Tai chi used to be something you’d see people do in parks, two decades before anyone did any other kind of exercise in parks. The natural world is psychically important to the practice. If you see an image of a pose, it’s always someone beneath a glowing sun, on top of a majestic rock. But sure, parks have nature, too, and they are better than your living room.
I always thought tai chi looked ridiculous – the movements are so slight and distinctive and smooth: “Move like the water that flows, without any hesitation,” instructs tai chi master Chris Pei (on YouTube). You simply couldn’t mistake it for anything else, and to a busy, frenetic sort of person, it looks pointless. Then I asked an aunt why she did it and she said it was good for period pain and I thought, truthfully, this is the most ridiculous thing ever.
Why am I so judgmental? It has a wide range of benefits, roughly aligned with those of yoga. It’s good for sleep, flexibility, mood, weight loss and especially for later-life conditions: poor balance that might make you afraid of falls, Parkinson’s, chronic heart conditions, arthritis, COPD. However, while people don’t explicitly say as much, it’s way better to start it before you get to those conditions, if you want to reap any benefits.
In an ideal world, you would start at a class, not because the moves are complicated, just because it helps bring your overall tempo down. This being a world so far from ideal it’s not even funny, I started with Pei’s online tutorial and was tickled by the terminology: parting the wild horse’s mane, separating the way the wild crane spreads its wings.
The opening moves will be familiar to anyone who has practiced yoga, breathing, meditation or mindfulness. “Learn how to feel. Learn how to stand,” Pei summarizes. I thought, well, I already know how to stand, but learning how to feel could take years.
Close your eyes. Focus on how you breathe. Concentrate on your body, one part at a time. Feel the blood rushing into your hands. Concentrate harder. Breathing is just so gigantic, isn’t it? You take three minutes out of your schedule to exhale more slowly, and inhale more deeply, and wham, you’re a different person – more present, less buzzing. I think back to the time I learned just to breathe a couple of years ago and castigate myself for not sticking at it.
So it’s a good few minutes before actual moving starts, one leg lifted, infinitely slowly, at the knee, planted a small distance away, before the arms come up – again, the movements are so distinctive (in what other activity would you be flexing) your hands up from the wrists, then back again?). But they don’t process as exercise. It is more about learning how to feel, reconnecting with your body via the focus it takes to transition smoothly from one movement to another. I was right, this could take years – but hopefully, before I start to fear a fall, I have a few years.
What I learned
Do it daily, even if for just five minutes, rather than intermittently, to make concentration second nature.