Daoism: tai chi, immortality and vitality
Daoism from ancient origins to modern times has changed, developed, and evolved. When it started out was it more so a philosophy or a religion? What is the difference? The author, Liu Xiaogan, contrasts and compares philosophical Daoism and religious Daoism in the chapter Daoism from Philosophy to Religion from Dao Companion to Daoist Philosophy, using insight from many scholars over the course of time. Daoism, whichever way you look at it, as it relates to a philosophy or religion may be semantic due to its metaphysical nature, however various scholars point out the differences between the two. At any rate, as one of the Three Teachings - the others being Confucianism and Buddhism - Daoism is in large part defined by its practices, or rather the participants that take on this path are defined by their practices. Daoism through its evolution has elements of immortality and its pursuit as a key tenant, whether that was a physical immortality or a spiritual one. The three sources I have chosen to inform this essay: Daoism from Philosophy to Religion; Tai Chi Illustrated: For greater balance, relaxation, and health; and “Systematic review and meta-analysis: Tai Chi for preventing falls in older adults highlight, to various degrees and in varying ways, the efficacy of traditional practices within Daoism and how that impacts lifespan; specifically the effect of tai chi’s effect on physical lifespan, as spiritual lifespan would seem immeasurable, in the form of fall prevention.
To summarize the sources, there are overlapping themes about Daoist practices as it relates to breathing, movement, meditation and awareness, however differences in the attention given to these elements in the different sources, which makes sense given their purpose as written works. While in Daoism from Philosophy to Religion ideas are sprinkled in throughout the chapter about the practices that Daoists would maintain as it shifted over time from more philosophical to more religious, in The Art & Practice of Tai Chi the primary subject of the text is in regard to the practice of tai chi, as the title suggests; and in the case of Tai Chi for preventing falls in older adults the central thesis is just as the name suggests, focussing on utilizing the practice of tai chi for decreasing the incidence of falling in elderly populations.
Firstly, the assigned reading, Daoism from Philosophy to Religion the concepts coveyed throughout the text covered the broadest, most general information while taking on the tremendous account of describing Daoism as a whole from its origins all the way the through history essentially and in that it provides a big picture perspective on a smaller topic. The word “immortal” comes up continuously, from the days of a more philosophical view, to the defined sects of Complete Perfection Doaists. However, the terminology may have held differing meanings at various times,. For the religious groups they sought physical immortality, while the philosophical Daoists sought spiritual immortality, states Xiaogan, with reference to statements from the Laozi (or the Daodejing). This concept of immortality changed over time and was different for different people, however, how they went about trying to achieve this “immortality” was very similar: through practices. This included movement, or Tai Chi (or qi). Along with other practices such as external alchemical interventions (herbal concoctions, and the like), tai chi was practiced regularly as a martial art, with varying forms ranging from slower and calmer, to more explosive and fast. While it is unclear whether or not in its earlier times that Daoists recognized tai chi as a fall prevention strategy, it is fair to say they recognized a wide spectrum to the benefits that a physical movement practice had on their wellbeing and vitality, even into old age.
Secondly, in the The Art & Practice of Tai Chi, Qiu and Zhu approach the subject of tai chi from a modern perspective. They have an edge that was not available to inform Xiaogan: science. This is not to say that Xiaogan’s work is inferior; it is to say that the material that he covered was occurring in a pre-scientific era, and the resources that he was referring to were from historical texts, which is certainly a different approach than that of The Art & Practice of Tai Chi. Qiu and Zhu have put together a wonderful exposé of the origins of tai chi and explaining its connection to Traditional Chinese Medicine and related theories, such as Five Element Theory, meridians, yin and yang, qi, Tao (or Dao) etc. Along with the eastern-informed explanation of tai chi, staying true to its roots, they also provide scientific backing to the benefits of such a practice, quoting various studies done for tai chi’s efficacy in aiding specific components of health such as balance and control, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, bone mineral density, psychological health, blood pressure, cancer, cardiovascular disease, aerobic capacity and overall health. This is a modern day synopsis for the modern day tai chi practitioner, or enthusiast, alike. The language used is simple enough while not oversimplifying to the point of losing the essence of the practice. While there may not be an emphasis on “immortality” per say, there is an emphasis on the health promotion associated with tai chi that is informed by eastern and western knowledge. From an enlightened, open-minded perspective they recognize the mental and physical benefits, in the true nature of the mind-body connection we have gone from a big-picture point of a view by Xiaogan, to a now more focussed examination on health. Brilliant.
