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Why I Tried Tai Chi for the First Time (and So Should You)


I was up to something weird in the park this morning. But because I’m in Boulder, Colorado, nobody called the cops. Or even noticed much.

What’s more, I spotted another guy up to the same thing, so maybe I wasn’t alone in wanting to download some chi from Boulder Creek.

Did I just hear you rolling your eyes at the mention of the word “chi,” the Chinese word for “energy force”? It does have a hippie vibe, as does this city in the shadow of the Rockies.

I similarly rolled my eyes the first time I heard my tai chi teacher use it, about two years ago, during my first class. And yet, I was in that class specifically because I seemed to be reading about tai chi on a monthly basis in Men’s Health magazine.

The research emerging about this practice—which is actually a slowed down version of a martial art—is kind of amazing. You name a problem that plagues modern man, from stress reactions to heart disease to immune system deficiencies to broken bones to high blood pressure to sexual performance issues, and you’ll find a study that shows how practicing tai chi can help with it.

If you’re looking for an all-purpose health improver, tai chi is even better than baby aspirin.

If all of this seems kind of new agey and bizarre, consider the martial art aspect of tai chi. My instructor—a diminutive, wiry former nurse named Hilary—delights in telling us exactly what kinds havoc our slow movements are designed to wreak.

The specific tai chi moves in my regular routine were first dreamed up as efficient ways to use body weight to break windpipes, snap collar bones, dislocate knees, and fend off multiple attackers.

As I advance in the practice, I’ll eventually pick up a sword. So watch out!

The origin story of tai chi posits that its original practitioners were a captive people who were banned from owning weapons or training warriors. So they slowed down the martial-art movements into dance-like routines, which became unrecognizable as a lethal form of basic training.

Which is exactly what they are. Those early tai chi warriors must have prevailed over their captors, because now, eight thousand years later, their martial art still survives. And so do the tai chi practitioners.

But I’m not taking tai chi so that I can kick anybody’s butt but my own.

And I needed a good whipping, when I started taking the course. We were in the midst of a lot of staff turmoil at Men’s Health when I took my first class, with an old regime on the way out and a new one on the way in. If you work in an office, you know how that goes.

I needed to keep the stress from killing me. I’d already been through one heart crisis, brought on by work stress, and I wasn’t eager for a replay.

So I finally decided to follow the advice we give so abundantly in Men’s Health magazine, and try tai chi.

What is it, exactly? It’s a string of flowing, slow body movements organized into forms. The first form I learned has about 40 movements, and if you think that might be hard to remember, you’re right.

Especially because, to learn each individual move correctly, you’re coordinating arm, hand, leg, and foot movements, timing them to your breathing, and trying hard not to fall on your ass while you do them.

Practicing tai chi requires absolute concentration as you make your way from one element to the next. I’ve heard it called “meditation in motion,” and that’s exactly it. With tai chi, I focus only on the move I’m making at any moment, and trying to slow myself down enough to remember the nuances of breathing and body position before I flow into the next move.

I should say here that it’s also a fairly humiliating discipline, and it takes forever to learn. Very often in class I’ve felt the steely eyes of Hilary upon me, correcting every small move I make.

But that’s also what’s brilliant about tai chi, and why it’s so often cited as a key to battling the depredations of time on our brains. Like other meditative practices, tai chi requires absolute focus over increasing periods of time, so it’s a kind of mental exercise that’s hard to replicate in other ways.

It’s the opposite of channel or web surfing. You require your attention to remain in one place for extended periods of time, so you can blot out all the stupid stuff that clutters your consciousness in this fractious world.

I often wake up in the middle of the night, consumed with work worries or personal issues. A tai chi session always wipes the mental slate clean, and allows me fall asleep again. It’s Ambien with a host of healthy side effects.

So when I set up next to Boulder Creek this morning, I took a calming breath, focused on the first move of 100 in my current sequence, and blotted out everything, including the presence of the maintenance workers just down the path from where I was standing.

I did, in fact, wonder what they would make of this guy going through his weird sequence of moves, standing next to flowing water. But I also know that tai chi sets my body up for better balance, less pain, better coordination, and more effective use of whatever strength I have.

The guys might be able to shovel, rake, and lift more efficiently if they added a little tai chi to their lives.

As for me: I just consider it basic training for the rest of my life. I want my mind and body to go on working together as I age, and tai chi might just be the best way to achieve that.

If it takes looking like a crazy guy in the park to achieve that, I’m down.

But if your encounter me in the park, wait until I’m done with my tai chi routine to make fun of me. I might be concentrating too hard to hear your laughter.

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