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May 26, 2010 09:43AM

Tai chi: 'Be still as a mountain, move like a river'


By Rita Melissano
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John Greenwood
John Hawry and Rita Melissano demonstrating different tai chi poses at Satva Center.
Master Wu Yu-hsiang's paradoxical message, "Be still as a mountain, move like a great river," is echoing in my mind as I watch a group of tai chi practitioners slowly moving in the peaceful outdoors of the Satva Center's Shanti Park in Rock Island.

The first time I saw people practicing tai chi was in Paris, in the green area close to the market of Chinatown. Living in Italy at the time, I didn't know that 15 years later I would learn this "soft" martial art in the Quad-Cities from the same teacher who currently teaches it at the Satva Center: my husband, John Hawry. Nor did I think I would be in China a few years after that, to see Chinese practicing tai chi in every park early in the morning. It was not unusual to see people hugging a tree to get energized by its chi or holding a position in stillness as if they were in a meditative or trance-like state. Lao-Tzu, the founder of the Tao or "Way," makes it explicit in his paradoxical ways in the Tao Te Ching: "Be empty. Be still. Just watch everything come and go. This is the way of Nature."

Tai chi chuan originated in China, some say as early as the 13th century, by a Taoist monk in the Shaolin Temple who modified the martial art movements to reflect the Taoist principles of yielding and softness and to harmonize with nature's ways. Others say that it began in the 18th century by the Cheng clan. Three different styles were kept secret and practiced only within clans or families: Cheng, Yang, and Wu. The Yang style is the most widespread, as Yang Lu-shan accepted outsiders as well as his students.

What is "chi?" It is the very essence that makes us alive. As Taoist Master Ni Hua Ching writes, "Chi is the vital universal energy which composes, permeates and moves through everything that exists. When chi conglomerates, it is called matter. When chi is diffused, it is called space. When chi flows, there is health. When chi is blocked, there is sickness and disease. Chi embraces all things, circulates through and sustains them. In heaven there is chi and on earth there is form. When the two interplay, there is life."

Those who practice tai chi know how peaceful it feels, how everything slows down and yet awareness is heightened. You know the direction your head is moving, where your feet and hands are, and if you are about to twist your body or shift your weight or let yourself go in a powerful twirling of 180 degrees. You are in the present, moment by moment. The lower your center of gravity the stronger and more grounded you feel "be still like a mountain, move like a great river."

Often described as "meditation in motion," tai chi has many physical and mental benefits. Mayo Clinic, for instance, considers it one of the 10 most effective complementary alternative modalities and encourages people to use tai chi, along with yoga and meditation, to reduce stress, depression and anxiety.

Exercising does have a positive effect on the brain and mental functions, and tai chi, in particular, increases alpha brain waves, producing a state of relaxation and improved concentration. Studies also show that tai chi enhances muscle strength, flexibility and balance, therefore reducing the risk of falls in older people. Yet it is a great form of exercise for every age and level of fitness. It also lowers blood pressure. All these benefits come by just using your own body and synchronizing your breathing with a sequence of movements.

Generally, the short form of tai chi chuan, in the Yang style, consists of 19 moves that can be learned in eight to 10 weeks. The long form has a sequence of 105 moves and it can be learned within a year. To master them, though, takes a lifetime!


For more information on t'ai chi and classes at the Satva Center, call (309) 793-7881.

T'ai chi at the Healthy Living Fair

See a tai chi demonstration by Satva Center instructor John Hawry and his students at the Radish Healthy Living Fair June 19 at the Freight House Farmers' Market, Davenport.

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