The following is an edited version of the presentation by Master Lee at Princeton University International Center as part of the celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month on April 19, 1995.

"Tai Chi in the Contemporary Society"

Master Yon Lee
Senior Advisor and Chief Instructor
Harvard Tai Chi Tiger Crane Club


For the past 10 years Master Lee has been the senior advisor and chief instructor to the Harvard/Radcliffe Tai Chi Tiger Crane Club. Since 1992 he has offered Tai Chi as an alternative for stress management for participants who were recommended by staff physicians under the Harvard Health & Fitness Program.

Master Lee has offered classes and exhibitions at Brandeis University, Boston University, MIT, UMass and numerous community festivals. From 1983 through 1986 he collaborated on a research project on the effects of "Chi Kung" on cancer at Mass General Hospital with a team of doctors from China. He often lectures on the health benefits of tai chi and chi kung to corporate groups and on the conference circuits. Recently Master Lee and the Harvard Tai Chi Club were featured on Boston's Channel 7 Urban Update.

Master Lee is working towards getting tai chi recognized and certified as an alternative health tool by the medical and healthcare communities through a standardization of the teaching of tai chi and chi kung.

Tai Chi Chuan is an ancient Chinese art with a two thousand year old history. Traditionally, it is a therapeutic exercise done in the morning for health maintenance. The words Tai Chi Chuan are the composite of three Chinese characters: "tai" meaning supreme, "chi" meaning polar of ultimate, and "chuan" for fist or the art of fighting, together they mean the "Supreme Ultimate Fist."

In Western society, that's a contradiction already: how could fighting be healthy for you? There lies the dichotomy of Eastern philosophy: the yin and the yang, duality and complimentary principles, one force opposing yet in unison and in harmony with another. This is what tai chi is all about. It is as true today in the 20th century as it was when it was practiced in ancient China.

To understand the whole nature of Tai Chi and all its benefits, not just for health, one must get an understanding of the fundamental insight of Taoism. In a nutshell, Taoism is about harmony and changes with nature. This is too all encompassing for today. I will focus on what really interests us now, and that is our health, our body and our mind in the context of Taoism. Or, in a society in which many seek instant gratification, what can Tai Chi do for me, now?

According to Taoism the body is a microcosmic model of the universe. In it is this life force called "chi" (different from chi in Tai Chi). The Chinese character is a composite of the human radical with the character for rice in the center, giving you a character for air or breath. This "chi" gives life to the body, permeating and connecting all the organs and all the parts. It forms a network of meridians or channels, the theoretical framework of Traditional Chinese medicine. For a healthy system this chi must be in balance, in equilibrium, or in harmony with all parts of the body. Upset or offset that balance and disease can occur or the body is prone to injuries. Conversely, if your health is impaired, there is a blockage in the flow of chi causing an imbalance in your system.

An experienced acupuncturist can insert a fine needle at certain points on your meridian and unblock it. Sound pretty simple? It is. Blockage in your chi? Insert an acupuncture needle- Instant free flow. Acupuncture isn't the only solution. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, there's herbal treatment: a blockage, drink this particular herb, such as ginseng- Problem solved. If you prefer another method, there's massage. Kidney problems, a blockage there, massage certain points at the bottom of your feet-You'll feel better. This is the basis of reflexology. Does it sound like I am talking about plumbing? Well, in many ways, the principles are the same but the approach is different.

In tai chi, again the principles are the same but the approach is different. To maintain good health and prevent future blockage, do your Tai Chi daily. If, when you practice your Tai Chi a little bit (say half a hour) and you feel good, relaxed and warm all over, then imagine what doing Tai Chi every day for the rest of your life would do for you. In long terms, health and maintenance goes hand in hand with harmony of the body and the mind. When your body relaxes, your mind will relax. This is a fundamental principle of Chinese philosophy. To relax, you can't just think you're relaxed and go about working your body. Both the mind and body must relax harmoniously! Case in point, when you're sick and confined to bed to rest by your doctor, do you take the time out and really let your body and mind rest? Or do you lie in bed, then read a book, watch hours of television, or talk on the telephone endlessly, BUT you're in BED!

We in the 1990's are overworked. This is really nothing new, people in earlier societies have overworked and survived. The point I am making is that when we're overworked now, we do not take the time or do not have the time to take care of ourselves. We rather choose to relinquish our responsibility to experts and professionals to solve our problems. Sometimes, we even deny that we have problems. When we have headaches, do we rest or do we take aspirin and continue to work hard. We later justify our action saying that we don't have the time to stop. If we don't have time to stop and rest when we're sick, when will we? When we no longer can? Today, we continue to seek instant solutions in capsulated forms. We take elevators instead of walking those few flights of stairs. Then after work, we pay money to join health spas and climb stairmasters. We eat foods that are over processed and then spend money on food supplements to make up the difference. This society is so obsessed with weight and weight problems that we actually pay to lose weight, only to regain that weight at the next meal. A recent study quoted in Newsweek magazine reported that "90 percent of white junior-high and high school girls studied voiced dissatisfaction with their weight."

What am I saying really? On face value, we are very unhappy with our lots, that deep inside we are not in harmony with ourselves, with each other, and with nature. Tai Chi is a venue for balancing our mind and body and for harmonizing with nature.

Dr. Herbert Benson, author of the best seller "The Relaxation Response" once offered a comparison on Tai Chi. "The Relaxation Response is the opposite of the stress response. To elicit the Relaxation Response, you need two things. One is a mantra, a prayer or a phrase that you repeat over and over again. The other is whenever you wander off, you must come back and repeat that phrase over and over again, In Tai Chi the physical movements are repetitive in that they have the same effect as the Relaxation Response." Tai Chi is relaxation.

In a study dome in 1990 for the American Medical Association, the authors found that one out of three Americans seek non-western treatments when they are sick and don't tell their regular doctors about it. The study also found that Americans shelled out over $10 billion on unconventional healers-nearly as much as they spent on out-of-pocket hospital bills. AMA officials said the "survey is a wake-up call for us [doctors]." it is a wake-up call for the rest of us as well.

Harvard Medical School now offers a course in alternative medicine. Columbia Medical School has established a Center on Alternative Medicine. Others schools are following suit. I believe that the study of "chi," as in Tai Chi, is a central part of this approach. Through the Tai Chi program at Vanderbilt Hall Sports Center of Harvard Medical School, we are exploring ways to establish Tai Chi and Chi Kung as alternative tools for health maintenance through research and clinical study. It is my hope that the health insurance industry soon will accept the program and pay for tai chi for health maintenance. Finally, the Harvard Tai Chi program is establishing a program in training Tai Chi instructors recognized and certified by the medical and healthcare professions. This is our challenge.

Tai Chi is balance. Tai Chi is harmony with ourselves, each other, and with nature, now more than ever.