I wrote this essay as part of my instructor training back in 2011; the brief was to write about the health benefits of Tai Chi and I chose to make it about my personal Tai Chi journey at that point. Since then I have learnt and grown a whole lot more and am currently writing a ‘Part 2’ which I will share here soon.
It would be great to hear some of your experiences of the benefits you’ve felt since you have been practicing Tai Chi, you are very welcome to comment and share below!
Tai Chi and Me
I don’t mind admitting that I knew very little about Tai Chi before my first class. My knowledge had been gained from the short scene in Calendar Girls, and a BBC ident where I saw people moving slowly and waving their arms around; I thought Tai Chi was a pursuit for hippies and old people. I did not know Tai Chi was a martial art, anything of its history or anything of the benefits that can be gained from good practice.
I was studying a practical design degree at university and finding the physical aspects of wood turning and carving were causing my lower back and knee pain to flair up. I went to a chiropractor thinking she would be able to fix me; I left the appointment feeling a bit better but by the time I’d got home, no different to when I’d left the house. A friend of mine had been studying Tai Chi for a while and said it could be good for the symptoms I had. I am not a particularly impulsive person, but something made me decide then that Tai Chi would be good for me, and so I signed up for my first term.
Over the last four years of my Tai Chi journey I have gotten to know my body, improved my overall health and become a LOT more confident. This is the tale of how Tai Chi has enabled me to be me.
My first class didn’t go as well as I would have hoped, and I had to sit down to avoid fainting. 30 minutes of standing, swaying like bamboo and ‘raise hands step out’ increased my circulation so quickly out of its normal range that I completely overheated. It took me a long while to realise that as well as increase circulation, this was also my first experience of Chi; I had cultivated it without knowing what it was. Since then I have spent a lot of time working on my circulation.
I can always remember having cold hands. It wasn’t related to seasons, or the time, as even on a hot summer day people would remark on how cold I was when shaking my hand. I embarrassedly apologised and naively thought it was just something I had, it was just one of those things: ‘Caroline has cold hands’. Tai Chi changed this for me because with a few prods in the right direction I have come to believe that I don’t have to be a cold-handed person and I have got to the point now where I rarely have cold hands.
Simple Qigong exercises like holding the ball really helped me to at first feel the tingly sensation of circulation in my hands, then how to better make that feeling consistent, then how to make that circulation happen unconsciously whilst I practice other things. The norm for me now is to have warm hands, and if the coldness ever creeps back it generally means that I am upset or stressed about something and I haven’t done anything about it yet. Through my Tai Chi practice I am finding that my body is very good at this, often ailments are signals for something else being wrong, and with time and practice I am getting better at interpreting the warning signals and making changes.
The thing about knees is that they are joints, designed to flex in one specific direction, like a door hinge. If you twist them or let them cave in whilst standing, walking, running and so on, it is really asking too much of the joint. It is the job of muscle to around the joint to support, be weight-bearing and shock-absorbing and joints can rarely deal with this amount of stress for sustained periods of time.
Along with lower back ache, painful knees was the main catalysts for me joining a Tai Chi class. After a couple of classes my lower back was really benefiting from the grounding exercises and being massaged by turning the waist. My knees were still painful so I asked for some specific help with this. The first thing my teacher adjusted was my feet, he watched me walk across the room and then suggested I turned the speed down a few notches and turn in my toes so that my feet were actually parallel. I noticed the effects almost immediately as I practiced my new way of walking every day to and from University. Firstly, my mind was a lot calmer and by slowing down, I became more like the tortoise than the hare, I actually had time to look around me and think about things. Slowing down also enabled me to be able to listen to my body; a concept I hadn’t really given much thought to before I started Tai Chi. I used to have a tendency of speeding around being very busy and leaving little or no time for me. This new walking set me off on a path of discovering meditation and teaching myself that it is ok to take time out. And, on top of all that, my knees were a lot better too!
The alignment of the ankle, knee and hip joints is absolutely key to good Tai Chi and it is also key to having a healthy body. Adjusting my toes to place the feet parallel was the first step to good alignment, I have also worked a lot on maintaining the three points of connection on the soles of my feet. Rolling feet means rolling knees and putting stress through the fragile joint. Tai Chi stance training has been great for my knees: I have developed muscles which can support and take the weight off the joints.
Posture and Confidence
At school I was a quiet and reserved person: my reports always said ‘must put her hand up more’ or ‘must ask more questions and be more confident’. I absolutely hated asking or answering questions in class and reading out loud was torture. I mumbled and stumbled over the words and looked at the floor. I can’t remember anyone teaching me how to magically ‘be confident’. Looking at the floor was the habit that carried over the most into adulthood.
Good Tai Chi requires good posture. About a year into my study I experienced a much better grasp of this notion when it was directly pointed out to me that I was constantly looking at the floor. Therein began the path of constantly readjusting my line of vision to meet the horizon. This simple tweak enabled me to lengthen my posture especially in the upper body and become a whole lot taller.
Making changes to this has been the most challenging aspect of my Tai Chi journey so far for me because it involves both physical and behaviour change and this has lead me to an emotional change: opening up, coming outside myself and expanding my outlook.
With this habit especially, I am grateful how Tai Chi has given me the space to practice posture and correct my line of vision in a structured way using form. I have no doubt improved my Tai Chi, my intention is stronger and the line of force is clearer, but raising my eyes has also had a profound effect on my confidence in life outside Tai Chi. I now work in sales and spend a large amount of time on the telephone talking to people, after a year I was promoted to manager (confidence sells!), and I also team teach beginners Tai Chi.
The dictionary definition of habit is: A settled or regular tendency or practice, esp. one that is hard to give up.
I used to think habits were things like picking your nose or smoking; before studying Tai Chi, it never really occurred to me that I had so many bad habits in the way I used my body. Having cold hands and hurty knees was normal for me, but that doesn’t mean it was healthy. Through my study of Tai Chi I have learnt how to break down these habits and re-learn a healthier way of doing things, from walking, standing, sitting and everything else in between.
Another habit of mine that I am still working on, is that I have to get to breaking point before I do something about a bad situation. I know now that the chiropractor was never going to ‘fix me’; it was and is my own responsibility to fix myself. My teachers can show me what to do and offer advice, but I have to make changes and train myself. Practicing Tai Chi has taught me to become more aware – of my body, of my emotions, of my surroundings and of other people.
Although I have grouped this essay into three sections, these three things are in fact not separate at all. Just like my body, my Tai Chi and my life, each part operates together and informs the others. Better posture means better circulation, better circulation enables muscle strengthening, better muscle strength means you can achieve better alignment and so on. I study Tai Chi to learn and respect the natural functions of the body more and practice to make them stronger and more efficient.