The legendary Tai Chi Master Sun Lutang expressed the meaning of Tai Chi as a way to stay healthy long and die fast. He got ill when he was 73 years old. From what I have read, he didn’t want to stay ill or become a burden to his family. So he gathered his students together and willed himself to death.
But there are a lot of other stories and there are Tai Chi teachers who became very old and stayed strong and healthy the whole of their life. I recently watched a video with a Tai Chi teacher I had for twenty years ago. Here he was 85 years old. He had a little bit of stiffness in his back, but otherwise, he looked very strong and moved very well for a man of his age. Tai Chi seems to preserve the strength of the body and slow down aging.
I met another teacher, a Chinese man, for more than 20 years ago. I am not sure how old he was. There were stories about his age, that he was very old and much older than he looked. He didn’t want to speak about his age. I looked up some information about him and through what I found and also from his own stories, I made the conclusion that he must have been at least 70 years old. This was his minimum age. I talked with another person who was a teacher in gymnastics and had studied physiology. He was convinced that this Chinese teacher can not be older than 50. Why? Because you can see it in the bone structure. He explained that you can preserve the skin very well, but the bones will keep changing and that you can make a good appreciation of someone’s age through looking at his bones. But I remember this teacher’s stories, about his childhood and details from the early 1930’s. Even if he had very early memories, he must have been at least 70 years old. This man was quite short, but had a tremendous energy. When he walked, everyone had a hard time to keep up with his speed. No one of these two teachers practiced anything else than Tai Chi Chuan.
Some of what you see from old Tai Chi teachers might of course be a combination of living style, foods, genes and the practice. Speaking of myself, I started studying Tai Chi at quite a young age, only 11 years old. All of my friends that started practicing when they were about my age all look very young and healthy. We are all in our forties now. Our bodies are still strong and we don’t get ill easily. Our skin is smooth, the women have little wrinkles and the men have suffered no or almost no hair loss. Tai Chi practice seems to have an effect of conservation of the body. It keeps the strength of the body and seems to slow down aging.
One aspect of longevity might be about keeping the body in movement and keeping the mobility of all of the body. The aspect of preserving the body might have to do with the internal practice of using the nervous system, some of it from the meditative aspect to keep the mind calm and focused. Or it might have to do with that you heat up the body from inside with Tai Chi practice. Some people would just say that it has to do with developing the body’s “Qi” and circulating it by using the movements.
Anyway, Tai Chi Chuan seems to be a powerful tool for health and keeping the body in shape. As I am in my early forties as I write this, I have lost some muscle strength. But my stamina is excellent and I feel in great shape, at least not in less shape than in my 20s or 30s. In fact I can now run a longer distance without getting exhausted than I could in my 20s. Why? Because my legs are stronger and I have learned to use my body better now.
One aspect might be about having a naturally deep breath. As people get older, they tend to breath more shallow. I always breath deep from my belly. Maybe keeping the leg strength through daily low form practice is another aspect. There’s a Chinese saying that age starts in the legs. There might be some truth to this.
But above all, living a healthy long life or not, I do believe that it’s important to really enjoy the Tai Chi practice and have a genuine interest to continually develop it and explore all of it’s aspects. And also to use it as at least one tool to continue to grow as a human being.