Lots of people like to sweat hard and breathe hard, and just don’t feel as if they’re getting real exercise if they don’t. I can appreciate that. Nike commercials advocate sweat and panting. We are a sweat-and-pant loving culture.
Nothing wrong with that.
But me? I can’t sweat just to sweat. Although I do like the relaxed, dopey endorphin rush of working really hard once in awhile for its own sake, that kind of workout can’t sustain my interest. I can force myself to do it, but it won’t beckon me.
What does entice me are workouts that engage my mind in my body’s movements. I like to think, feel, intuit. I love to analyze and fuss over my body’s mechanics. I LIKE imagining my muscles and tendons and bones working, stretching, trying to achieve a posture, a pose, a point in space, farther, deeper, longer, prettier. I like imagining energy, electricity, blood, coursing through my veins, along my muscle fibers. I like feeling myself using up oxygen in every cell from my hardest working large muscle groups down to my fingertips.
In short, I like mind-body work. I place a lot of movement in that category. Some people would argue me down on these, but I include all forms of dance, yoga, ice skating, skiing, Pilates, free weights, and of course martial arts of every kind. Actually you can turn almost any form of exercise into mind-body work, especially swimming, running, biking.
If your mind and your body haven’t been in touch for some time, a great way to reintroduce them is in the practice of tai chi.
Practicing tai chi forms is an exercise in knowing yourself. Not just your body, but your mind, too. It’s a great place to work on managing stress, building confidence, interpreting other people’s energy along with your own, gaining calm and focus, developing personal power.
And along the way, building steel-clad thighs.
With time, you will develop a better sense of balance, greater mobility in all of your joints, better circulation, improved digestion. A much stronger and more mobile back if you experience back problems. Oh there’s a lot that tai chi can do for you. It’s a particularly great exercise for heavy folks. A great way for very old people to keep moving. A terrific way for athletes to maintain focus.
Now, where to start. One of the most wonderful and most confusing aspects of tai chi are its many schools or styles. If you’re just starting out, you really can’t go wrong. Just pick one. But I recommend you find a place to learn tai chi that has very experienced instructors. You might ask around to learn something about the lineage of your instructors, because tai chi forms are traditions passed along from teacher to student. A student usually studies under a master for many years before taking on their own students. I’d recommend shopping around a good bit to find a very experienced teacher in your area. Drop in on their classes.
You will learn “forms,” which look like choreographed pieces. You will start out learning just a few movements of a form, building on your knowledge with each lesson. A good instructor will never push you beyond your ability to learn and master movements before moving on.
My first tai chi form, a “long form,” took me about a year to learn. I was lucky enough to study with a master teacher who taught an unusual style of tai chi he learned as a young man over years of study in China. His English was far better than my Mandarin, but though we had a language gap, I never had any difficulty understanding him, because he was able to detect problems with my movement and demonstrate corrective actions so obviously, it was very easy to learn from him.
I always found my tai chi classes among the most accepting and helpful communities I’ve ever encountered. People there approach tai chi very differently, each attracted to the study for very different reasons. Some were decades-long martial arts students, others were there just because it was there. Some are very interested in qigong, the study, movement, balance, use of energy in the body, especially for healing, and practice tai chi as one of many approaches to this study.
I studied tai chi for 3 years when I was near my heaviest weight. I sweated a lot. I worked hard, but despite my weight, or maybe in part because of it, I became very strong, developed great lower-body flexibility, and felt so much better about my body in general. The study was intriguing and required practice during the week, so kept me moving. I loved thinking about chi, or energy, and how it was working in my body.
Start, as always, by asking around. Somebody you know knows someone who studies tai chi in your area. Check the phone book, ask questions, visit classes. And then when you find a teacher and a class that interests you, stick with it for awhile. Be patient. Tai chi takes time. You learn in layers, and you unlearn in layers, as you build up your strength and peel away your stress responses. As you learn movement and unlearn bad habits.
And practice, practice, practice,