. It’s worth a try if you can find a good teacher, and some day you may be as grateful to me for turning you on to it as you were to the guy who first turned you on to Santa Marta gold.

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