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Tai Chi: The Dance of Health

Posted Aug 24 2008 1:49pm 1 Comment
DAVID FOLK THOMAS: Welcome to our webcast. I'm David Folk Thomas. Tai chi. Now, I did not just sneeze, for all of you who said, "Gesundheit." Thank you. I'm talking about tai chi. It's an ancient Chinese martial art. It's used as a health exercise. We're going to get to the bottom of exactly what tai chi is and how it might help you get around and operate in this crazy world. Joining me are two experts on tai chi. To my left is Dr. Ben Kligler. He's the medical director of the New Beth Israel Center for Health and Healing in New York City, and next to Dr. Kligler is William Kaplinidis. He is the department head of Allied Arts at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine here in New York City. He's also a tai chi instructor. Thanks to both of you for coming by. What is tai chi?

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: Tai chi was developed in the 1300s in China as a martial art in the tradition of karate and judo and others and was originally a martial art and used, I think, for self-defense, and has evolved over the course of time into a practice for promoting health. So it's still a martial art, and it has also evolved another nature, which has to do with people using it for its health benefits. So one studies it, takes classes, and then practices it on one's own, and it can be used for the general harmonizing and balancing of the body.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: William, tai chi-- Dr. Kligler mentioned karate, all that-- is it not a self-defense thing anymore? Is it health? How does it vary from, say, something like karate where maybe more people are familiar.

WILLIAM KAPLINIDIS: It depends on who you study with. Originally, people that studied tai chi were already adept at a fighting form of martial art, and they used the tai chi to help them learn how to use their mind more and their whole body as an instrument, and not just the physical force. So they learned how to preserve their body and their mind and how to use the power of the mind with their body together as a martial art. At the same time, there are other trainings involved, like meditation and different trainings that help the body become healthier. Usually, as you get older you get better at it.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: What does tai chi mean, exactly? What's the translation?

WILLIAM KAPLINIDIS: Tai chi is actually a philosophy. It's the philosophy of yin and yang. Literally, it means "supreme ultimate."

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: That's that symbol everybody sees.

WILLIAM KAPLINIDIS: It looks like two fish.

Tai chi is represented by that symbol. It's sort of the law of opposites. You and me. This and that. Night and day. Through the movements, you're trying to become in harmony with nature and with your body and with your mind and bringing it all together so that you're becoming more one as opposed to separate.

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: If people aren't familiar with it, you probably are already, because you've probably seen someone in the park wherever you live doing a sort of very beautiful, slow, ballet-like series of motions that looked a little strange to you if you didn't know what it was, because there are many people now practicing this on their own. If you saw someone doing that in the park in your town, it was probably tai chi.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: Now, is it always slow movements? When I think of other martial arts, you're thinking about very fast movements, people throwing people over their shoulders. Is tai chi always slow?

WILLIAM KAPLINIDIS: That's one part of the training. That's the most popular part, and that's the part that's used to help people with the health benefits of tai chi. That's one part. After you learn that slow form, then you would learn how to use in fast and how to throw people, for example. Then there are weapons that you would learn how to use, like a sword or knife or staff. So that's just the basic level of the training, that slow-motion movement. Each of those movements have several applications, but you do it slow so that you really become in touch with your body and you train the muscles to be relaxed. So when you're throwing an actual punch, if you're able to relax your muscles when you throw the punch, the punch will be a lot faster. So when you practice slow, you're able to then use it faster when you're doing it fast.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: What are the health benefits of tai chi?

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: What I have recommended it for in my practice is for people who I feel are experiencing one or another health problem because they don't have an effective way of dealing with stress in their lives. I think it's a way to learn how to relax and concentrate intensely at the same time while actually using your body. There are many people who, if I recommend that they go home and listen to a relaxing tape or do meditation, they're not going to do it. There are people who want a physical basis for the relaxation practice. I've tended to recommend it for those people in general. It could be focused around a symptom, so it could be someone who has a headache problem or a reflux problem with stomach acid or one of the many other problems that are related to a high level of stress.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: Do you find that a lot of people, whatever their condition is, it's (a) either caused by stress or (b) at least exacerbated by stress?

