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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Column: Tai Chi Chaun

Soon we will all take on our spring break characters. Some will travel; others will doze off to a world of sleep. Just as some of us will be wrapping up our third R.E.M. cycle, somewhere along the fringes of the UC Davis quad will emerge a group of people, almost camouflaged, swaying in stroke with the leaves.

You can find them on the Quad, at Central Park and other places, too. They practice the internal Chinese martial art, Tai Chi Chaun.

When I first saw them freshman year I thought of the living statues you see in San Francisco’s Union Square. Amidst the hustle and bustle of students dashing to and from class and people yelling to each other across the quad, they never flinched.

It takes a lot of concentration, but at the same time, they’re not concentrating on anything at all.

Intrigued by all of this, I signed up for a P.E. class, “Tai Chi for Beginners.”

Honestly, it felt more like a class in Chinese language than Tai Chi. In the open space of Hickey gym, we lined up on the first three lines of the basketball court every Tuesday and Thursday. The instructor had us memorize all the names of the poses and stances in Chinese. And every week we learned more poses that eventually came together in a beautiful sequence.

Jell-O. That’s what my mind felt like while doing Tai Chi, and it’s what I think of when I see the Tai Chi-ers in the quad. No matter how many times you poke it, it never loses form.

If there is one thing I have learned while exploring different forms of fitness from around the world, it is that the American approach to fitness is narrow and extreme.

It is one of the few cultures that encourage hardcore aerobic training as the central component of fitness and weight loss. Other cultures emphasize whole-body well-being through martial arts, belly dance, yoga, Tai Chi, etc., and these older forms of fitness encompass aerobic, strength and flexibility training.

Amazingly, total body fitness originated thousands of years ago. And guess what? There was no gym in sight. In the seventh century B.C., Socrates created the first gymnasium as a training facility, an appreciation for the male body and for the pursuit of socializing and intellectual pursuits. I would not be surprised to learn that the archetype for most modern American gyms stems from the gymnasium in ancient Greece.

Evidently, the social aspect at the gym is still alive. You need a partner to spot, right? But the focus of modern gym patrons has become increasingly narrow: How many calories did I burn today?

This shift in focus from wellness to weight loss is detrimental for many reasons including eating disorders and body image issues. Not to say that the United States is the only country to grapple with these problems, but American ideas of fitness, media and competition definitely make young people prone to such issues.

Admittedly, there is a strong argument for the “American” style of fitness. Someone might say, “By running or even walking on the treadmill, I can see direct results in the form of a tinier waistline and smaller jeans. Tai Chi and other fancy forms of exercise look good from the outside but it’s not for me. I need to see results.”

This is something that I have also asked myself a countless number of times. An hour between classes – should I run on the track or do yoga? Running will burn more calories but can also hurt my knees; yoga feels great and I know I’m getting a full-body workout.

I have to keep reminding myself that what goes on inside our bodies during yoga or Tai Chi is far more important than what results the human eye can see.

Maintaining homeostasis in the body is perhaps the single most important factor related to health. Homeostasis is created through focus, calmness and opening of internal circulation through breath, blood, lymph and body heat.

As these bodily systems begin to regulate, there is of course nothing wrong with hittin’ the treadmill. The heart is just one organ (albeit an important one) that stays in shape through cardiovascular activity. However, there are multiple organs in the body that require upkeep.

When it comes to fitness, our focus should not be fitting into the polka dot bikini but rather internal health. Those organs you can’t see deserve your attention, too. They’ll thank you in the long run.

MEGHA BHATT wishes you and your lymphatic system the best of luck on finals. E-mail her at mybhatt@ucdavis.edu.

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