For the past decade tai chi has been my primary method of self-care. For 40 minutes twice a week, I’ve balanced on one leg, swiped a wooden sword through the air, and spent an inordinate amount of time with my eyes closed, focusing on the area just below my naval. I struggle with anxiety and my tai chi classes, which are held in a school gymnasium in Bruma, Johannesburg, are a bi-weekly chance for me to move my body, reconnect with myself, and just ‘be’.
“Society lends itself to being external, especially these days with social media,” says Sifu Lee Jardine, my tai chi instructor. “Tai chi helps me connect with myself inwardly; everyone is living too fast and we need to slow down for self-reflection.”
The best way to describe tai chi, says Jardine, is as a “slow kung fu” of sorts. Part exercise, part chorography, tai chi is akin to learning a very complicated, snail-paced dance. Each movement – which is often named after an animal, such as ‘white crane spreads wings’ and ‘parting the wild horse’s mane’ – is based on a martial arts application, and, when combined in unified succession, creates a seamless ‘form’.
Tai chi chuan (or, ‘the supreme ultimate fist’) is a soft martial art that was developed in China about 700 years ago, and it has influences of Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist principles. There are different styles of tai chi, with Yang-style being the most widely practised. Yang-style tai chi is usually done very slowly and is named after Yang Lu-ch’an, a man who lived in China in the 1800s, and who is considered to be the founder of tai chi as we know it today.
Yang-style has various open-hand forms, such as the short form, which has 37 movements and is split in two sections, the combined form, which consists of 42 movements, and the simplified form, which has 24 movements. There are also weapons-based forms, where movements are paired with a straight sword, broad sword, and a fan.
In tai chi there is an emphasis on squatting, as well as twisting, bending and balancing. Traditional Chinese medicine maintains that strong legs equate to a healthy heart, spinal twists give organs an ‘internal massage’, and flexibility and balance training stretches and strengthens muscles. Studies show that doing this low-impact exercise has tangible health benefits: when practiced regularly, tai chi can be comparable to resistance training and brisk walking, it reduces falls in the elderly, improves immunity, and lowers blood pressure. Much like yoga, there is also a focus on controlled breathing while doing the movements, which helps calm the mind and, with practise, transforms tai chi into a moving meditation.
However, tai chi can feel far from meditative. In any given class I’m usually trying not to fall over, I get distracted by mental to-do lists while my muscle memory kicks in, or I’m trying very hard to relax my perpetually tense shoulders. Unlike more popular exercise regimes, say ‘booty barre’ or Pilates, my tai chi practice is far from glamourous. Clad in a T-shirt I bought at Pep and track pants covered in dog hair, I repeat the same movements ad infinitum, checking my far-from perfect form in chipped, full-length mirrors. In the winter the gymnasium is freezing; in the summer I sweat and swot mosquitoes, mid-cloud hands.
According to Jardine, the biggest misconception about tai chi is that it’s only for old people. Granted, there are a few elderly practitioners in my class, but make no mistake: when done properly, tai chi is a workout. “Tai chi is a martial art, first and foremost, but it can be practised by everyone,” says Jardine. “There are students that range in age from 13 to 93; it’s not just for people of a certain age.” Another misconception is that it’s a quick fix, and a few classes will bring about instant bliss. “Only after years of repetition and discipline does it lend itself to a meditative practice,” explains Jardine.
After two years of sweating and stumbling around the gymnasium, I experienced my first meditative moment. In unison with the rest of the class, the world paused and I air-swam in slow motion. I could hear the buzz of florescent lights and a tree’s leaves rustling outside. I could feel every muscle in my body flex and release and relax, and I could finally sense the illusive ‘chi’ – the energy force that’s thought to flow through one’s body – emanate in hot waves from the palms of my hands.
“Tai chi is about learning how to flow with yourself and with other people,” muses Jardine. “It’s a philosophy that can be applied outside of the discipline, too.”
“Tai chi is a never-ending journey,” he adds. “Like in life, there’s always something to improve.”
For more information contact the International Tai Chi Society on 083 267 1134. It is the oldest tai chi school in South Africa and is headed by Sifu Edward Jardine. The school’s main branch is in Bruma.
*Article originally published in the Sunday Times, 23 June 2019 edition. All images Lee Jardine