Tai Chi — In Pursuit of Happiness

“Could you explain your experience with Qi? I’d like to hear why you believe it exists, and why your belief definitely isn’t a result of immersing yourself in a situation where everyone around you believes and acts as though it exists for several months,” James asked on the Why I love Common Lisp and hate Java post. A wonderful question indeed and a discussion worthy of its own blog post.

In a random hotel restaurant in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, China, where all the tables and chairs have been put to the side for the afternoon Tai Chi practice, we formed a perfect human rectangle of 12×5, if it weren’t for Fu Nengbin, the teacher topping the cake. Only Alan Au from Vancouver was younger than me; the average age was probably around 55. Most of them have been practising for over a decade. I could barely keep up, but I sure felt like Naruto.

My horse stand was shaking incessantly, relentlessly punching my own sweat drops in mid-air using “minimal muscle, maximum Qi,” until my nose bleed gave me an excuse to wash-up and catch a breath. Do try this at home.

Keep in mind that the below is the result of strictly personal experience — a grain of salt is advised. I am an empirical sceptic by nature and consciously aware of the “narrative fallacy” as Taleb coins it. Here is a little background for you to assess my opinion.

Qi is something inextricably (but not exclusively) related to the theories concerning Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Daoism and spirituality. I started getting extremely curious about it all during my stay in Beijing. Stories about how someone’s grandmother is able to heal herself from being sick by simply meditating and redirecting Qi, were recurring from different sources. In the end, “being sick is nothing but an imbalance between Yin and Yang,” Jan Schroen once said during a lecture on TCM at Erasmus University Rotterdam, “acupuncture and herbs are a few possible ways to restore this imbalance.”

So when one is able to positively influence his/her own Qi flow, does that mean you could live a healthier — hence happier — life? These and many other questions, like the one James posted, kept me awake in my dorm room at night. I could either stay sceptical and ignore all the shamanistic claims, or actually make a serious attempt to find out more myself. Obviously, I chose the latter due to the insatiable force of Curiosity.

I started my journey by taking group classes for a few months at the university to get the basics and learned the Yang style Tai Chi. An easy and accessible style mostly practised by old people in the park. Very gentle, a great exercise for the joints and muscles, but in most cases IMHO not a “real workout for the Qi”. When I asked the teacher in private about the relation between Tai Chi and Qi, he said “It is something completely different.” Obviously he was just another part-time gym teacher who learned just enough tricks from his VHS collection at home, to swindle an ignorant group of ex-pat students. So after I got the basics of the Yang style down, I looked for another teacher.

I also took a few months of martial arts in parallel. And again, after getting the basic forms down (very flashy and good for performance), I spoke with the teacher, who also had no idea about Qi — in stark contrast to those Shaolin monks on Discovery channel hanging mid-air on pointy spears, or the local martial arts performance in the Wonderful Worlds of Whampoa, who were breaking 2-ply metal bars on their bare forehead.

On a side-note, these are forms of external or hard qi-gong, where concentrating all of the body’s Qi to a certain point underneath the skin may make it impenetrably hard. Perhaps it’s just the result of sheer conditioning. Either way, I wasn’t intrigued by hard Qi gong the way I was about its counterpart.

Luckily — or as a matter of destiny as he would say — I finally found a master I was looking for. I met him at a local fitness centre where he was teaching Tai Chi to a small group of people. He taught the more difficult Chen style, which, by many Tai Chi practitioners, is considered as the classic most well-rounded and strongest form of Tai Chi — not unlike what Lispers would say about Lisp. He was passionate, but his students (including myself) could not keep up with the difficult forms with just once-a-week training.

After the classes I would talk to him for hours about Qi. It was voraciously fascinating. I later found out that he has trained with and was acknowledged by Grandmaster Chen, the Maradona of contemporary Tai Chi. I asked if he would take me as a private student for serious practice 2-3 times a week. To my delight I had finally found a real master.

My time in Beijing was running out, so for the remaining 4 months, I practised about 20 hours a week. I knew this was probably my last real opportunity to learn Tai Chi before retirement. Even though I exercise regularly and play all sorts of sports (soccer/squash/ping-pong foremost), it was one of the most challenging practices in my life — both physically and mentally. That Tai Chi is for old people is the worst misconception. Ever.

After four months my master told me that he had taught me everything he knew in theory. He said that I could continue my practice on my own for four years, after which I should seek out a better master. Sadly, I hate to admit, but being emerged in society, I could not keep up with regular practice.

He said I was ready to participate and compete at a national Tai Chi boot camp, organized by Grandmaster Chen every year in Henan province, in close proximity to the famous Shaolin Temple. My master embarks every summer on this pilgrimage and I was honoured to join him.

