Tai Chi: A different kind of martial art Published: Thursday, September 01, 2011 0 By Felicia Bonanno
Tai chi is what is called an internal martial art – it uses the mind, body and the internal energy. Some people have described it as a cross between yoga and karate because it is about the importance of breathing, awareness, posture and structure, as well as self-defense. “What we think of Tai Chi now is different from what it was 2,000 years ago,” says Mark Tolstrup, owner and tai chi instructor at the Tai Chi Center on Phila Street in Saratoga Springs. “It originates from Qigong, another ancient Chinese philosophy and practice that focuses on the mind-body connection and has roots in Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.” There are three main aspects to tai chi:The spiritual aspect; the martial arts aspect, which helps to develop the ability to strike and take a strike; and the medical aspect, which can focus on general health or on a specific body part, such as the kidney or liver. “All of the aspects are important, and I don’t emphasize one over the other,” says Tolstrup, who teaches several different tai chi classes at the Tai Chi Center, some of which focus on meditation, others on self-defense, and others on health. “Some other schools don’t teach tai chi as a martial art, for example, and they’re really missing something. That’s an important part of the origin of this art.”
There are several health benefits to practicing this ancient Chinese art, Tolstrup says. “Tai chi has become more well-known in this country in the last 20 years, and more and more studies and articles are being done every week about the health benefits,” Tolstrup says. “There have been studies that show that it improves balance, flexibility, circulation, stress and stress-related health problems, such as a weakened immune system. It’s also been shown to help heal shingles and joint problems.”
Tai chi isn’t like other martial arts. “It’s smooth and relaxed,” Tolstrup says. “Being relaxed actually makes you speedier in self-defense because the more relaxed and present you are, the faster you are, and the more powerful.” Watching tai chi is almost like watching a slow, solo dance. The person keeps their fingers outstretched and gracefully moves through the surrounding air in an awareness of the space around them, their body, and their breath. “It’s about existing in time and space,” Tolstrup says. “It’s about being in the real time you’re in, in the real space you’re in. The meditation part is about being present in the mind and the physical body.” The Daoist meditation practice is a big part of tai chi, Tolstrup says. In this type of meditation there is sitting, standing and moving meditation. He teaches all three at the Tai Chi Center. Tai chi is also unlike some other martial arts in the way that it doesn’t have different levels or distinctions. “It’s not like karate where there is belt ranking, but there are different levels when learning everything,” Tolstrup says. “You can do something for years and years and still gain more insight every day. My teacher, William C.C. Chen, whom I studied with for almost 20 years and who has been teaching for longer than I’ve been alive, would always have something new to say or teach about tai chi when I would see him. You’re always a student, in everything you do.” Tolstrup was drawn to tai chi because he had always had a love for Chinese philosophy and way of thinking, and was therefore drawn toward people practicing that, which drew him into martial arts. He first began learning Qigong and moved on to tai chi from there. After practicing for seven years, he decided to begin teaching.
He has taught in Saratoga Springs, including at the Arts Center, before moving to the building he is in now. He also teaches several other classes at the Tai Chi Center, at all levels, including Qigong; Hsing-I, a martial art that is done more in a straight line and more explosive, like throwing a hard punch; Push Hands, a two-person exercise in self-defense from tai chi; and he has also had a few yoga workshops over the years. Some of the classes are tai chi-form refinement, tai chi with sword, and beginner’s introduction to tai chi and Qigong. For more information visit the Tai Chi Center website at http://the-taichi-center.com/.