Take a deep breath in, and slowly breathe out. Now concentrate on cradling an imaginary beach ball in your arms. Enter the world of Tai Chi, where airy movements and focused thought combine to give you a powerful workout.
There's a good reason why this soft form of martial arts, which originated in China many centuries ago, has stood the test of time: Tai Chi is simple to do and is highly effective in improving flexibility, muscle strength, energy and overall mood. It's also a fantastic stress reliever. And nowadays, there's solid scientific research to back up its benefits.
I got the rare chance to join Sifu ("Master") Eddie Jardine, president of the International Tai Chi Society, for a coaching session in Cape Town – and grabbed the opportunity.
Down to business
On a sunny winter afternoon, in a school hall, I slotted into place among other Tai Chi enthusiasts.
While waiting for further instruction from our teacher, I looked at the group and was surprised to see quite a number of older participants. Lined up like troops in black and white uniform, people in their 70s stood side by side with those in their 20s.
We kicked off with a set of Qigong exercises, aimed at guiding the smooth flow of chi energy through our bodies. One of these exercises simply entailed a visualisation exercise, in which we each held an imaginary ball that expanded and deflated. Throughout the routine, we focused on our breathing – an action aimed at gently massaging the intestines.
Then we moved on to the first of the five components of Tai Chi, called "pushing hands". The others, I later learnt, were self-defence, internal strength, hand form and weapons forms. With soft, flowing movements, we shifted our bodies and twisted our spines while gently pushing imaginary opponents with our outstretched hands. While each of us did these exercises on our own, they could also have been done in pairs, so that opponents gently competed against each other.
Being used to Muay Thai, another form of martial arts, it felt as if we were doing everything in slow motion. Instead of being fast and aggressive (like Muay Thai or kickboxing, for instance), the Tai Chi movements were graceful, relaxing and very, very slow.
Thankfully, it seemed quite easy to get into the flow of things. While I'm pretty sure I didn't do everything as I was supposed to, I did know that I was reaping the benefits: a mere thirty minutes into the routine, I felt more relaxed. By focusing on my movements and breathing, and letting go of muscle tension and stress, the exercises almost became a form of meditation.
I learnt that the focus of Tai Chi is on building internal power and on how, in combat, the "soft and yielding can overcome the hard and inflexible". Built on the principles of Taoism, the exercises embraced both yin (defence) and yang (aggression), but in a way I've never encountered before.
Sadly I couldn’t stay the entire session, but I learnt enough to know that this is a great way of exercising and a truly relaxing, healthy way of letting go of built-up tension.
With regular training, it's believed that Tai Chi can have a profound impact on mental, physical and emotional health.
Tai Chi devotees were able to function a lot better than sedentary people in research done by Dr Michael Irwin of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behaviour at the University of California (UCLA). In fact, Tai Chi enthusiasts showed "robust improvements in physical function", particularly with regards to simple tasks such as carrying groceries, walking and going up stairs.
Other research by Irwin showed that Tai Chi reduced older people's risk for shingles (herpes zoster), while a study by Emory University in Atlanta showed that Tai Chi helped the elderly to cut their risk for potentially lethal falls. Another study by UCLA showed that it boosted the function of the sympathetic nervous system, which is linked to the functioning of our blood vessels, heart, lungs, intestines and genitals.
Importantly, two UCLA studies among non-depressed people who did Tai Chi also noted significant improvements in mood.
And many American corporations have now started to integrate the health and personal growth tools of Tai Chi into the workplace. The practice seemingly reduces absenteeism and helps employees to recover from illness, and it's easy to do at the office as it requires no special gear or equipment.
I'm keen to try Tai Chi again. It's much better than exercising in a stuffy gym as most Tai Chi groups practise outdoors in parks. It's also quite social as you build friendships with your fellow Tai Chi participants. And clearly, there's a lot more magic to be discovered.
Tai Chi is practised throughout South Africa. If you're interested in learning more or joining a group, contact Renate Jacobs, Tai Chi Chuan Instructor for the International Tai Chi Society, on 021 559 2873. Alternatively, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
(Carine Visagie & HealthDay News)