Though I did not compete, the week-long boot camp was truly extraordinary. Wake up around 5:30am, practice for a few hours, have breakfast, group practice with Grandmaster Chen, lunch break, intense workshop with one of Grandmaster Chen’s three disciples for 3 hours, dinner break, and more practice until midnight. Kind of nuts. I skipped the midnight practices a few times to study for the HSK (a TOEFL for Chinese), which is also the reason I opted out of the competition — it was on the same day. My primary reason for being in Beijing was to learn Chinese and I didn’t see the importance of competing in a sport that I chose purely for the individual pursuit of happiness.

An article in Harvard Health Publication is just one of the myriad articles on the numerous health benefits associated with practising Tai Chi, from treating Arthritis, breast cancer or preventing heart diseases, to the daily benefits of reducing stress and balancing mood-swings.

Perhaps Mr. Placebo is at work? Perhaps it’s just the effect of regular exercise? Nothing to do with Qi, Yin-Yang balance or the Five elements of the Zang Fu organs? Whatever affirmative answer to one of these questions, it still does not dispute the concluding effects of Tai Chi.

For those more curious about what might go on behind the scenes, let’s return to James’ question: Could you explain your experience with Qi? Here is my two cents.

My master taught me the Five Stance Form (slightly different from the link, as the stances were adjusted for Tai Chi) that are designed to train your “dantian” Qi, the way biceps curls are designed to train your biceps — perhaps a better less-tangible metaphor would be how reading trains your brain. Thanks to these stances, I was able to very quickly build up Qi by brushing my teeth in horse stand. Normally, when you stick to the more safe way of Tai Chi practice, it might take years before you experience something going on.

Now how do I know that I experience Qi? It is tangible. Whether or not it is Qi that I’m experiencing, I suppose there is no other term that describes the sensations more closely: a warm, soft flow through your body, wherever you want to direct it. When I practice Tai-chi, I feel this sensation and it is kind of addictive — sometimes I do one form for 30 minutes and the sensations get stronger and stronger. Sometimes I don’t feel anything when my mind is not clear. Then impatience and fatigue kick in and I give up after 5 minutes. When done right, it can effortlessly be practised for hours.

You might have noticed the old people in the park on your last visit to China, doing impossibly strenuous physical exercises for hours, seemingly in a trance and kind of zoned out. Little did I know that in their inner universe, a hell lot is going on, akin to meditation (especially Qigong) being more than just falling asleep after Yoga class.

I believe that Qi exists, not only because of thousands of affirming testimonials, articles or books, but because of my own tangible experiences (also with meditation). I already know what will keep me occupied in my retirement.

The best I can do is to peak your interest/curiosity. Please don’t take it from me that Qi exists, that would defeat the purpose. This post is but one of the many out there that talk about the elusive existence of Qi. The best and most beneficial part of the journey was the journey itself. Many of the “health” benefits could be simply due to the Placebo effect. The warm sensations could be explained away as a construct in my mind. The benefits of practising Tai Chi — which in my humble opinion is one of the best ways to train your mind as well — are nonetheless very real.

6 thoughts on “Tai Chi — In Pursuit of Happiness

  1. Pingback: Let Us Unite, and Help Our Planet, Turn a Little More Efficiently « Let Us Lead the Way

  2. the fact that many people report weird experiences, and whether those experiences are really due to some metaphysical phenomena are two different things. People all along history have reported all kinds of phenomena, which can’t be taken at face value because they are contradictory (somebody sees Buddha, the other guys sees the Virgin Mary, somebody else hears the voice of Allah, or Krishna, etc. … ).
    I have had out of body experiences and some weird feelings during meditation. And many people all over the word report these. But that is NOT evidence for some metaphysical dimension, or “energy” or whatever. The brain is a powerful organ that can produce many weird effects. Read about Susan Blackmore, her experience is quite valuable (she researched the paranormal for about 25 years before getting to the conclusion that it is all brain stuff).

    • Very good points — I like how you think. I’ll add Susan Blackmore on my reading list. I’d love to talk to you about your experiences, could you tweet me at @kuomarc?

  3. How can I start practising Tai Chi? I don’t have access to teachers, but I’m very self motivated (I learnt Sivananda yoga by myself and used to practice regularly). Any advices? Great article, thanks!

    • It’s great that you are very self motivated Lukasz, you’re half-way there already!

      The best way obviously is to find a teacher, to get the fundamentals right. It is very important to do it right, because doing it wrong may be harmful (as I’m sure you are aware off). However, that does not mean that you cannot get started yourself with the not so intensive Yang style. This style is very popular/easy and there are tons of resources out there to self-teach yourself. That should be a good way to start Tai Chi.

      I can’t recommend you a specific book/source in English, because I haven’t used one. I have only used the recordings of Grandmaster Chen (which are on Youtube) for practice ‘off-line’, but they are in Chinese unfortunately… You can still watch it, since most of it is visual. Perhaps you can read about the principles and details of the technique from another source to complement the videos..

      Good luck!

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