Physical Fitness |
Yield and overcome;
Bend and be straight;
Empty the self and be full;
Wear out and be new.
Therefore the ancients say,
'Yield and overcome.'
And all things will come to you.
-Tao Te Ching
These words from the Tao Te Ching capture the essence of the Eastern approach to physical fitness and the spirit of the Okinawans. For the elders, physical activity is part of the natural rhythm of life. Most older Okinawans are active in some way that not only keeps them physically fit, but also connects with their spiritual belief system. The activity might be as simple as gardening -- where Shinto beliefs imbue plants and herbs with spiritual energy. It may be a more structured activity such as traditional Okinawan dance, which is meditative and celebrates myths and stories of the old kingdom. Or it may even be an invigorating martial art like karate, which demands a harmonious blend of mind and body. All these activities and most others that the elders choose help connect their physical selves with their psychological and spiritual selves. And this makes them feel whole.
For ninety-eight-year-old Seikichi Uehara, the feeling of completeness comes from Mutubu-Udundi -- a rare karate-like martial art that for centuries had been known only to masters with blood lineage to the king of the Ryukyus (as Okinawa was formerly known). Every Sunday morning you can find this lean and fit martial arts master on a beach leading a class of eager pupils through the rigors of this special karate form. Shortly before the death of the last King Sho early in the 20th century, Uehara sensei (sensei is an honorific term meaning teacher or doctor), then in his early thirties, was chosen to receive the sacred knowledge and preserve it for the future. Now, at close to 100 years old, he not only still teaches but is also a formidable opponent.
There is no doubt that martial arts, which concentrate on maintaining a high level of physical and mental fitness, can help keep us young and fit. But that doesn't mean we all have to become black belt masters. Aside from the "hard" rough-and-tumble martial arts, there are also "soft" martial arts that, while more gentle, can also help tone your body and mind and lead you toward a unity of body, mind and spirit. And young and old alike can easily practice them.
Tai chi is probably the most well-known soft martial art in North America. It is a calm, low-impact aerobic activity, often described as meditation in motion, which repeats slow, concentrated, graceful movements in different combinations. When practiced regularly, tai chi provides the health benefits of aerobic exercise, strength training and flexibility, along with the psycho-spiritual fulfillment of meditation or prayer.
Tai chi and other martial arts were originally developed in China between 2500 B.C. and 400 A.D. as a means of cultivating the Tao, the Chinese equivalent of shiji (Okinawan spiritual energy). According to The First Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine (Huang Ti Nei Ching Su-wen), written somewhere between 2500 and 1000 B.C., the martial arts were first designed to improve the longevity of First Emperor Ch'in's subjects, who were living only half their expected lifespan. Today, in their various forms, they are still helping practitioners live longer. Because of their long history of cultural exchange with China, Okinawans were early pioneers of the martial arts. Indeed, the Okinawans themselves developed some forms, such as karate.