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: Absolutely. There are actually studies looking at what percentage of patients who come to the average primary care doctor are actually there because of a stress-related complaint. Many times it's in the form of a physical symptom, whether it's headache or lousy digestion or pain of some other sort or poor sleep. It always comes as a symptom, but a huge number-- I would say 60%, 70%-- of what you see in the average adult medicine practice are complaints that are in one form or another very, very linked to the stress level that people have.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: William, talk to us about tai chi instruction or course for people out there who are interested in it. Where can they can take a course? How often do they do it, and time commitment, et cetera?

WILLIAM KAPLINIDIS: Again, it depends. Like yoga, there are many different styles of tai chi. Some of them do have fast movements in there and more martial arts-type movements. Some of them are done more slowly and gently. I actually have taught at several different sports clubs-- now it's being introduced in sports clubs-- but there it wouldn't really be as a life discipline. You'd go there and maybe get a workout where you'd feel your legs feel stronger afterwards. There are tai chi schools, just like martial arts schools, karate schools, and you could even look in the phone book. If there aren't any tai chi schools in your area, if you're from a small town, you may just check with your local martial arts instructors that are there. They may have some training in tai chi themselves or know of someone.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: So if you're serious about the overall benefits of tai chi, you would probably be advised to go to a tai chi club rather than taking it at your local gym.

WILLIAM KAPLINIDIS: Right. There actually have been studies now with the elderly to show that it has helped elderly balance problems. With osteoporosis, it helps strengthen the bones. Because of the relaxation aspect, it can help with, like Ben was saying, stress-related problems like high blood pressure and also, because it's low-impact, it can help lubricate your joints and strengthen your body in a way that's not as harmful as maybe running or some high-impact exercises.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: Dr. Kligler, he mentioned older people. Is this for kids, as well?

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: I'm not too sure how relevant tai chi is for kids. It tends to require a pretty high level of coordination and concentration. I don't know if you would agree.

WILLIAM KAPLINIDIS: Yeah. Usually, the kids like to move a little bit faster, so you'd start them out in something faster.

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: They can take karate.

WILLIAM KAPLINIDIS: Yeah, or kung fu classes. I've seen some children. Usually it's people who are late teenage, early 20s to maybe 30s, 40s that may be beginning to do tai chi.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: Is there a special uniform for tai chi? I think of, again, karate, the white robes, the belts.

WILLIAM KAPLINIDIS: Usually, like the philosophy, it's very relaxed. Most schools you just come as you like, wearing some very relaxed, comfortable clothing, a flat shoe. There are Chinese traditional uniforms, but usually in tai chi schools they are a little more relaxed than some of the other martial arts.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: As far as taking it, is this something that people will take on a regular basis once they go on your recommendation?

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: Ideally, what somebody does is take a class, so sign up for some period of time to go regularly so that they can learn the forms. Then, again, ideally, what they do is start to incorporate it into their daily practice, and they aren't only doing it on the days when they happen to be going to class. There are people who-- it's certainly worthy of study forever, so you could stay in a class and continue to study and develop your skills. But again, I think, to really experience the maximum benefit, you're going to have to implement it on a day-to-day basis to really get the full benefit that it can give.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: So somebody can check maybe in their yellow pages for tai chi schools, et cetera, would you recommend?

Well, thank you very much, both of you, Dr. Ben Kligler and William Kaplinidis, for telling us all about tai chi. And that's going to wrap up this webcast on tai chi. I hope you've learned a lot and go out and start practicing it. I'm David Folk Thomas.

Comments (1)
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I own a video cassette (I know ancient, right, but it still works!) of Thai Chi for health with a man instructing his viewers on how to do Thai Chi for beginners, intermediate level users, or even those who can hold the "warrior holding tree" position for up to an hour! I had no idea how hard it was to hold the poses, that it takes all of your body weight, and uses that itself to work you out, or how difficult it would be to do so. I was flabbergasted to see how hard it is to balance yourself and actually accomplish the positioning or how complex it would be to start learning how to balance oneself to begin with. I started using thai chi about 3 years ago and have lost 50+LBS, and with keeping up with my master (ala video cassette) 2-4 times a week for 35-45 minutes, or so, as to not injure myself, have been able to keep those pesky pounds away, and have found that I am quite flexible!
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