Note: this piece was written for a T’ai Chi publication as well as this site.
We’re spaced around the room, some of us in socks, others in trainers or barefoot, following the flow of instructions…letting our legs ‘sink down’ or our arms ‘float up’. When it comes to ‘turn and face the wall’, the newest member of the group hesitates. “Which wall?” And we laugh, because the joke told in T’ai Chi circles is probably true. The first ten years are the hardest!
Two years after my first lesson, I still feel a Beginner, but that’s fine – because the ancient art has me lightly but firmly in its hold and you don’t have to be particularly bendy – or get sweaty – to do it. A fall in the street – and a broken wrist – was a Sign that a better relationship with the ground was required. Which brought me to an affordable, friendly class in a local church hall with an auspiciously clean floor.
The session begins with some warm-up stretching, swinging and circling and a series of breathing and balancing exercises to help focus the attention. All to the sound of music – wind over water or stone or a distant bell in a temple high in the hills of some Shangri La land…
Then we go through the Form: a set of 37 meditative movements, designed, so the literature says, to promote the flow of energy (or chi) along the body’s meridian pathways – the same ones acupuncturists use – and a greater sense of connection between mind and body, heaven and earth, yin and yang. A touch cosmic for some, perhaps, but the health benefits are basic enough.
Human beings, bipeds fresh from the trees, fall over a lot. Especially older ones, less bouncy than before. So a system that can lower blood pressure, build muscle strength and a core stability has to be a Good Thing.
There’s a darker side to it all, of course. This is after all a martial art which began as a defensive fighting style – and imagining an opponent right in front of you can keep an action smooth and contained, even a kick or a punch. You can also learn how to break an attempted stranglehold by knocking an attacker off-centre or you can curve your fingers into a would-be killer’s collarbone. Not one to practise at home. For less exciting situations, the everyday applications come in handy. Like how to open a heavy door with the minimum of effort. The whole thing reminds me of that old Kleenex ad: Softness is my Strength.
It isn’t easy to learn – and hard to practise on your own. What looks like poetry in motion on YouTube is a real challenge for the less confident, well-co-ordinated student. So many subtle shifts of weight, transitional turns of the waist. Sometimes, feel sure I’ve ‘got’ part of the pattern, only to find a moment later that I’m – literally – on the wrong foot!
Three things help a lot. An instructor to be trusted in, with a sense of humour. The repetition of some of the sequences starts to embed them in the memory. Thirdly, the very visual language used in the teaching works to shape every move we make. We draw bows, hold balls, return to many mountains. My favourite image is a ward-off one -‘like holding a coat over one arm, while patting a dog with the other…’
There are a lot of animals in the T’ai Chi universe. When you’re not embracing – or shooting a tiger, you’re repulsing a monkey, making like a rooster on one leg or a cow gazing at the moon. All in a state of ‘relaxed concentration’, naturally.
In time, they say, you ‘make the Form your own.’ For now, it’s more than enough to grow a few ‘rooting’ skills, find a better balance, a new rhythm and live a little more in the present. In the modern, mindful way. And if over 200 million Chinese can do it – daily at dawn, in parks and in public…!
The class ends with a lovely sequence, performed twice, then a third time in silence. In which we play with another imaginary ball that becomes a balloon – picking it up, pushing it away – then hold and separate curtains, press down on heavy springs….until it’s time to open and sweep our arms wide ‘into the sky’ and ‘part the clouds.’