Studying tai chi

‘First you must learn the principle, then cultivate it. Become soft and you will be less fearful, which will make you softer still, and then fearless. This is real, a person can achieve this’. Professor Cheng Man-ching

I am not a natural at tai chi.

Tai chi is all about being relaxed, soft, centred, body aligned, energy flowing freely.

When I started tai chi, relaxation definitely wasn’t my way of being. I was an anxious child, an introvert who found the world could be a daunting place. By my early twenties, I appeared to be functioning OK on the outside, but I’d stopped being aware of my body, tension was my habitual way of being. Eventually my body rebelled against the straightjacket it was in, and I started having panic attacks. Desperate for some relief, I decided to try out a tai chi class.

At the time, I was fairly sceptical about it all. A friend who had been to a few classes told me that she could feel a force between her hands – ‘chi’. I wasn’t convinced. But I was interested in martial arts, having done a couple of years of tae kwon do, and I’d been reading about zen buddhism and meditation, tried sitting meditation once or twice but my mind raced and I just felt more anxious. I’d been to a yoga class but that wasn’t for me. And I had to do something to help me relax.

So, at that first tai chi class, the teacher walked round the class and stopped behind me and said ‘relax your shoulders. Let them drop.’ I, having tuned out from my body, had no idea that my shoulders were perpetually raised and hunched. I let them drop. What a relief! I also remember having to stand for a while in the ‘bear’ posture, with my arms held out at shoulder height as if they were around a barrel. Focusing on the tension in my arms, shoulders and belly, and letting it go. Wonderful. And chi gung, moving my arms in time with my breath, breathing from the belly. My mind quietened down, distracted by the movements I was performing. In that first class, I certainly didn’t feel any force between my hands, but I did feel so much better afterwards.

The relaxation didn’t last long, the old tensions and habitual way of holding myself returned almost immediately. But now I knew there was a way out. I was hooked.

I went to those classes for about 6 months, and during that time I noticed that whenever I had a panic attack, my stomach muscles were completely tense, and I was not breathing from my belly. They were so tense that I couldn’t get them to relax. During the day they’d been getting tenser and tenser and then seemingly from nowhere, a panic attack.

At this time I moved to another part of the country to try and find a job, did voluntary work for a while. Then I did get the job that I wanted. The panic attacks continued, still horrible to experience but I was better at calming myself down, thanks to those tai chi lessons. I didn’t find another class for several years. But from time to time I’d do the exercises, particularly when I was feeling stressed.

And then I started regular classes again, and over the years I became aware of more and more bits of my body that were tense, uncoordinated, unaligned, disconnected. I still didn’t feel any magical chi between my hands, but after every class, every session of practice on my own, I felt so much better.

I’ve been practicing, on and off, for nearly 25 years. Yet still I discover tension in my body, like the layers of an onion, one layer of tension peels away only to discover another underneath. I’ve still not quite got the postures right, as occasional sore knees reveal. I can’t visualise the top of my head, hanging from a thread suspended from heaven, an idea that helps with the correct, upright posture. I can still feel uncoordinated, I still bump into things, I still get tense. I don’t have panic attacks any more though.

I sometimes feel a force (the chi?) between my hands. I sometimes feel it in my belly. I usually feel warm, and heavy and content when I practise tai chi. Although also I get annoyed and irritated that I still can’t do it right. And I keep going. Because always after I practise, I feel so much better.