Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 10, May 28 - June 3

Richard Simmons Eat Your Heart Out  

Hey Ayi,

Every time I go for a morning run, I see hundreds of old people skulking in the bushes doing all kinds of strange things like bashing trees and walking backwards. What are they doing?


Morning Glory

Dear Morning Glory,

Just the other day while crossing the Third Ring Road, I was nearly knocked down by a laowai man speeding in the cycling lane on a bicycle. He was wearing orange lycra tights, wraparound sunglasses and a shiny yellow helmet. And you call the innocent morning acts of us old Chinese folks strange?

Most of the behavior you see at dawn in parks and under freeway bridges in Beijing is some form of tai ji quan (t’ai chi) or qi gong (energetic breathing). Many of these exercises have been passed on from mother to daughter, father to son, and teacher to disciple. They are the living remnants of ancient exercise traditions that have long been associated with Chinese philosophy and religious beliefs. The idea behind many of these exercises is to restore the balance of ‘qi’ or vital energy in the body. Here are just a few of the ways we old folks like to do it:

Walking Barefoot - Strolling without shoes is recorded as a health enhancer in some of China’s earliest texts. All of the body’s major acupuncture meridians connect with the soles of the feet, so traditional Chinese medical wisdom encourages walking barefoot to massage the meridians and maintain optimal health.

Head Standing - In past dynasties this was a favorite health maintenance method among China’s Buddhist monks and Taoist priests. Meditating while standing on your head increases blood circulation to the brain and promotes clear thinking.

Walking Backward - China’s ancient Mountain and Sea scripture records the exploits of an itinerant immortal who could walk backward faster than the eye could see. Walking backward has been popular ever since. The movement exercises muscles that are not used in ordinary walking, especially in the back, waist, thighs, knees and lower legs. Some people believe walking backwards is akin to a karmic reverse, allowing you to correct mistakes and sins of the past. A version of the walking backward exercise is the walking-backward-while-rolling-magnetic-balls-around-your-hands movement. The magnetic balls electro-magnetically massage acupuncture points in the palms and give aging wrists good exercise.

Primal Scream - No, it’s not someone being murdered behind a bush, it’s a nice old lady getting rid of all the bad qi inside her body. Shouting at the top of your lungs can balance, purge, circulate and nurture the body’s internal energy and strengthen the major organs: heart, liver, kidney, gall bladder and lungs. Dawn and late evening are the best times to practice this technique. An early morning scream can flush the fatigue from your system. A primal scream before bed can cleanse the ‘sea of energy’ that builds up below your navel.

Tree Slapping - In addition to breathing in the fresh air around trees, this activity purges bad qi from the body, but your Ayi suspects the reason old people in Beijing slap trees is to vent the anger that they dare not show at home in front of the grandchildren. This fun, cathartic activity has been banned in various parks in Beijing because of the damage done to the trees.

Bird-Cage Walking - Supposedly exercise for the birds, walking while swinging a bird cage on each arm is also excellent exercise for humans.

Yang Ge (Fan Dancing) - Yang ge is a popular Northeastern folk dance, performed on Beijing streets almost every night. The dancers do a simple four step march, while waving a fan. The men of the community usually play simple tunes on traditional musical instruments, leaving the womenfolk to dance. Yang ge is good exercise for the frail-boned, and much simpler to learn than tai ji quan.

Ballroom Dancing - In case you hadn’t noticed, the waltz is in among members of my generation. Ballroom dancing is more than sophisticated fun, it is also good exercise. You may have also noticed that we aren’t particular about where we dance. You’ll find us pretty much any place there’s room for it - not only parks, but parking lots, and the gates to the Workers’ Stadium.

She Bin - From the English word ‘shaping’, as in ‘shape up!’ this exercise involves slow stretching and dancing movements, often done to a tinny disco soundtrack. This is slow aerobics without the leotards.

So Morning Glory, go back to the park tomorrow morning (before 7 am is best) and look upon all you see with understanding. Perhaps not all - there are some dawn activities that even your Ayi does not understand.


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