By Linda B. Downs

When morning colors the sky over China, crowds gather in parks and parking lots: executives with briefcases, laborers in cotton, young and old. Like rows of saplings bowing to the wind, they sway and turn in flowing circular patterns. Movements are silently synchronized, postures exotically simple, faces sublimely focused.

They are practicing T'ai Chi, the 300- year-old discipline that X. Zhang, Ph.d. author of T'ai-Ji Fitness, has called, "the epitome of ancient Chinese culture." Embracing philosophy, psychology, meditation, physical exercise and martial arts, the discipline, argue its more ardent practitioners, can prevent everything from high blood pressure to tuberculosis to diabetes to "internal piles."

While U.S. scientists don't buy such sweeping health claims, some experts now believe the yoga-like practice may, in fact, offer some important fitness benefits, especially to older adults. Recently the national institute on Aging (NIA) and the National Center for Nursing Research awarded a grant to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, to put T'ai chi to the test. The clinical trial is part of a $2.9 million, three-year, eight-site study called FICSIT (Frailty and Injuries: Cooperative Studies of Intervention Techniques). FICSIT hopes to find new ways to improve strength, mobility, balance and endurance in older people.

According to the NIA, new ways must be found to enhance and maintain fitness among the "old-old" (beyond age 75) because recent statistics paint an alarming picture of their physical condition: 40 percent cannot walk two blocks; 32 percent cannot climb ten steps; 22 percent cannot lift ten pounds; 7 percent cannot walk across a small room; 50 percent of older people who fracture hips never walk independently again and many die from complications.

Those who used to roll their eyes at such T'ai Chi concepts as "yin and yang" and "allowing your energy, or chi, to flow unchecked" are now looking beyond such abstract definitions into the heart and soul of this ancient art. Bottom line, T'ai Chi could be very effective in reducing stress, improving balance, and providing a good workout as well.

Its full name is T'ai Chi Ch'uan (pronounced tie jee choo-wan ). According to legend, it was developed sometime during the Sung dynasty (A.D. 960-1279) by an alchemist named Chang San-Feng. One researcher, however, says a family named Chen originated the art in the 1660's and tenaciously guarded the mysterious movements by restricting instruction to family members only. In the 19th century a servant named Yang Lu-chan peered through a hole in the wall, and the secret was out. He later modified the method and became known as the Invincible Yang. After 1949, the Chinese government heavily promoted the practice for its health benefits. Today the Yang style is the most popular form in China and the world.

Resembling a modern-dance rehearsal without the soundtrack, it doesn't have the strains, pains and muscle-popping of more strenuous exercises. It's also a martial art, but the speed is cranked down to 33 1/3 rpm and the chop-chops are subtly hidden. Students learn a sequence of postures and perform them without stopping so much melts smoothly into the next. The more proficient you become, the more you actually feel the air as you move. Some have equated the sensation with pushing your hand against onrushing air outside a moving car's window (or, as T'ai Chi practitioners, say, "swimming on dry land"). Muscles are relaxed; if they're tense, your chi may be short-circuited. When done right, a T'ai Chi workout leaves you feeling settled and relaxed all over.

Unity church in Atlanta, Georgia: the black-uniformed instructor drifts calmly among the rows of students, his eyes concentrating completely on each individual before moving on. He pauses to remind one that "the leg must move like a cat's." he shows another how to circle his arms into the "hold ball" position. to the group he softly repeats,"Let the mind control the body."

Tingsen Xu, Ph.D., is no TV mystic roaming the new South dispensing morals from the ancients. He is a true believe, a T'ai Chi master who began his training at age 13 in his native Shanghai and who is still learning today at age 62. Weekday mornings he teaches the discipline to faculty and students on the Emory campus. Sundays he gives invitation-only workouts in martial-arts aspects to advanced students. His classes at Emory's sports-medicine center emphasize stress reduction. And twice a week he teaches seniors as part of Emory's FICSIT study on frailty. "I can't say they'll never fall again," Xu says of his research volunteers, "but if they keep up their T'ai Chi they will have few or no balance problems."

The 60-plus students in his classes range in age from 70 to 90 and make up one of three groups undergoing balance and stress research at Emory. A second group is testing individual balance training using a computerized movable-force platform. A third group is trying behavior modification to see if balance can be improved through that method. The goal is to compare the three groups' results and determine which method works best to help older people become and/or stay fit.

