Weekends at Belmont High School, the Lexington Chinese School teaches Chinese language and culture. Passersby may have noticed students, many middle-aged, practicing what looks like a martial art, except that kicks, blocks and punches are replaced by sweeping movements, slow and graceful, emphasizing balance and form over speed and power. It looks more like a dance performance than athletic training, sometimes likened to a white crane spreading its wings.
What the students are performing is tai chi, a shortened form of "tai chi chuan," Chinese for the supreme or ultimate form of boxing; the exercise prepares as much for coping with stress as excelling in martial arts. Chinese philosophy emphasizes spiritual ideas behind movement, a way of reaching higher states of understanding through exercise.
This fall, the Beech Street Center is sponsoring an Introduction to Tai Chi on Sept. 16. Tai chi instructor Trudy Eyges – a Belmont resident since the early 1950s who also taught French, English and piano at MIT and Cornell – will conduct the course.
For details, please call the Center at 617-993-2970.
Tai chi reportedly unblocks the life force, its energy, within each of us, while reconciling within us the disharmony of opposites (the yin and yang resolved, for example, is the circle within the South Korean flag). Unlike many exercise programs which pay for gains with pain, tai chi avoids discomfort and exhaustion. Even so, physiologists have noted improved upper and lower body strength, as well as conditioning, in a minimum 12-week program.
For a discipline hundreds of years old, tai chi has had many teachers and styles to choose from. The so-called short and long styles suggest a few to hundreds of movements, usually beginning with a warm-up and then arms, hands, trunk and legs moving in sweeps of harmony. The low-impact, methodical movement especially protects aging bodies from injury.
Scientific study suggests many benefits. Tai chi can reduce the pain and physical impairment of people with severe knee osteoarthritis. Dr. Paul Lam of the Arthritis Foundation has developed a 12-movement form of tai chi. Lam, who got the disease from growing up malnourished in China, found that tai chi freed him for more pain-free activity. "We took the part that was more effective for healing and put in modifications so that anyone could do it," he says. Harvard Medical School also reports improvements in cardiovascular health with improved circulation; in recoveries from cancer; in alleviating fibromyalgia; and for overall muscle strength, flexibility and balance.
This last point – balance – is very important to the many of over age 65 who suffer falls, often leading to long term injury and even death. One study suggests that the Tai Chi Walk, each step a mental and physical exercise of shifting weight, fluid motion and deep breathing, means fewer falls for the elderly. To improve balance, tai chi integrates the sensory neurons in the inner ear and stretch receptors in the muscles and ligaments so that even a stumble doesn't have to turn into a fall. Fear of falling, which makes a fall more likely, has also improved through increased confidence from the training.