It was November 2015 and I was watching the newest episode of The Walking Dead. (Yes, I’m admitting that I’ve watched the show since it began in 2010.) I could do with less gore, but the psychology of survival and what actions those involved choose to preserve it has always been an ingenious signature of the series.
And it was all “pretend.” It was such an implausible concept that a global virus could infect all people with a gene that turns them into zombies upon their death. Of course, the zombie component will forever be fictional, but other parts of the series now feel spookily prescient.
But this story isn’t about The Walking Dead. It’s about what I found after watching a certain episode. The name of the episode was “Here’s Not Here” and aired in their sixth season.
One of the main characters had experienced so much emotional trauma that he wasn’t able to separate a threat from kindness anymore and he attacked everyone just to be sure. Then, in his travels, he arrived at some kind of a peaceful oasis in the middle of the forest; just a cabin with a goat grazing out front and a kind man. It wasn’t pretty at first, the cabin owner had to keep him locked up while the character’s humanity was able to mend. And a big part of that healing? The kind man introduced the character to Aikido—a Japanese martial art.
They practiced by the river at sunrise. At sunset. While the world raged around them, they were in a sphere of peace. It was so calming to watch and listen to their philosophical conversations. As a commentator said later “it was like watching a Harold Pinter play.”
The episode stuck with me. I wanted to act on it. What were the chances of finding a place near me that teaches Aikido? As it was, I was barely familiar with my new state since I had moved only four months ago. I did some research but couldn’t find a class. Then, maybe two weeks later I saw an announcement in our community’s newsletter. Tai Chi was being offered right at our local clubhouse. It wasn’t Aikido, but it was another form of martial art. That was more than enough of a sign to me.
Tai Chi is short for T’ai Chi Chuan. Sometimes it is referred to as Shadow Boxing. The essential principles of Tai Chi are based on the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism, which stresses the natural balance in all things and the need for living in accord with those patterns of nature. Therefore, everything is composed of two opposite, but complementary, elements of yin and yang, working together. It has evolved into a system of exercises in which the participant’s mental concentration, breathing and movements are closely connected. You probably recognize the circular symbol for yin and yang:
Shrouded in some truth and some legend, the origin of Tai Chi (or at least Chen-style) dates back to Chen Wangting, a 16th century Royal Guard of the Chen village in Henan Province. After retiring from the army, he used that military experience combined with a focus on “meridians” (part of ancient Chinese medicine) which are paths inside the body through which energy flows. Chi or Qi is defined as energy. He also included a series of body and mind unity exercises to promote the yin and yang balance.
This was the story my new instructor shared with us. Supposedly, Chen ended up teaching his moves to the Royal Guard which elevated their training and preparations for battle.
I need to insert a piece of reality here about myself. I hate exercise. I am not saying that in exaggeration. In high school, instead of playing team sports, I chose dance. I have never held a gym membership. I grumble briefly on my “walking days”. In fact, I’m a bit like those zombies on the Walking Dead. Getting ready, I am slow-moving and dragging my feet. To offset this horrendous lack of interest in exercise, I do enjoy riding my bike, although these days I tire after 45 minutes.
I started taking the class. My instructor’s name was Muhammad and he was in his early 60’s. Elements of the class changed weekly. There was no formal lesson plan. On some days, there was more meditation such as the Three Suns Meditation. With our eyes closed, he would start with “Imagine three suns above your head. The first becomes liquid gold and slowly melts down over the front of your head, shoulders, body to the earth, strengthening your connection to it” and so on. His words were slow, peaceful, hypnotic. It was incredibly relaxing. Since then, I have gone on to use this meditation when calming myself at the dentist or during other times of stress.
On other days, it was all about the form. Well, 24 forms to be exact. (I will add here that there are so many variations and styles of tai chi. Some have 108 forms. Others focus more on the martial arts aspect or speed, but they all have benefits.) Forms are a series of movements which are sequentially linked. They have wonderfully inventive names like “Part the Wild Horse’s Mane”, “Repulse the Monkey”, “Wave Hands like Clouds” and “White Crane Spreads Its Wings.”
Tai Chi movements are usually circular, they aren’t forced. The muscles are relaxed, the joints are not fully extended or bent. While doing the movements, it should feel like you are moving through water. In its martial arts iteration, it is vastly different from hard, offensive moves. It is all about yielding to your opponent: as they move forward with a fist, you bend away, throwing them off balance. Those types of moves are woven into many of the tai chi forms.
Literally millions of Chinese citizens move through the forms daily, almost always outside in a park or garden and early in the morning. But it has expanded globally. Robert DeNiro even participated in a tai chi class in the 2015 movie The Intern in New York City. Why has it gone mainstream? More people are looking for ways to reduce stress levels. It also improves both lower-body strength and upper-body strength. When practiced regularly, tai chi can be comparable to resistance training and brisk walking. It is definitely popular among the older population as it improves balance thus preventing falls.
According to an article in a Harvard Health Watch newsletter “A growing body of carefully conducted research is building a compelling case for tai chi as an adjunct to standard medical treatment for the prevention and rehabilitation of many conditions commonly associated with age. An adjunct therapy is one that’s used together with primary medical treatments, either to address a disease itself or its primary symptoms, or, more generally, to improve a patient’s functioning and quality of life.”
Muhammad would insist that it goes beyond “an adjunct.” He believes that tai chi’s roots in traditional Chinese medicine with its use of meridians and qi (the body’s vital energy) and focus on restoring balance are critical, and more effective, in staying healthy. Simply put, when qi is blocked in the body, illness will develop.
As a recent cancer survivor, I would not be comfortable closing the door on my western medicine treatment, however, I’m enthusiastic about improving a calmness and connection to balance in my 60-year-old (slightly beat-up) body. There is no downside. In fact, I made a point of moving through the forms as often as possible before my surgery over a year ago.
So, yes. I tried it and have stuck with it all this time; the person who has run from “working out” most of her life. In an odd twist of fate, our class was forced to meet in an outside pavilion when the clubhouse unexpectedly closed for almost two years. And in doing so, we found the setting we should have always had. Under a pavilion roof, we face east, towards water, grass and magnolias trees. We quite literally watch white cranes spread their wings and clouds move across the morning sky. And to think that I found this part of me because of the Walking Dead. Now that’s a different kind of yin and yang.
Although nothing compares to a live class with an instructor, tai chi may not be available in your area or there may be time constraints. There are several videos on YouTube and apps on both Apple and Google Play Store.
I plan to post a brief companion piece later this week.
Tai Chi for Health Institute
Yin Yang Photo by Brett Jordan