The might and power
of slow exercise
My daily Tai Chi-based health workout in Westmount Park
By Stephen Chin
When Chinese in China and in other countries say, “Let’s go out to eat some air!” they mean without a doubt exactly what they say. Therefore, is air food? It is our planet’s invisible and finest food for animals, birds, fish, insects, trees, plants, and last but not least, humans. Clean fresh air contains nutrients vital and necessary for good health. Air enters the body through the nose to reach every one of the body’s billions of cells to keep each healthy to perform the miracle of life: movement.
Two characteristics of life are breath and movement. All living things move and breathe. Although trees and greenery do move as they grow, wind, storms and rain move them to provide the ‘exercise’ they need to stay healthy, grow strong, look beautiful and provide all living creatures around them with oxygen, the most nutritious of foods.
How much air does a human need? The body has its own wisdom to know just how much air it needs. We could and should be intelligent enough to sense the body’s wisdom. In the presence of good air we naturally breathe fuller and in bad air, shallower. To try breathing in more than the natural amount of air is like trying to eat too much food, drink too much water or do too much of anything. Depending on the task demanded of it, the body’s intelligence and wisdom knows precisely just how much air it needs. Breathing in too much air because one thinks it is better will result in hyperventilation.
What is exercise?
Stated simply, exercise is designed movement for the purpose of attaining and maintaining good health. In ancient times the word did not exist in our vocabulary. When man first learned to cultivate land to grow his food, to raise animals without having to hunt them and to net and catch fish, he became civilized.
Stated simply, exercise is designed movement for the purpose of attaining and maintaining good health.
Becoming civilized, man settled in towns and cities, and spent hours each morning sitting in a car, a bus, a train or on a bicycle to travel to sit in offices for much of the day to earn a living. And in the evening, more time riding the same vehicles to go home. And his children travel to school to sit in classrooms eight hours a day before travelling home.
Civilized man’s life in the city has harmed and continues to harm his physical and mental health. He therefore made up the word ‘exercise’ to help recover the loss of muscle and good physical and mental health. And in an attempt to try recover the long-lost enjoyment of his life in nature – before he became civilized.
“No Pain, No Gain”
Exercises and sports invented by man boomeranged to hurt him and so, he went on to invent the expression “No Pain, No Gain” to justify running long distances on hard asphalt streets, the lifting of heavy and heavier weights, working out in gyms, running marathons and numerous other forms of sport which he termed ‘exercise’ and which demand great effort, energy, time and speed.
Little thought or consideration is given to the body or to the mind. The exercise on busy city streets forces the lungs to take in vast quantities of toxic air, which can and does, in the long run, give rise to numerous diseases. The following quotation from Goethe best sums up the situation:
‘There is nothing so terrible as activity without insight.’
Sport is for fun, for enjoyment. Generally speaking one indulges in sports to win or to show how much better one is to the other players. We have little or no thought for our body. And little or no thought about the air we breathe. Sport therefore, cannot be considered or classed as exercise.
As a young man I exercised with the “No Pain, No Gain” slogan of exercise. I ran long distances, played tennis, badminton and cycled miles. These activities took much time and expenditure of energy. And recovery from the fatigue and stress took more time. In mid-life I realized that I could not keep up with the commitment, drive, energy and stress these exercises and sports demanded.
And to remain healthy, one has to exercise every single day of one’s lifetime. I also worried about the long-term effects of these exercises on the knees, ankles, hips and the skeleton, of running on hard city streets. And lastly, about my lungs absorbing carcinogenic fumes from car exhausts in the city into every cell in my body. Jogging should done be on grass in a large park with many trees in the early morning when the air is relatively fresh and contains more oxygen than later in the day when increasing traffic has poisoned the air.
In running, one’s total body weight on each step is focused on the ankle, knee, hip and spine. In running long distances for many years, the cartilage and joints can become worn before their time and would eventually require surgery for cartilage, knee, or hip replacement and weeks in a hospital.
Dancing in a Sea of Air
For the sheer pleasure and not as a competitive sport, swimming can truly claim to be the king of exercises. Every muscle and bone in the body is exercised when the resistance of the water slows down movement. The effort of the arms and limbs and fingers stimulated by the feeling of water over the whole body makes swimming an activity full of pleasure and joy for both body and mind. This article is therefore about a form of slow dance-like exercise akin to movement under water, which could fittingly be called, Dancing in a Sea of Air. In a city the best place for exercise is in a large many-treed park early in the morning when the air is relatively fresh before the rush hour traffic begins.
In the early seventies, I enrolled in a Tai Chi class conducted by a well-known master. We were fifteen in a small room. I did not relish breathing in air breathed out by fifteen people in a small room with windows closed, and with windows open, the pollution coming in from the busy street below was even worse. And I found it difficult, frustrating and irritating to try following the instructor’s demonstration as he was out of my line of sight more often than not.
