Taiji: Relax, go to it

The rain had returned to Anchorage. While the sun still rose early, the mood was calmer, more relaxed. This feeling continued as I entered the Oriental Healing Arts Center on Spenard Road with Taoist Taiji instructor Lao Shih Susan Elkins. It was 6 a.m. and the rest of the city was just waking up.

The center, sandwiched between a restaurant and a catering company, is an unexpected oasis. It offers a wide range of services, including QiGong meditation, medicinal herbs and classes. I attended the 10-movement Taiji session Elkins teaches.

Taiji (also spelled Tai Chi) is one of the oldest forms of martial arts. In fact, the name “Taiji” is often translated as “grand ultimate fist.” But it’s also described as “moving meditation” because the movements are practiced slowly with emphasis on breathing and tranquility of mind. The slow motions also help build strength and agility while aiding circulation.

The benefits of Taiji go beyond the physical. The meditative aspect of the practice helps develop a better ability to focus. As a martial art, it also teaches the student how to face conflict directly and calmly. 

“It gives you a lot more personal power,” Elkins said. “Your emotions aren’t as erratic.”

One other student arrived for the early morning session. Elkins, who has been teaching Taiji for seven years, began the class with a standing QiGong meditation. After assuming a stable but relaxed stance, Elkins led us through a series of motions with our arms. During the meditation, we focused on Dantian breathing, or breathing by expanding the diaphragm.

With the conclusion of the meditation, Elkins began the Taiji sequence. The first time through, she gave no instruction. I followed along as well as I could and the silence in the room was actually calming. I had no idea what I was doing, but didn’t feel frustrated. It was as if I had too much else to focus on.

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The second time through the movements, Elkins guided us. Each motion within a Taiji sequence has a name or description, such as Buddhist Prayer Wheel or Hook Hand. These names can serve as aids in remembering how the movements fit together.

Elkins said it can take a new student anywhere from a couple of months to a year to learn the entire sequence, depending on each student’s body-mind connection.

“You just have to keep at it,” said Joy Morton, a student in Elkins’ 24-movement class who has been practicing Taiji for two years. The first goal for new students should be just learning the choreography. After the sequence has been mastered, more focus can be placed on the meditative aspects. More advanced students may then learn the martial applications of the movements.

The time it takes to learn Taiji may seem daunting but Elkins offered some reassurance.

“Consider it an investment in yourself and the quality of your life.”

Anchorage Taiji Resources

The Oriental Healing Arts Center
2636 Spenard Road
279-0135
www.touchoftao.com

Wu Tan Kung Fu and Tai Chi Institute
9900 Old Seward Highway #7
868-8638
www.wutanalaska.com


Tai Chi vs. Taiji

There are two major systems of translating the Chinese language to English: the Wade-Giles system and the Pinyin system. Pinyin is the standard in the People’s Republic of China and in several world organizations, including the United Nations. But the Wade-Giles system was the one of the first systems used for translation. Even though the Pinyin system of translation replaced the Wade-Giles system in China during the 1950s, some Wade-Giles translations remain the popular form of words we commonly use today. Tai Chi is from the Wade-Giles system and Taiji is Pinyin. So, Tai Chi and Taiji are the same art, just different names.

Adapted from www.taichiamerica.com

The legend of Taiji

Chang San Feng, a Shaolin master, is credited with the beginning of Taiji. Chang thought the self-defense techniques that had evolved in fighting were too hard and used too much force. The legend states that one day Chang witnessed a fight between a crane and a snake. Each time the crane attacked, the snake used soft coiling motions to move and escape. Through the motion, the snake was always out of the crane’s reach and always kept his coiled body shape. Watching this fight, Chang recognized the value of yielding in the face of strength, which led him to believe that soft wins over hard. Chang also recognized the value of the snake’s circular motion. Combining Taoist-breathing exercises with soft, fluid self-defense moves, Chang created a meditative kung fu system, which he called Mein Chuan, or soft fist. This was the beginning of what evolved into Taiji.

Adapted from www.chinahand.com and www.shaolininstitute.com