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Head east if you don't want to go west; Eastern 'soft' arts offer a holistic approach to looking after our bodies which Westerners are finding increasingly attractive, says Mel Hunter.

The purple haze which has surrounded Eastern philosophies on health and well-being is beginning to lift.

Practices like yoga and acupuncture are no longer the preserve of drop-outs and hippies. As our lives in the West become increasingly complex and chaotic, more and more people from all walks of life are searching for a spiritual root to wellbeing.

Whether martial, medicinal or meditative, all of these Eastern arts are based on the ancient philosophy of Ch'i.

According to Eastern philosophy, when we have abundant Ch'i energy flowing through our bodies we are physically, emotionally and spiritually in balance, but when this energy is blocked our health and happiness can suffer.

Yoga, acupuncture and Shiatsu are perhaps the most widely known ways of unblocking our Ch'i and opening the doors to greater happiness and fulfilment.

Paul Wildish, author of The Big Book of Ch'i, says the force's origins can be traced back 5,000 years to the beginning of ancient Indian civilisation.

'Ch'i is the life force out of which everything is constructed,' he explains. 'In the West, we are very over-indulgent. The systems remind us to take care of ourselves and allow us to create a harmonious balance between the negative and positive aspects of our lives.

'The Chinese understand that balancing the flow of these energies is essential for wellbeing but we in the West have been slower to catch on.'

As well as helping balance our mental state, Eastern philosophies also hold the key to a whole new approach to physical health.

Oriental forms of exercise allow people to stretch their mind as well as their body and are a far more personal passport to wellbeing than a membership card to an expensive gym.

However, one area of Chinese thinking which is still shrouded in some sort of mystery is that of the martial arts.

To many people, they remain the world of comic cartoon characters and karate chops. An exercise system more reliant on aggression and power than inner poise.

But there is another more philosophical aspect to the martial arts. The soft martial arts train not just your body but are also designed give you mental and spiritual strength through physical movement.

Based on the Chinese religion of Taoism - the belief that man should harmonise his life with the way of the natural world - the soft martial arts teach that every area of life is fundamentally interconnected.

Taoism does not just link exercise and mental and bodily health but also the condition of our vital organs, our feelings and emotions, sexual behaviour, eating habits, breathing and spiritual life. The soft arts also teach that the way to maximise Ch'i is by training us to pay special attention to the way we breathe.

Many of the exercises of the arts are designed to help us store the vital energy in our own bodies.

The soft arts are accessible to people of all strengths and seem more allied to the principles of yoga and meditation than the offensive techniques commonly associated with the other harder martial arts.

Although there is a lot of overlap between both forms of martial arts, unlike the hard arts which stress the need for physical responses, exercises like T'ai Ch'i Chuan aim for the superiority of the mind over the body.

Like yoga, the soft martial arts are suitable for people of all ages and can even have therapeutic properties, helping to ease arthritis, anxiety and even digestive problems.

Howard Reid, author of The Book of Soft Martial Arts, explains: 'The soft arts have reached such levels of refinement that they are designed to create a deep sense of unity of body, mind and soul, and are actually used to heal injury and cure sickness.

'In the West, few people enjoy the kind of lifestyle that can give a sense of wholeness. Instead, most people live their lives in the face of forces which seem to pull them apart.

'Work rarely gives anybody the time to eat well or to take enough exercise; advertising constantly promotes images and desires that misrepresent what people really are and healthcare services all too often proffer a pill for every ill rather than discovering the root causes of a patient's troubles.'

He believes one of the most persuasive arguments for learning the soft arts is that they provide a total exercise programme which will leave the whole body invigorated, with minimal risk of strain or injury.

'The Chinese believe that doing these exercises actually massages and invigorates internal muscles, tendons and joints.

'Sports like tennis, squash and running, by contrast, only exercise some parts of your body and it is comparatively easy to strain a muscle if you over exert yourself.'

Eastern exercises are seen as 'moving meditation'. The central difference between exercise like yoga in comparison with the soft martial arts is that the latter by definition contain some element of self-defence.

According to Reid, while this may seem necessary, it is vital to reap the maximum mental and emotional benefits from the soft martial arts.

Reid continues: 'These arts have evolved into methods of personal development and they bring a deep sense of the richness and unity of life to those who study them.'

WHICH OF THE FOUR SOFT ARTS IS BEST FOR YOU?

CHI KUNG

A series of exercises which involve only very slow movements. It contains no fast or jerky movements, so can be practised by anyone regardless of age.

Its aim is to improve the flow of Chi through the body and to help develop deep powers of concentration.

This art is often practised together with one of the more 'dramatic' arts.

HSING I

A fast and lively soft art. Its exercises are athletic and energetic but also contain principles which are essential to grasping the essence of the soft arts.

PA KUA

Also an art of speed and power, Pa Kua can be nevertheless be performed with hypnotic grace and skill by people over the age of 50.

The message of Pa Kua - that form is captivity and the loss of form is freedom - is more profound than all the other soft martial arts.

T'AI CH'I CHUAN

This is a slow graceful dance-like form of movement. It looks easy to do, yet when you first start practising you find that it calls on muscles, balance, energy and control which you thought you had, but simply weren't there.

By practising, it gradually builds up your body and mind, creating a wholeness 'you never knew you lacked'.

Clinical trials in China have shown it is especially good for older people, but people of all ages and from all walks of life can benefit.

READER OFFER:

Get pounds 2 off The Book of Soft Martial Arts (usual price pounds 12.99) by Howard Reid, quoting The Birmingham Post when ordering from Gaia Books on

01453 752985.
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Author:Hunter, Mel
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 10, 2000
Words:1142
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