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Hide-and-Go-Qi with Ayi

Mandarin is rich in references to qi: a room's ambience is its qifen; getting angry is shengqi; and the word for weather, tianqi, translates literally as Heaven's qi, or the qi of the sky.

Hey Ayi,

Last weekend, as I stumbled out of my favorite watering hole in the wee hours, I saw some senior citizens engaged in exotic rituals. Some were walking backward while waving their arms, others were hugging trees, and the rest just stood there breathing deeply. Was I hallucinating in my drunken stupor? If not, what did I witness?

D.T. Shakes

Dear D.T.:

First of all, what you saw was real alright. You may think that these old-timers were behaving strangely, but you witnessed the ancient practice of generating communal flow of what we Chinese call qi. It's the secret behind Ayi's eternal good looks (that and a steady supply of erguotou and embalming fluid). A full understanding of these odd rituals and their underlying philosophy requires many years of study and diligent practice. But the basics are quite simple.

When Ayi and her friends exercise in the park, we are in fact practicing the graceful movements of taijiquan. Literally translated as 'supreme fighting fist. It was developed more than a millennium ago, a mix of martial arts and the mystical philosophical principles of yin and yang. Taiji is at once a soft and graceful style of movement, as well as a set of highly effective combat skills. It is still one of the staple forms of fighting that Hong Kong's silver screen heroes learn at an early age.

Stemming from the ancient Taoist quest for immortality, taijiquan started out as a series of physical exercises that helped those who practiced regularly resist illness and prolong life. Its main function now among the laobaixing (masses) is to improve health. It does this by clearing the channels (jingluo) of the body, and promoting the flow of inner energy (qi).

We Chinese have long recognized qi (translated as 'energy', 'pneuma', or 'vital force') as an omnipresent force in our lives. You will find that Mandarin is rich in references to it: a room's ambience is its qifen; getting angry is shengqi, or 'giving rise to too much qi; and the word for weather, tianqi, translates literally as Heaven's qi, or the qi of the sky.

Now for a Chinese cosmology lesson. Qi flows through all forms of life. It infuses the elements of nature with their various forms, shapes, colors, odors and tastes. It is the unifying principle of energy, linking everything from a grain of sand to a tear on a baby's cheek. In accordance with the contrasting elements yin and yang, qi always flows in opposite forms: it is both hot and cold, dark and light, moves fast and slow, up and down, deep and shallow. It rises, falls, inflates and deflates, carried by the waves and currents of natural forces.

The ebb-and-flow cycle of qi can be compared to filling a balloon with air. The first phase is rich and strong, like the first push of breath forcing air into a balloon and giving it form. The second phase is not as strong, but it can be compared to the still, steady push of more air into the balloon. The third step is the last and most challenging, making the balloon completely full so it reaches its potential. The final phase marks the end of the cycle. The balloon eventually deflates or bursts.

Taoist priests who used to venture to mountaintops and practice deep-breathing exercises and circular movements in pursuit of eternal youth were trying to keep the balloon as full of air as possible. Centuries later, this could also be said of those of us who continue these activities every dawn in the parks of China, albeit on a more modest level.

The exercises of taiji stimulate the various points of the body which qi flows through. In practicing shadow boxing, stress is laid on erect posture, straight back, relaxed abdomen and light footwork. Animal movements such as shaking, stretching, jumping, and looking around are practiced with qigong (breathing exercises) and neigong (internal exercises), variations of taiji. Although each one of us has our own qi, all qi is ultimately connected. The same vital force that flows through the energy channels of the human body is also believed to be found in trees and brick walls. It may look like we're 'hugging trees, but we're actually fusing our internal energy with these rich sources of external energy.

So next time you're recovering from a hard night out, don't just reach for the Tylenol. Join Ayi and her friends down at the park for a good dose of qi and you'll feel much better.


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