THE GENTLE ART
This ancient art demands lower-body strength – but can it complement your training? Matt Huckle finds out
Can you use tai chi in your training?
t’s around 15 minutes into my first tai chi class when I start to wonder how people manage to look so serene as they do it. I like to think I’ve got fairly strong legs but trying to stay in time with the group, breathe correctly and hold a variety of isometric positions all at the same time means they’re soon shaking in painful disapproval. Already it’s clear that there’s a lot more to tai chi than old people waving slowly in the park.
When I mention my struggles to instructor Derek Pearce, I suspect he’s trying not to look pleased at my shock. ‘It’s unlikely you regularly engage your leg muscles in the way tai chi demands,’ he says.
FIST AMONG EQUALS
Why tai chi? Well, years of doing Muay Thai kickboxing combined with sitting at a desk all day had left me stiff and inflexible and it was becoming an issue. Tai chi chuan, to give it its full name (which translates as ‘supreme ultimate fist’), seemed like the obvious choice because of the supposed benefits it offers for your flexibility and mobility as well as core and lower-body strength. And if I achieved some sort of spiritual enlightenment on the way, well, that would be a plus.
The Mei Quan Academy of Tai Chi offers classes at over 40 locations across the southeast – I booked one at the Camden branch. Right from the start everything is done in unison, including the warm-up, which focuses on loosening up your hips and working your entire body in co-ordination.
Once warmed up we move into qi gong, an art closely related to tai chi, which is based on repetitions of precise sets of movements said to improve energy flow around the body. Broadly speaking the moves are variations on bodyweight squats, with arm movements designed to open up your chest.
The focus here isn’t really on getting into the deepest squat you can manage but how you distribute your weight across your legs while keeping your back straight at all times. That description doesn’t do justice to how effective qi gong is as a relaxation tool. It’s easy to dismiss the spiritual side of qi gong and tai chi, but it would be a mistake to do so. I feel far less stressed and more positive after every session.
The main event, tai chi, builds on the relatively static movements of qi gong and incorporates them into flowing forms. It’s here that I really begin to understand how effective the art is at loosening up your lower back. A lot of the early movements focus on properly aligning your tailbone, which is vital if you’re going to progress. Paying this level of attention to your tailbone’s whereabouts feels strange at first, and in the days after my first session my
Classes start with qi gong, a set of movements designed to prepare you for the flowing forms of tai chi