The Good Fight
Exploring Tai Chi’s dual role as a force for healing and self-defense
STORY BY MARIKO OSTERBERG | PHOTOS BY JAKE PARRISH
“Let’s begin by aligning the head over the chest and the stomach,” says instructor Art Baner as he guides seven students through warm-ups at a Wednesday evening Tai Chi class in Bellingham.
“Take a comfortable breath in and exhale as your weight settles down through the legs, into your feet and down into the ground. Relax the shoulders and calm the mind. This is the most important part of the form.”
The students stand with their feet shoulder-width apart. Hands rise slowly above their heads and flow down to create a full-body stretch in the opening warm-up posture. Serene energy flows freely through the room. Chi, which means air or power in Chinese, is the empowering energy said to flow throughout the body as Tai Chi is practiced.
Tai Chi, the self-paced mind-body exercise now gaining popularity in the United States, consists of physical exercise and stretching where each posture flows into the next without pause.
In 2013, the number of Tai Chi participants aged 6 years and older was about 3.47 million worldwide, according to Statista, an online resource for research data.
In this slow-motion exercise, participants move without pausing, flowing through a series of circular motions. The Yang style is the most popular and widely practiced form, which includes 24 smooth full-body movements in its simple form and 108 movements in the traditional form.
Meditation, movement and deep breathing are the three main components of Tai Chi.
Baner is a certified Tai Chi instructor at his business, Full Circle Internal Arts in Bellingham, where he teaches Yang style Tai Chi, mediation and Qigong, a series of smaller, slow, graceful movements and breathing exercises which can be done while sitting, standing or lying down.
Qigong has roots in ancient China and India from more than 2,000 years ago and focuses on letting go of all distractions, bringing awareness to each body movement and noticing the sensations that come with every movement.
Tai Chi originated in China around the 12th century A.D., when Chang San-Feng is said to have observed five animals — a tiger, dragon, leopard, snake and crane — to create movements that imitated the animals’ movements, according to the American Tai Chi and Qigong Association. Tai Chi was first practiced as a form of self-defense in a small Chinese farming village called Chen Village, and sought to cultivate relaxation in addition to muscular strength.
“[Villagers] were constantly being harassed by marauders and needed a method of protecting themselves that would also be beneficial from the health standpoint because they were farmers,” Baner says.
Learning the traditional form is only one level of Tai Chi. Once participants learn each move, Baner encourages people to go into a spontaneous expression of the form when they are practicing on their own, so that the movement becomes more authentic.
“That way, it is a beautiful and much more fulfilling way to practice because you’re listening to how your body wants to move with these things,” Baner says. “A lot of people that do Tai Chi don’t necessarily get to that level, unless they are encouraged to or have a little creativity.”
“Grasp the bird’s tail left, grasp the bird’s tail right,” Baner calls as the class continues to move in slow flowing movements. In Tai Chi, there are five moves that are named after animals.
“All of the names of those movements have historical reference,” Baner says. “They are not just randomly made up and tend to have a little story behind them.”
As Baner calls “White Crane spreads its wings,” everyone in the class creates a crescent moon shape with their arms, resembling a group of cranes with their wings spread wide. The White Crane is a symbol of patience and longevity.
Baner started his career in Pennsylvania at a community college with taekwondo and switched to Wing Chun, another Chinese martial art and form of close-range combat and self-defense. He then became interested in the healing arts — practices that promote healing, wellness and coping strategies for improving one’s health. Baner then switched to the subtler martial art of Tai Chi, which he has now been practicing for more than 30 years.
“In China, healing art and martial art are often taught together, so Tai Chi is a martial art, but a healing art as well,” Baner says.
Students have come to Baner’s class with back, knee and neck injuries that have improved with Tai Chi, he says.
“I even had people report to me that it’s gotten them out of some tricky situations,” he says.
Baner recalls a story about his former student, who was walking down the street one day.
“He heard this dog barking, and this Rottweiler started running towards him wanting to make lunch out of his leg. He turned towards it, raises his leg and clocks this dog without really thinking about it,” Baner says. “The dog falls to the ground, shakes his head, turns in the other direction and the man is able to continue his stroll down the street.”
Although at first glance this Tai Chi move may seem impractical, it proved to be useful, Baner says.
Lan Totten has been a student of Baner for approximately 10 years since her friend, who was also taking classes from Baner, showed her a basic warm-up exercise. After taking classes on and off for about five years, Totten left to take a break to go to school, but also became sick with Emphysema, a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that makes it hard for one to breathe.
Then, seven years later, Totten returned to practicing Tai Chi with a whole different attitude and a goal to improve her health.
“The more I practiced, the better my breathing got,” Totten says. She explains that her overall strength and stamina have increased, making it easier for her to breath and perform simple tasks such as sitting in a chair. Practicing Tai Chi continues to make a positive impact on Totten’s mental and emotional wellbeing, she says.
The last step in Baner’s class is a practice called Zhang Zhuang, a stance in which the body is completely still to give the sensation that its roots are grounded beneath.
As the sun sets, casting a shade of darkness outside the window, both the day and the practice come to an end.
“And return back to Earth,” Baner says. All seven people turn their palms down, returning their arms to their sides.