By Natalie Reilley
Taiji Quan, also known as Tai Chi, is a Chinese martial art whose slow, gentle, relaxed movements can have a profound effect on the human condition. It is so much more than just a group of old people in the park moving slowly. I decided to go to a class, learn a few moves, and afterwards, I sat down with Tai Chi instructor Zhou Xuan Yun to find out more about the art form. Zhou Xuan Yun was raised on the most sacred mountain in China, Wudang Mountain, where he trained in and later worked as an instructor of Taiji Quan (Tai Chi Chuan), Kung Fu, and weaponry. Xuan Yun is also an ordained Daoist priest, trained in ritual arts, chanting, divination, and qigong. Dedicating his life to passing the Wudang arts, Xuan Yun divides his time between the U.S. and China, offering classes and workshops on traditional Wudang martial arts, Qi Gong, and Daoist philosophy.
Zhou Xuan Yun teaches these Tai Chi classes once a week on Sunday at the Castle Square Community Center in Chinatown. The classes are free because Zhou believes that they are like a practice session for him and “I don’t care if people gather and just come and practice with me.”
Tai Chi comes from centuries of Chinese culture, and is “an accumulation of the Chinese traditions martial arts, and philosophy,” that come together. When teaching a class, Zhou Xuan Yun tells a story through the movements showing different aspects within Chinese culture. During my class, we performed the changing of the seasons in China through our Tai Chi movements. It was a beautiful combination of rising and falling fluid motions. Not only was it a beautiful way to tell the story, but it was also such a relaxing feeling. In spring when flowers are blooming, we moved with the wind and the flowers becoming the story. Even though I was only remembering about half the steps during class, it did not matter because if I just breathed with Zhou Xuan Yun, the feeling was the same.
Zhou Xuan Yun describes Tai Chi as a breathing exercise with motion.
“Right now we focus not so much on the breathing when we first learn it so you can get the movements and when the movements get to become fluid then your body starts relaxing into it and you’re not so stressed out about thinking about it. Then your breathing becomes flowing into each of the motions so that it becomes more natural and the movements become more fluid, so it’s a health practice as well as a martial art.”
Through the exercises, Zhou Xuan Yun is working “ to promote the health of everyone using the Chinese philosophies of health, which is drawn a lot from the Daoist theories of health and the energy movement within your body. Nourishing your body through movement, through your mind, and through the types of food you’re putting into your body.”
This is why so many of the elderly do Tai Chi. It’s not an exercise where it matters how strong you are. As Xuan Yun said: “It’s more about turning things internally and being aware of where your body is. You’ll notice like you think you’re doing something, but then if you look at yourself in the mirror or you start feeling where your body position is, things aren’t quite right. And kind of becoming more self aware of where your body is, the nature of your body, how your body’s moving, how you’re treating your body, and that’s a big aspect of Tai Chi.” This finding yourself jumble started to sound a bit too much, but it is true that you find a part of yourself in the class. Not really spiritually, but in your core strength.
In the Tai Chi class, there were a lot of different kinds of people that showed up for the class. I thought it was going to be mainly old people, but there were all ages. An interesting group in the class was a middle-aged couple where the husband dragged his wife to the class. She was complaining about every single move and how long she would have to be there for. Good thing I found my inner strength and ignored them while relaxing my body. Tai Chi traditionally hasn’t been a community sort of work, but in the United States, a community is starting to form. Apparently, “the Tai Chi the concept is very within the Chinese culture and engrained within it; however, there is a lot of different schools of Tai Chi. And with anything there’s always a kind of like I’m better, you’re better, who’s the first one and stuff like that, but if you just think about Tai Chi as a means of promoting health and a means of bringing people together, there is a community aspect where people offer Tai Chi classes in the park and everyone just gathers. Like I’m practicing, but I don’t care if people gather and just come and practice with me. And that brings community. Even in China, a lot people retire early and they’ll go in the mornings and they’ll have a large group of people practicing different styles of Tai Chi next to each other in the park. It’s really awesome to see that.”
It was great to be able to have a peek inside this Chinese culture and speak with the Tai Chi master himself. I have gone back to this class and plan on going back every week. If anyone is interested in finding their inner strength, check out the Castle Square Community Center from 1:00-2:00pm on Sundays. It’s a great event to go to with friends or just by yourself.