Although results won't be released until next spring, Xu's classes have already raised some eyebrows. "We are very encouraged by what we're seeing," says Steven L. Wolf, Ph.D., professor of rehabilitation medicine at Emory's School of Medicine and principal investigator of the FICSIT study. "People who are more active in their later years have fewer stability problems and their quality of life improves. Many are frail because of inactivity. If T'ai Chi proves beneficial, it will be very cost-effective, since an individual would have no costs except paying for an instructor."

Why do experts believe T'ai Chi may help improve balance? Just look at its basic stances, they say. Students are taught to stand so their legs create a base of support, with their center of gravy positioned directly over the base. The body is upright, not leaning, and weight is continually transferred from one leg to the other. Although Wolf says nobody should expect a miracle, "At the very least, T'ai Chi may help you maintain your status quo."

One Emory research volunteer is retired teacher Elizabeth painter. She isn't sure T'ai Chi has improved her balance, but it has definitely helped in other ways. Since the class started, back problems that made her feel 100 years old" have vanished. "T'ai Chi is more than just exercise--it's a philosophy," she says. "To get the most from it, you must relax and immerse yourself in it."

Dot Biddle, 73, had been taking aerobic dance classes three times a week before she joined Wolf's clinical trial. "I always feel wonderful after doing this for an hour," she says. "It's good for the soul, too." After her FICSIT classes were over, she wanted more, so she signed up for Xu's church classes.

Perhaps the best example of what t'ai chi can do is Philip Felton, 84. the retired real-estate salesman, who had previously completed his training in the research trial, dropped in to see Xu for a quick refresher course. He moved smoothly through several patterns, his navy and wool shirt setting off his thatch of white hair, intense concentration sculpting his face. "Four months ago I was so afraid of falling I couldn't stand up to pull on my trousers without learning against something. But did you see how I balanced on one leg there?

How much their successes are due to stress reduction or to improved fitness we'll probably never know. but since we're talking about T'ai Chi, which stresses balance and centeredness, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

How to choose a T'ai Chi Class

Jan and Ashby Johnson lived in Taiwan in the early 1980's while they taught at the University of Tunhai. During their Stay they became intrigued by a t'ai chi class that often took place on top of a nearby he'll, but they never climbed up to join in. When they moved to Atlanta after Ashby's retirement, however, they decided to try it out.

Unfortunately they made a few mistakes. They were told they had to buy pajama uniforms ($50 each) and shoes ($10 a pair), and were told the course fee would be $450 for both; total outlay, $570. Their class turned out to be overcrowded. The studio was an oven summer and an icebox in winter. The teacher's idea of instruction was to have the students simply imitate whatever he did. After the Johnsons learned the first form, they looked for another class.

When shopping for a T'ai Chi class, consider these suggestions from the experts:

  1. Look for a studio that specializes in T'ai Chi. If T'ai Chi is the fifth item on a long list of martial-arts classes offered, check elsewhere.
  2. Be on the alert.  Some schools never quote prices on the phone, urging you to observe the teacher, the class and the philosophy in person first. That's fine, but it also puts you on their turf and makes you vulnerable to high-pressure sales tactics.
  3. Check the teacher's credentials.  Many T'ai Chi instructors have studied the discipline for only three or four years themselves. Look for a teacher with at least six to ten yeas' experience. The older he is, the better.
  4. Find a teacher who explains the exercises.  You don't want someone who just goes through the motions and has no time to spend with beginners.
  5. Think small.  Choose a class with no more than 20 or 25 students. The smaller the class, the more personal attention you'll receive.
  6. Understand the conditions.  Find out how much the course costs, how many lessons you get, and what happens if you quit.
  7. Don't sign blindly.  Carefully read any contract at home before you sign it.
  8. Save your money.  You don't need to invest in special clothing or equipment. Casual, loose clothing or exercise-wear is fine. If you really want the T'ai Chi look, discount stores carry canvas slippers and martial-arts uniforms. ­­L.B.D.

Linda B. Downs, former senior editor at House Beautiful, has contributed articles to Woman's Day, Working Woman  and numerous other publications.