Meditation in motion

The Jakarta Post: Say hello to feeling calm, refreshed and energized. With tai chi, there’s no sweating or panting, but you’ll achieve vibrant health anyway.

The term “tai chi” probably evokes an image of a group of senior citizens practicing slow motion exercises in a park in the morning. Although there’s nothing wrong with that impression, there is actually plenty more about tai chi that might mean you find it is right for you.

So, what’s really interesting about tai chi, which offers benefits for people of all ages?

Described as meditation in motion, this ancient Chinese martial art is believed to be able to connect the mind and body. By promoting serenity through its flowing graceful movements, tai chi can help reduce the stress of today’s busy lifestyles and improve overall health.

How? By promoting the circulation of life energy (or chi) within our body.

“Tai chi is an art of internal power,” says Master Handaka Tania of Alam Semesta Hermitage. “Internal power is the power from within us that can be trained for the purposes of health and self-defense.”

Some people, Handaka says, often mistake internal power for something mystical, while the truth is, “mystical power comes from outside of our body, not inside”. Thus, he adds, tai chi has nothing to do with the supernatural.

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According to Handaka, tai chi – which means “the ultimate” – has had a presence in Indonesia for a long time. However, as people didn’t talk about it openly, it became exclusive to certain groups only.

But later, when word did begin to spread and tai chi began to appear in the media, it gained increasing interest.

In Jakarta, tai chi started to gain popularity in the 1980s. Driving its popularity was a number of medical studies finding the health benefits of tai chi, which include its ability to promote balance and flexibility, reduce anxiety and depression, improve sleep quality and relieve chronic pain.

With millions of people across the globe turning to tai chi, Handaka says that even young people now are interested in practicing tai chi, which, he says, is more than just a sequence of physical movements.

“Tai chi is meditation in movement because it trains our inner peace and consciousness – the basic aspects in meditation,” the 63-year-old reveals.

How it promotes inner peace and consciousness can be seen from its basic attitude of focusing on slow movements and abdominal breathing. This combination creates a state of relaxation and calm. Stress, tension and anxiety melt away as practitioners focus on the present.

“Just like meditation, tai chi is about being here and now,” says Handaka, who has been training in tai chi since the 1970s. “And because the movements are graceful and slow, we can sense them deeply.”
This, in return, “trains our consciousness”, he adds.

Tai chi, Handaka says, is an exercise that requires no strenuous exertion: There are no jumps, or running. “It’s about loosening our body.”

In tai chi, the feet are always rooted on the earth, as the torso and arms make graceful, conscious and sequenced movements that take on the form of physical poetry. Each posture flows into the next without pausing, and engagement of the mind is essential.

“We have to be relaxed and make movements using our mind, not muscles,” Handaka explains.
The notion of tai chi as a martial art, he adds, lies in the belief that to increase our power we have to loosen our body. This, of course, contradicts the conventional wisdom that emphasizes the use of bulky muscles to increase power.

“Loosening our body doesn’t mean that we surrender. Rather, it’s about thinking clearly and feeling stronger,” he says.

“If we let our body relax, we can absorb our opponent’s power, then use it to bring that person down.”

Tai chi has hundreds of possible movements and positions. Most modern styles of tai chi trace their development to at least one of the five traditional schools: Chen, Yang, Wu/Hao, Wu and Sun. While the image of tai chi today is typified by remarkably slow movements, many tai chi styles, including Yang, Wu and Chen, have secondary forms performed at a faster pace. Some traditional schools of tai chi teach partner exercises known as pushing hands.

The intensity of tai chi varies somewhat depending on the style practiced. For instance, some styles of tai chi are more fast-paced than others. However, most forms are gentle and suitable for everyone. And they all include rhythmic patterns of movement that are coordinated with breathing.

Graceful and slow: People practice tai chi in Jakarta, where the exercise has been popular since the 1980s. JP/P.J. LeoGraceful and slow: People practice tai chi in Jakarta, where the exercise has been popular since the 1980s. JP/P.J. Leo

“There are many styles in tai chi, but actually, all of them have the same principles, including in basic stances and philosophy,” Handaka says, adding that “what makes the styles different is the sequence of movements”.

Although the many styles of tai chi vary, enthusiasts agree that all styles are beneficial, especially in helping their overall health. Because tai chi is generally safe for people of all ages and levels of fitness, the elderly may find tai chi appealing — thanks to the low-impact movements that put minimal stress on muscles and joints.

If anyone agrees with this, it is Hiang Marahimin. The 68-year-old says tai chi fits her preference for physical exercise that isn’t too demanding.

“Basically, I don’t like hard sports that are competitive and make me sweat a lot,” says the senior editor of Nirmala magazine. “I used to love dancing, too, so the first time I saw [images of] tai chi in a magazine, I thought it was very interesting.”

But the relaxing and graceful movements in tai chi weren’t all that motivated her to practice tai chi. For a woman at her age, she says, health problems were behind her decision to take up the practice.

“Because as I got older, I often suffered from hip pain. Whenever I stood up after sitting for a long time, I would feel that pain,” Hiang says.

After practicing tai chi for almost two months, however, “I didn’t feel that pain anymore”.

What makes her even happier is that tai chi has solved her problem with acute insomnia.

“I used to have sleeping disorder; once I couldn’t sleep for three days in a row,” Hiang says. “I went to a doctor, who prescribed me some supplements. [The supplements] worked and helped me to sleep.

“But of course, I thought I didn’t want to rely on some pills,” she adds.

So she signed up for a tai chi class with Handaka, and found herself no longer lying awake at night.
“Now I can really sleep well,” she says. “Before, even if I took those pills, I would wake up after midnight. But these days, I sleep like a log until morning.”

Amazed by the changes in her health, Hiang now practices tai chi at her home or office at least twice a day, in addition to her weekly class with Handaka.

“I’m so surprised with my [health] progress,” she says. “I asked [my] master and he explained to me that tai chi has helped improve my blood circulation.”

Another tai chi devotee, Indra Gunawan, says tai chi has given him a fresher body and a new paradigm for understanding martial arts.

“I used to think that martial arts were all about violence, power and speed,” says the 31-year-old accountant who has been practicing tai chi for almost four years. “But after learning tai chi, I realized that we don’t need that much power to bring down our opponents.”

Indra says that he used to consider tai chi rather unexciting.

“At first, I thought tai chi was something boring. Its movements seemed powerless to me,” he says. After some time, however, “I came to feel tai chi is different. When practicing it, I feel like there’s a strange kind of power flowing within my body.”

Admitting his body isn’t “that big”, Indra says that in the past, he knew he would lose if he had to face a larger opponent.

“But after I had the chance to learn tai chi, I got amazed by how we could actually bring down an opponent without really using our power.”

Anything else?

“My body feels fresher after practicing tai chi; I don’t get tired easily,” Indra says.

Indra’s testimony is consistent with Handaka’s claims.

“Usually, after practicing regular exercise, you feel tired,” he says. “But with tai chi, it’s like your energy is recharged. You won’t feel tired; instead, you feel more energized.”

Although tai chi doesn’t promise to burn calories like aerobics or other high-impact cardiovascular exercises do, it offers something else, as Handaka points out: “Tai chi promotes your longevity.”

So, ready to meditate in motion?

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