SUWANEE -- As Min-Nan Sze demonstrates the first 13 motions of tai chi chuan, his body moves lithely in a slow, fluid grace, each motion blending into one.
Sze performs this elaborate, dance-like system of meditative physical exercise every morning and has practiced tai chi for the past 50 years.
At 72, he is in excellent health and credits his physical and mental fitness in part to the ancient Chinese exercise based on the principles of relaxation, following yin and yang (yin movements are those in which the practitioner receives and deflects energy and yang movements are those through which energy is applied) and maintaining upright posture and balance.
"It's good for physical fitness and stress, too, body and mind tranquility," Sze said.
The backdrop for his daily exercise is the incredible Hui Tz Temple in Suwanee, where a large statue of a smiling Buddha on the second floor and an elaborate likeness of the mother goddess on the first watch over Sze.
For tai chi practitioners, he said, the exercise fulfills the first two of the three levels of body, mind and spirit.
"Body is regular exercise, like those Jazzercize, gymnastics, lifting, but here we go a step higher," he said. "You've heard mind is more powerful than metal. Tai chi work a little higher."
A second-generation student of Professor Cheng Man-Cheng, who is recognized as one of the most accomplished tai chi masters of the 20th century, Sze was a student of Master Benjamin Lo, who studied directly under Cheng. Sze has taught the Cheng, or simplified yang, style of tai chi since 1985.
While 13 individual motions are recognized and taught in the simplified version of tai chi that Sze practices, one must fuse those movements together in a continuous motion to truly perform the exercise.
"It has to continue, otherwise your chi will break," Sze said. "Tai chi is motion. Within the motion there is motionless, so it's peaceful."
Chi is simply energy, which is created through the movements. There are a total of 37 movements or postures in the Cheng style that reflect the body's natural range of motion over one's center of gravity. Accurate and repeated practice of the fluid routine helps practitioners retain posture, facilitates improved circulation and maintains joint flexibility.
Sze said watching someone practice tai chi won't give anyone an accurate sense of what is really happening with the body.
"Slow motion, you think it's very easy, right?" he said. "It look like very easy but it's not easy."
Sze remembered one student who was a weightlifter and couldn't see at first the subtle strength necessary to practice tai chi. At just 138 pounds, Sze's slight body belies his own internal power to withstand the push of a man almost twice his weight.
"I am small, right, but like my bone, my bone is like steel," he said. "It's not the size. That's the mystery of tai chi."
While tai chi is practiced for its health benefits, it is also a form of Chinese martial arts that focuses on defense.
"It's not offensive. You don't go hit someone like karate. It's defensive," Sze said. "Whoever going to attack you, the harder they going to attack you, the harder they will hurt."
In the defensive aspect, a student learns appropriate and effective reactions in response to an attack to neutralize the opponent rather than to meet the attack with opposing force.
"You learn to gain by losing," Sze said. "That's why it's more blessing to give than receive. This is what tai chi is. You gain by losing. People say, 'No, I want to win, I want to gain,'" he laughed.
Overall, the key to practicing tai chi for beginners, Sze said, is relaxation, both mental and physical, to facilitate the meditative aspect, which addresses the second level of body, mind and spirit.
"Those who are very tense, like a CEO, president (of a company)," he said, "they won't stand one minute."