Long before Bruce Lee popularised Martial Arts with his dramatic monologue about ‘being water’, the motto was a defining principle for centuries-old martial art technique called Tai Chi.
Tai Chi, also described as a moving form of Yoga, is an abbreviated name for ‘Taiji Quan’ which rose to popularity as a self-defence technique, but has now established its name for its numerous health benefits.
Fascinated by the rich history of the art and apprehensive over my lack of physical activity, I enrolled for Tai Chi lessons with Master Wang and Master Hang from Shaolin Kung Fu Dubai hoping to fulfil my life-long fantasies fuelled by Chinese martial arts movies and to corroborate the countless merits that are associated with it.
There are no real prerequisites for Tai Chi, all I really needed for the first session were loose garments that allowed me to move freely and well, be water. During my first lesson, I stumbled upon the word Qi more often than I stumbled over my legs.
Apparently, the main focus of Tai Chi exercises is to strengthen our Qi or the energy that gives life to all living matter with its source located in our stomachs, explained Master Hang. Qi is often mistaken as the inhalation and exhalation of air, but that only serves as an extremely simplistic explanation for a phenomenon as complex as Qi.
Unlike other fitness regimes, Tai Chi moves are not physically taxing, but the exercises require a slow, fluid, and rhythmic movement, which is completely antithetical to the contemporary intense fast-paced workouts.
The first session of Tai Chi left me feeling a tad sore, but that was just my muscles protesting against the sudden engagement in physical activities. Athletic people may have less or no issues initiating themselves into the routine.
The initial weeks of Tai Chi focus almost entirely on memorising the full sequence of exercises and mastering each technique while synchronising your breath with each successive movement.
As I slowly began to grasp the teachings of Tai Chi, I realised that there were many things I had been doing wrong the whole time and many of them are often taken for granted, for example breathing. Tai Chi breathing or normal breathing needs to be abdominal – using the diaphragm to take in and push out air is really how one should breathe.
Unlike upper chest shallow breathing that not only fails to supply sufficient amount of oxygen to the body but is also responsible for elevated stress levels and other illnesses.
My initial disappointment in myself for failing to breathe properly quickly dissipated after I found out how common upper chest breathing was, but then again it was an interesting revelation that opened my eyes to taking care of minor things to prevent major damage in the future.
Besides opening my eyes to my inability to breathe properly, I had yet to feel the inner peace and calm that Tai Chi always goes on about. However, I did notice that my body was becoming less prone to pains and aches.
And when the weather changed I did not fall sick as much as everyone else in my family did. My appetite was gradually getting better and I was sleeping a lot better at night, waking up with more energy than usual.
It was an alarming realisation that I no longer woke up with a dark, murky cloud of misanthropic dread looming over my head, but I was able to haul myself out of bed and actually look forward to the rest of the day – I was suddenly a morning person.
With each successive week, my body was readily becoming more accustomed to the exercises and the stretches. My horse stance (sometimes called the horse riding stance) was getting wider and I was not splattering flat on the floor like a broken egg as often as I did during the first couple of weeks.
As each week passed by, I was becoming calmer and a lot of things stopped fazing me out as much as they used to.
Having finished a month with Tai Chi, it had integrated into my schedule and I eagerly waited for the next lesson. My Qi remained ever-elusive and besides slight tingles across my palms and feet, I yet had to feel the presence of it in my body and feel it getting stronger.
By this time, the only progress was Erhu Music, a Chinese two-stringed fiddle that Tai Chi is practised to, had begun to grow on me like fungus.
As I was well past the beginner level in Tai Chi, Master Wang explained how the first phase of this art involves moving in a fluid manner and the second phase involves doing movements that emulates a fish swimming in water.
The movements began to be even more complex and were not just slow and smooth, but now required following a sinuous balance of fast and slow movements. This particular chain of movements requires extra concentration and focus, and memorising them is the trickiest part of all, but was a challenge I was all too enthusiastic to undertake.
With regular practice of Tai Chi, not only did my body become lithe but also added a perceptible spring to my step and I was a lot straighter than before.
I felt more robust and tough, Tai Chi dispelled most of my preconceived notions about using Qi to shoot fireballs from your palms, but I did feel strange warm sensations all over my body after each session.
Master Hang explained it as the activation of Qi, which is basically just my body’s energy flowing more effectively all across my body.
As the end of my sessions at UAE Shaolin drew nearer and I looked back on how Tai Chi has affected me, I almost feel like a different person altogether.
Under the guidance of Master Hang and Master Wang, not only did Tai Chi provide me with physical benefits like improved posture, balance and flexibility, but I was less prone to stress as well.
Even though, the concept of Qi and the philosophy of Tai Chi may be shrouded in Chinese mysticism, but the benefits eclipsed whatever doubts or scepticism I may have held for this art in the beginning.