The gentle grace of Tai Chi makes it an alluring physical activity and, even beginners can enjoy the holistic benefits.
Tai Chi is a martial art that originated in ancient china and is now practiced by millions of people worldwide. However, it’s a long way from the punching and kicking most of us associate with martial arts. Tai chi is what’s known as an ‘internal’ martial art, which means its focus is inwards on energy, balance and relaxation.
It’s based on the beliefs of traditional Chinese medicine that our basic life force is an energy called ‘Chi’ which can be used for self defense, meditation and general health. Practitioners believe that it is vital to our health that the flow of our ‘Chi’ is smooth and balanced and that practising Tai Chi encourages this.
What does it involve?
There are many different interpretations of Tai Chi but the one that is most common is the hand form. This is a series of positions that are done in a slow, continuous motion. As you work through the movements of the form, you focus on relaxing both the body and the mind and on breathing naturally. This releases tension from the body and helps the mind to let go of external stresses and worries, bringing with it a sense of peace and calm.
You will feel your limbs have been gently stretched and your body will warm up. Some people also experience a tingling sensation in their fingers.
Although the moves feel daunting to start with, there is absolutely no pressure to learn them all and even people who have been practising for years may not know every move. Tai Chi is about finding balance between body and mind and working at your own level to achieve this, rather than seeing who can race through to the end of the sequence.
Who can do it?
Anyone! Because it is a low impact activity, there is very little risk of injury and even people who find other forms of exercise difficult may be able to practice Tai Chi. Everyone goes at their own pace and only do as much or as little that they feel they can. This makes it a good option if you haven’t exercised for a while or want to build up slowly after an illness. You don’t need any specialist equipment, just loose-fitting clothes and an open mind. It may look easy, but you’ll need to be dedicated and understand that you only get out as much as you put in.
Why is it good for you?
It’s good for strength, balance and flexibility. There is an emphasis on posture as you go through the sequence which releases any tension in your spine and takes the pressure off your back. The gentle stretching involved the movement from leg to leg, and the lifting and rotation of hands, arms and legs will all help to loosen joints and keep them flexible as well as stretching the muscles.
Practicing the sequence improves coordination and remembering all the moves certainly helps keep the mind active, and this is where you’ll really notice the difference. As you direct your mind to focus on the moves, you will find you have screened out all the distractions of the outside world and your mind will clear. After just one session most people feel less stressed and more relaxed, many find they sleep better and are more able to cope with whatever life throws at them.
So why give Tai Chi a go?
Tai Chi conjures up images of a world far away: peaceful oriental parks, lilies on ponds, ornate bridges leading to secret paths, and groups of serene people skillfully practicing a sequence of moves. So why should you start Tai chi? There is an atmosphere of calm and peace in our classes as we focus on the moves and our mind lets go of everyday cares.
How would a beginner cope amongst the experienced Tai Chi-ers?
The main skill you will need is patience. There is a sequence of moves that can take a very long time to learn, but the good thing is you can get as much out of it as a beginner as someone who has been performing it for five years. We have beginners joining the group at the start of each new term and we just tell them to go at their own pace and not to worry that they don’t know as many moves as the others.
We start with a gentle warm-up to get the muscles going and then go on to the forms. We begin slowly, going through the sequence of movements either in bite size pieces, or as a whole form. Some people find it more of a challenge than others. Top tip: place yourself in the centre of the room, that way you should be able to follow the people around you as they progress smoothly through the moves.
By the fourth or fifth time, you are more able to relax into what you are doing and enjoy the feeling of focusing on your breathing and how your body is moving. It’s surprising just how quickly you can start to feel warm, which is the energy flowing.
As we carry on, you begin to understand why people love coming so much.
You get a strong sense of stresses leaving and of energy and suppleness returning to your body. On top of that, it’s a lot of fun; the class takes it seriously but they also enjoy a joke and laugh – we would hope to make any beginner feel like an old friend rather than a new starter. So would you find it difficult to learn?
The best thing about it is anyone can do it and you can go at your own pace. Tai Chi isn’t competitive – that’s a western concept – it’s not about getting to the end, it’s about the journey there and how much you get out of what you are doing. We all teach and support each other, so you can have all levels in a class.
On leaving school I joined the merchant Navy. These were some of the best years of my life, seeing the world and getting paid to do so. On one trip to Singapore I saw my first real glimpse of Kung Fu in a street demonstration. It left an indelible impression on me and a hunger to learn more. It was not until I left the Navy that I had the opportunity to start my first real training in the Chinese Art of Kung Fu way back in 1968. That first lesson was to change my whole life: I was hooked.