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Asia’s centuries-old healing technique

from: BBC, article by Matthew Keegan 29 April 2020 : Asia's centuries-old healing technique

Experts point to the health benefits of tai chi as a reason lifespan has increased in Hong Kong over the last 50 years.

It’s early morning in Hong Kong. As the roar of traffic and rush of the commute begin, the city moves to its usual pulsing rhythm. But in the heart of one of the most hectic urban jungles on Earth is an unlikely garden of calm and healing – a little oasis where the pace is decidedly slower.

Located in Hong Kong Park, a lush green space in the centre of the city, is a dedicated tai chi garden. Designed with a courtyard for practicing, and decorated with bonsai trees, it has a serene quality that comes as a pleasant surprise in an area otherwise dominated by skyscrapers and the rush of city life. The garden is used frequently, if not daily, as locals gather in parks like this across the city, mostly in the morning, to practice the centuries-old martial art.

It’s here under the early morning light that a group of tai chi students, led by their teacher, Master Chow, are using the garden as their classroom. They run through what’s known in tai chi as a “form” – a sequence of fluid moves.

To an observer, the movements appear effortless. The students glide and flow seamlessly from one move to the next, exuding a calmness that’s far removed from the bustling streets nearby. Passers-by stop and watch, momentarily soothed by the movements that, although gentle, cut a powerful presence.

“People think that tai chi is just soft. But it’s all things – gentle, explosive, delicate, calm and full of wisdom,” said Chow. “There are 1,000 words to define it, but there are no words to fully describe it.”

Tai chi is a type of ancient Chinese martial art that is widely believed to have originated more than 400 years ago during the Ming dynasty. Chen Wangting (1600-1680), a local military commander from the Chenjiagou village in Henan Province, has historically been recognised as the first person to create and practice tai chi. After retiring from the army, Wangting created tai chi as a fighting art to protect his family against thieves and bandits. He integrated the skills of different martial art styles with elements of the Taoist yin-yang philosophy – the idea that everything consists of two opposing forces that harmonise with each other to create a whole – as well as theories drawn from Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Nowadays, tai chi is mainly practiced as a low-to moderate-intensity exercise combined with meditation, body awareness, imagery and controlled breathing. Its main objective is to achieve longevity through mind and body conditioning.

The ancient practice is immensely popular throughout China, but it is particularly beloved in Hong Kong for its ability to relieve stress and improve health. With famously small living spaces in Hong Kong, going to the city’s parks or tai chi gardens is a good way to be out in the open while getting some exercise. Hong Kong also has a rapidly ageing population – about one third of its population will be aged 65 or above by 2038 – and the city’s elderly citizens are encouraged by the government to attend classes in the morning, which are often followed by tea and dim sum with their teacher and classmates. Not only do tai chi classes promote healthy movement, but they provide the elderly with a social community and combat isolation.

Some experts point to the health benefits of tai chi as a reason lifespan has increased in Hong Kong over the last 50 years. Hong Kong has the highest life expectancy in the world. Women in the city live, on average, to 87.6 years of age and men to 81.9, beating such places as Japan and Italy, which are renowned for their longevity. “Prior study has indicated that this longevity increase is associated with the more active lifestyle of the elderly today,” said Aileen Chan, professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, whose research expertise is tai chi. “Tai chi maintains cardiorespiratory function, muscular fitness and joint flexibility. To promote a longer life, it is recommended to practice tai chi regularly for at least 30 minutes a day and at least five times a week, preferably every day.”

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