Early in the morning in a park or garden you may have seen people of all ages, moving slowly, in a gentle rhythm, practising the ancient art of Tai-Chi. What is the reason for Tai-Chi's growing popularity? And as Tai-Chi seems to have Chinese spiritual elements, is it compatible with Judaism?
Tai-Chi is part of Chinese medicine. It is said to increase strength and promote calm and harmony by developing the flows or meridians of natural energy through the body. This is done by a series of simple, low-impact, weight bearing yet relaxing exercises that involve every part of the body down to the little finger and each toe. They can be simple, warm-up exercises called Qigong (pronounced chee-gong). These help to balance the body's energy by concentrating the mind on the movements while carefully using controlled, deep breathing. Gradually these movements come together, become more complicated and can create a "form" that results in deep meditation and a feeling of wellbeing and contentment.
However it is now thought that Tai-Chi's benefits are far more valuable than merely an increased sense of joi de vivre and can actually help problems of blood pressure and hypertension, and improve breathing, balance, heart problems, the lymphatic system, muscles and the skeleton. In fact, BBC News reported that, "Tai-Chi improves body and mind… The ancient Chinese martial art of Tai-Chi can help to improve people's health." These conclusions were based on research in the USA where doctors analysed 47 studies looking at the impact Tai-Chi had on people with chronic health problems like heart disease or MS. They found it could improve balance control, flexibility and even heart health.
Many dismiss Tai-Chi as something for the elderly. And yet, The Journal of Paediatric Care, July/August 2005, quoted a study at a Boston school involving Tai-Chi and "mindful-based stress reduction". The children who took part in the programme reported improved sleep quality, increased self-care and awareness, less aggressive reactions, and feelings of well-being, calmness and relaxation.
As you age you begin to lose your flexibility and sense of balance. And new statistics show that more people lose their lives through falling than cancer or heart disease. Again, Tai-Chi is ideal for re-learning balance, as all exercises are performed slowly so no muscles are strained. And even patients with osteoarthritis have reported less pain and stiffness than when they began.
It has always been assumed that brisk walking is one of the best exercises, especially for older women. However, studies conducted by the Harvard Medical School and published in the July 2006 issue of Age and Aging compared the differences between brisk walking and Tai-Chi. It was discovered that over a three-month period, Tai-Chi was far more effective than brisk walking in the categories of lower extremity strength, flexibility and balance.
But should Tai-Chi be performed by Jews? Certainly Tai-Chi is spiritual in that it forces the practitioner to look inside themselves in search of a new contentment. And yes there is a period of meditation combined with relaxation. But we as Jews have always meditated. In the Torah, Isaac is described as going lasuach, which commentators believe to be a form of meditation, while the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah is a meditative field of study. And according to Shem Tov Ben Joseph ibn Falaquera, "the preservation of health is an act of worship, an expression of divine service".
You do not need to be scared when the doctor says, "Get out there. Do some form of exercise, get moving," even if you have been used to sitting in a chair and the most sport you have ever managed is sitting down to watch the football or fighting your way around a supermarket with a trolley. Tai-Chi is perfect for beginners.
In Tai-Chi everyone is learning and each works at his or her own pace. There is absolutely no pressure to be better than the next person and whatever age or level of health you are, you will ultimately benefit from Tai-Chi's gentle movements.
Maybe now is the time to begin that exercise regime.
To start, look on the internet and find a good class with a recommended teacher close to you. Dress codes are simple. You need loose clothes and a light pair of flexible shoes though which you can feel the ground for good response.
You will certainly gain from the gentle exercises and perhaps make some interesting, new friends as well.