Lastly, a systematic review and meta-analysis of the benefits of tai chi, most specific of all the sources, relates specifically to fall prevention in the elderly (65 years old and over). “This study is the most comprehensive systematic review evaluating Tai Chi for preventing falls in older adults.” Tai Chi for preventing falls in older adults is also the most secular, or primarily mechanically-focused of the sources, really gearing the study towards the physical benefit of fall prevention, balance, endurance, proprioception and stability, so essentially fitness adaptations and how they impact quality of life. The combination of the fact that 30-40% of people over 65 years old, and roughly half of those 80 years old and over experiencing falls every year, with fall-related complications being the leading cause of unintentional injury deaths in people 65 years and older, and the fifth leading cause of death - you have a tremendous need for a solution. This is where tai chi comes in. The results showed that the tai chi group was associated with significantly lower chance of falling at least once, as well as rate of falls versus the control group. Consistent with the “immortality”, or at least vitality, theme of this paper the practice of tai chi has been able to hold up to scientific scrutiny in a systematic review and meta- analysis to provide us with the facts about how this practice, initiated by early Daoists, has served to help extend life, and better the quality of life for participants. It may not be immortality, but it is still a very convincing reason to pursue this practice, now and into later life, regardless of if you take part in the religious or even philosophical underpinnings.
While Xiaogan does recount an excellent brief history of Daoism and its evolution over time from philosophy to religion, he primarily writes about Daoism from a historical, theoretical, from-the-outside-looking-in perspective, if you will, rather than writing about Daoism’s essence, the experiential components of practice (whether philosophical or religious), flow states brought about by breathing, mind “exercises”, internal and external alchemy, etc. This is not necessarily a flawed account since this is what the author was intending, however it may not do Daoism justice, for analogously, writing about Daoism in a theoretical manner is like talking about or writing about exercise, rather than performing the movements and feeling how that effects the different parts of your body and mind; in other words, it is like writing about or talking about food, rather than cooking, eating or tasting food, or sitting at the table and experiencing cuisine in a social environment. However, as the Dao suggests, there is a Yin and a Yang, a balance between components, so the intellectual narrative is of great importance as well.
I found The Art & Practice of Tai Chi to be the most authentic of the written pieces. Combining knowledge from a ninth-dual master as well as a PhD, some of the most practical knowledge that the English language knows about the practice of tai chi is found here. It not only informs the reader about the practice, but also prepares them for how to begin a practice of their own. Qiu and Zhu along with the help of the publisher, Human Kinetics, are masterful in bringing an ancient mind-body exercise to the contemporary consumer in an accessible, yet powerful way. With emphasis on the physical as well as the mental benefits of tai chi, it is more encompassing than Tai Chi for preventing falls in older adults. And with their attention to detail in the description of the origins of tai chi they were also able to give essential elements, not overwhelm the reader, and provide a good base knowledge for the reader to be able to seek out more info should they desire so, which in my opinion, has The Art & Practice of Tai Chi trump Daoism from Philosophy to Religion in regards to need to know information. While I do admit that it is not a totally fair comparison, since Daoism from Philosophy to Religion was written on the more broad topic, without a focus specifically on tai chi.
4) My Own Understanding
In my understanding of tai chi, it is something very experiential, which may seem obvious since it involves movement. But, more than movement it also require your mind to be keen, for you to have heightened interoception, to be able to check-in with your inner being while simultaneously interacting with the outside world. Tai chi, in its many forms, is diverse. Calming, yet energizing. It encompasses a vast array of feelings and emotions, and is the human demonstration of yin and yang in motion. Its depth is greater than may be realized. One of the ingredients to immortality that early Daoist pioneers sought was truly embodied. Going within, to maximize from their inner alchemy to expand themselves was, and still is, a brilliant display. Wisdom that came before its time, however at the same time, it came about in perfect timing.
It is difficult to encapsulate such a practice in words alone, without any sort of visual, whether that be video, photo, diagram, etc. The Art & Practice of Tai Chi does an excellent job, as I have discussed earlier in this paper, of making a comprehensible guide to tai chi. It provides visuals of varying kinds and a simplified organization of the text to not become overly dull or overwhelming. In my opinion, these and other attributes make Tai Chi Illustrated the definitive introductory handbook to tai chi practice.
Huang, Zhi-Guan, et al. “Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis: Tai Chi for Preventing Falls in Older Adults.” BMJ Open, no. 2, BMJ, Feb. 2017, p. e013661. Crossref, doi:10.1136/ bmjopen-2016-013661.
Liu, Xiaogan, et al. “Daoism from Philosophy to Religion.” Dao Companion to Daoist Philosophy, Springer Netherlands, 2014, pp. 471–88, http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1007/978-90-481-2927-0_20.
Qiu, Pixiang, and Weimo Zhu. Tai Chi Illustrated: For Greater Balance, Relaxation and Health. Human Kinetics Publishers, 2012, pp. 3–16.