‘In a city the best place for exercise is in a large many-treed park early in the morning when the air is relatively fresh before the rush hour traffic begins.’
After a month, I dropped out. And ‘dropping out’ was not only a wise move but a crucial one. The next morning I awoke with the realization that Tai Chi had originated as a self-defence art about a thousand years ago. And only much later practiced for its evident and proven health benefits to spread throughout the world. And as I wanted to learn and practice it only for my health, why did I have to learn its intricate formal patterns which take months of daily practice with a teacher to master? Only the principles of Tai Chi mattered. And its principles are: a calm collected mind directing slow, controlled movements in rhythm and harmony with the natural rhythm and harmony of one’s breathing. Following its principles but not its form, I reaped the benefits of this ancient art for my physical and mental health.
Following the principles of Tai Chi
I got out of bed and watching my movements in a wall mirror, my body began slowly moving in a natural dance version of the ancient art. Like a bird just out of its cage I felt freedom and began to improvise. After a cold shower and breakfast, I jumped on my bike and cycled to Westmount Park to continue my new discovery. All through the summer and fall I continued my slow dance in the park.
With the coming of winter I found that working the patterns of the ancient discipline’s slow movement only with free hands, even with gloves, was not enough to keep me warm. Picking up a fallen branch, I proceeded to wield it slowly about and around me. Each day brought new ideas, discoveries and moving the heavy branch in my hands brought warmth.
I needed a smooth straight pole and a heavier one for the winter. I called a lumber company and was given the name and number of a wood-turner. A week later I took home a shoulder length 2-inch solid oak pole with rounded ends. After tinting it with golden oak wood finish, I varnished it. At five pounds it looked and felt stunning, inspiring me to wield it in countless exciting ways every day.
‘The practice gave me original ideas of what a truly beneficial exercise could be and should be. It should be continued throughout one’s lifetime. It should be an exercise for every part of the body, for the mind, the emotions.’
For fifty dollars I had enrolled in the school of the finest teacher. Every morning whatever the weather, I cycled to Westmount Park and there, with Wolfgang my Shetland sheepdog attached to my waist, began practice with my oak pole. And in the winter months from October to end of March, I wore a hooded, down-filled one-size-larger winter jacket, a woollen shawl and large-sized sheepskin mittens from a sheep farm in Ontario. I have not missed a day in Westmount Park, even during the 1998 Ice Storm. We keep warm not only with clothing but also with food and movement. And cold-water therapy triggers the body’s ability to defend itself against cold.
The practice gave me original ideas of what a truly beneficial exercise could be and should be. It should be continued throughout one’s lifetime. It should be an exercise for every part of the body, for the mind, the emotions. It is also meditation in movement. Because of the controlled movements of my arms and upper trunk it is especially good for the chest and lungs. When I look alternately at objects far and near, it is also exercise for the eyes. There is no better way to obtain healthy rhythmic circulation of blood throughout the body. Every day new discoveries were made as I increased the range to include facial exercises and balancing on one leg, to wield the pole.
Practicing with a partner, we included:
- ‘Stalking’ each other among bushes and trees, and at a distance alternately ‘attacking’ the other symbolically and ‘defending’ oneself while the other defends and attacks.
- Shooting imaginary arrows into the air with the pole as a bow.
- Rowing a canoe or paddling a boat, all in slow movement.
I had often wondered why tennis players collapse on the court lying horizontal after a game. Humans have a vertical posture, which forces the heart to pump blood against gravity up and down when we are standing or on the move many hours a day. When the body is prone horizontally the heart gets a real rest and that is the reason why a thirty-minute nap at mid-day is crucial to maintain good health.
What foods one eats also contribute to one’s health or lack of. In childhood to late adolescence I was pigeon-chested, had frequent colds, fevers and sore throats, coughs and asthma. When I gave up beef and pork, sugar, milk, coffee and butter, replacing them with vegetables, fish, nuts and fruit – especially pineapple, papaya, mangoes, fresh figs, kiwi and berries – and began the practice of my exercise every morning of the year, I developed full chest muscles and have never since had a sore throat, caught a cold or suffered an asthma attack.
In conclusion, I wish to invite readers of WestmountMag.ca to join me at 8:30 am in Westmount Park every morning in all seasons for half an hour to eat air and swim in a sea of air for 365 mornings. Little drops of water, little grains of sand make a mighty ocean and a lovely land.
Images: Michael Walsh and Andrew Burlone
Read other articles by Stephen Chin
Stephen Chin was born in Singapore in 1930. His early schooling was interrupted for five years by the Japanese occupation of South East Asia. After the war he completed his schooling and left for Germany to study at the Hochschule fuer Musik in Stuttgart. After three years he obtained a scholarship to continue his studies in Poland at the Warsaw Conservatory of Music He lived in Paris for four years and four in London before settling in Canada where he taught piano from 1967 to his retirement in 1995. He writes as one of his hobbies.