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Saturday is World Tai Chi Day: Use that as an excuse to check it out!

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When I want to know what the "average American" is reading, I go to popular publications such as USA Weekend, Time, Newsweek or high-circulation magazines targeted to women. Sometimes, I'm surprised by what I find in the mass media, as I was recently when I learned April 29 is designated as World Tai Chi Day (worldtaichiday.org). I would have been less surprised to find a World Yoga Day, since that practice is gaining adherents as more Americans seek ways to alleviate stress, keep fit and avoid the big A: Aging.

The designation got me thinking: Why is yoga soaring in popularity while tai chi, although enjoying an increase in the number of practitioners, is not even close to experiencing the mass appeal of yoga? And Tucson, I've been told, is a yoga mecca.

Whether or not we are living in the epicenter of a yoga boom is beside the point. Still, the number of magazines dedicated to the practice is enough to keep even the most dedicated devotees off their mats and curled up reading rather than contorted in some posture. Such is not the case with tai chi. Except for one or two somewhat arcane journals on the practice, you won't find a plethora of periodicals sporting sexy, "pretzeled-up" models on the cover.

When I pondered the yoga vs. tai chi question, I came up with several explanations. Yoga is easier for Americans, because most have the attention span of a gnat; you can find yoga classes at many health clubs; and yoga garb makes a personal fashion statement while specific clothing for tai chi is nonexistent.

After an hour of yoga, even if it's your first class and you normally get off the couch only to walk to the refrigerator, you are almost guaranteed to feel better. You'll probably have a sense of accomplishment and experience the pleasure that comes from stretching, breathing deeply and getting in touch with parts of your body you forgot existed. But after an hour experiencing tai chi for the first time, you may come away with a sense of frustration: This is way harder than it looks, and when do we get to do all those cool moves? In other words, yoga is easier because you can learn a series of discrete postures and feel good about yourself, while tai chi--even the short version--requires you to incorporate more than 30 moves before you can practice a form from start to finish.

Yoga classes are also easier to find than tai chi classes, especially in Tucson, where yoga studios are almost as plentiful as weeds. And if you belong to a health club, it's more than likely you'll find yoga offered along with Pilates, spinning, aerobics and other body-altering exercise. Not so with tai chi. Classes are harder to come by, and good teachers are even harder to find.

Tai chi has unfortunately earned the reputation of being a "gentle" exercise suitable for the arthritic and elderly. Well, yes and no. It is possible (and more than likely) you'll find a teacher who guides you through the moves and, over time, you'll be able to complete a form from start to finish. If you never go any further but continue to practice, you will reap some health benefits. But what you won't learn is that tai chi chuan is a "soft" martial art; that it is part of a long tradition of Chinese internal arts related to kung fu; and that it has the potential to change your life in ways that go beyond health.

Unlike other martial arts, tai chi chuan does not offer much in the way of external gratification. You don't earn belts; you don't wear a cool uniform; and you most certainly won't find a line of tai chi clothing in your Lands' End catalog, or anywhere else for that matter. So how do you boast of your accomplishments? Well, you don't, and that's the point. But after practicing for a while, a long while, and if you're diligent and lucky, you'll find every facet of your life shifted, from work to play to sex.

Since it takes years to fully reap the benefits of tai chi (the health benefits are quicker), most Americans, weaned on the mantra of instant gratification, lack the discipline required to stick with the program. And it is possible to practice for decades and still not attain the full benefits of the art, because the teacher you happened on lacks a depth of knowledge. Or, as my teacher likes to say, you'll be learning "bullshit tai chi." By that, he means the kind that presents itself as a sweet, pretty dance as contrasted with the kind that can deflect an opponent's aggression.

None of this is to say that yoga is not worthwhile; it certainly is. But for a different kind of challenge, give tai chi a try. And not the bullshit variety.

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