Longevity and Tai Chi Chuan
by Christopher Dow
Among the many benefits ascribed to Tai Chi Chuan is that of longevity. It is said that the art not only imparts health and well-being, it also contributes to a longer life in the practitioner. This idea, however, like the belief that anyone can learn and practice Tai Chi, is more myth than reality. If it were true that Tai Chi imparts a longer life, one might expect to see significantly increased life spans among the most celebrated masters of Tai Chi. This, however, does not bear out.
In his book Tai Chi Dynamics: Principles of Natural Movement, Health, and Self-Development, Robert Chuckrow lists the lifespans of thirty-two major Chinese Tai Chi masters who lived beween 1771 and 1997. Included among them are Yang Lu-chan, Yang Cheng-fu, Yang Pan-hou, Li I-yu, Sun Lu-tang, Cheng Man-ching, and T. T. Liang. This is how their ages at death break down: 50s: 8, 60s: 6, 70s: 10, 80s: 4, 90s: 2, 100s: 2. Yang Cheng-fu died at age 53 and Yang Pan-hou at age 55 (though I have heard that was suicide). Few people would have messed with these men during their prime, but their Tai Chi not only could not defeat death, it seemed to do little to stave it off.
Obviously, lifestyle has a lot to do with health. Yang Cheng-fu grew quite corpulent, and it is rumored that Cheng Man-ching was alcoholic. Others of these master might have smoked, drank, or eaten too much. It is true, though that the ages of the masters listed tend to increase toward the end of the list, which might be due to advances in medicine. On average, people who lived a century or more ago simply did not live as long as we do today. But except for the two who lived to be more than 100, the life spans of even the later practitioners are not any different than the current norms for non-practitioners. What, then should we make of the idea that Tai Chi imparts longevity?
Perhaps we should not think of longevity in terms of years lived but rather in terms of youthfulness. The truth is that Tai Chi will not appreciably increase the length of one’s life any more than most exercise systems might. But it does something that most don’t. It emphasizes the flexibility of the sinews—ligaments, tendons, and fascia. As people age, they not only lose muscle mass and tone, but their sinews tend to tighten, harden, and become stiff and brittle. But because Tai Chi trains the practitioner to move his or her body by using the sinews rather than muscles, these physiological structures are constantly being stretched and compressed, twisted and untwisted, keeping them flexible even into older age.
Thus, while Tai Chi might not impart a longer life, it assists one in maintaining the flexibility, pliability, and strength of the sinews. This imparts in the practitioner looser movements usually associated with youth. Hence, Tai Chi people seem to be younger than their calendar ages simply because they move like younger folks.