The stretching component is something that occurs throughout the set.
As one progresses, as one begins to understand the movement,
the stretching becomes emphasized more and more.
The stretch in Tai Chi is a very complete stretch.
It involves the whole body, right from the heel to the tips of the fingers as you stretch forward.
This is combined, of course, with the sitting and the turning aspect in the movement,
and it's that turning component that makes the stretch so unique.
In most forms, the stretching is done in a linear fashion,
simply flexing and extending.
With Tai Chi there's the flexion and extension but also the rotational component
from the turning introduced,
and this rotation is introduced throughout the body.
As you turn your hips your legs are turned.
As you turn your spine and stretch out with your arms
all the upper body joints are stretched as well.
Another concept is that of expansion and contraction,
and you can think of this at the beginner's stage as simply
expanding and contracting the individual muscle groups.
As you get a feel for the stretching, the joints themselves feel like they're expanding and contracting,
and this is exactly what happens.
The stretching action causes the joint to open up and expand as you stretch forward,
and as you pull back there's a contraction.
I mentioned earlier about the internals,
this expansion and contraction goes on, as you progress, deeper and deeper into the body
and you move from emphasizing the limbs and the more external structures
to the body itself and the internal structures
and you feel as you do the weight shift, the transfer back and forth,
that that expansion and contraction occurs in the abdominal region
and is involved in each and every movement of the set.
The fifth component that we're told and we hear repeated over and over again is,
perhaps the most difficult to grasp, is that of relaxing.
This is a term that makes sense at different levels as you progress in different ways.
The relaxing is becoming more and more recognized.
That being able to relax is critical in dealing with the everyday stress
that most people in our modern, urban environment experience.
Stress can have several detrimental affect on one's physiology
and learning how to relax is the most effective way in learning how to deal with that stress.
In Tai Chi the relaxation is integrated right into the movement.
By doing the movements slowly, it allows that relaxation to occur.
There is a stretch response, a stretch reflex that occurs,
as you stretch forward and do that type of stretch slowly, that allows things to relax more.
In most other forms of exercise, relaxing is separated from the exercise itself,
just as stretching is separated from many forms of exercise.
You do your exercise and then you do your stretching.
You do your exercise, then you do your relaxing.
In Tai Chi, all of these are combined together in all of the movements of the set,
which makes it a very complete form of exercise.
I've spoken mainly of the health benefits of Tai Chi from a Western perspective.
In the East, they have quite a different perspective on health
and what good health means and how bad health comes about.
Tai Chi is an exercise that was developed to promote good health
and in the Eastern model, ill health comes about as a result of
impairments in circulation of what they call Chi, in the body.
Chi is also known as the life force or intrinsic energy.
It's something that you cannot always put your finger on
but it's something that you feel as you progress in Tai Chi.
There's what's called the meridian system in the body,
and and along that we've all heard of acupuncture points.
Along the meridians are various acupuncture points and, in the East, they believe
that these acupuncture points are areas where the Chi or the circulation of Chi is impeded
and it's that impediment to the flow of Chi that results in disease, as we know it.
Tai Chi as an exercise is developed to open up those areas where the Chi gets blocked,
along the meridians, and promote the flow of that circulation.
We think of circulation in western terms strictly in terms of
blood circulating along the circulatory system and perhaps the lymphatic system as well.
Circulation has other implications in terms of, as I was mentioning, the flow of Chi.
The Taoists, which Taoist Tai Chi was originally formulated by,
developed Tai Chi in order to aid that process of the flow of Chi in the body
and, as a result, the promotion of good health.
I mention relaxation earlier and this is also comes into this in a very important way
in that the relaxation aspect of doing the movements
is very much involved with the meditative aspect of doing the movements.
Tai Chi is often described as a moving meditation.
This extreme concentration that is required to do the set, and that is developed by doing the set,
promotes that internal relaxation, which is also very important
to opening up these blockages in the Chi meridians.
The sitting involves transferring the weight from the front foot to the back foot.
This is very important in opening and stretching the pelvic region.
It's a region that's emphasized a lot in Tai Chi, and for very good reason.
Most of the major blood vessels, nerves, veins and arteries come down through the pelvis.
By stretching open that area,
you allow more room for these very important structures
to function much more effectively, in the body.
Combining the sitting, turning and stretching helps to promote that opening process.
This Eastern conception of health, and the degeneration into poor health,
ties in very well when we think about the aging process and exercise for seniors.
It's generally well known and most seniors experience a dramatic decrease in circulation as one gets older.
This is experienced as cold hands, cold feet, those types of sensations.
As you practice Tai Chi and the internal development is achieved, that circulation is dramatically improved
and we've had many, many people in practicing Tai Chi experience just that.
And you can think of this either in the eastern terms or western terms
in terms of circulation of blood flow or circulation of chi.
The process of improving the circulation still involves opening up the various aspects of the body,
to allow that circulation to occur.
And I think this is one reason why Tai Chi can be considered an ideal form of exercise, for people of all ages,
to prevent that aging process from occurring as rapidly as it might.
The Taoists, in their quest for improved health and what they called longevity,
were always looking for the answer to prolong their lives
and I think Taoist style Tai Chi is probably the best answer that they ever came up with.