T'ai Chi
By Sarah Crowder

I don't know this for sure, but I doubt the purpose of T'ai Chi Ch'uan is to fill the pupil with deafening, blood-boiling rage. I must have done it wrong.

Let's back up a little: I know I have a problem relaxing, and I accepted—nay, embraced—it long ago. It's a large reason why I became a reporter. Maintaining a perpetual state of panic keeps me alert; it's practically evolution, except instead of protecting myself from larger creatures, I'm always on the look-out for short deadlines, or crazed parking lot drivers or bugs.

T'ai Chi asks you first and foremost to relax. Sorry, sir, but I just can't see that happening.

The T'ai Chi class at Webster Groves Recreation Complex, taught by Michael David, begins with deep breathing. The more I think about breathing, the more I think about how weird it is that I normally don't think about breathing, so I've ruined my relaxation there. Two minutes in, and I'm already the worst in the class at the one thing I'm constantly doing. Dandy.

Then, we began to move…slowly. That's where the deafening rage came in. I knew the class would be slow, but I attended after a particularly long, stressful day at work. Instead of embracing my chance to chill, I stayed on-edge, which made moving slowly utterly intolerable. It was the same feeling you get if you're stuck behind a driver going 40 MPH on the interstate. Can't we go any faster?

No. We cannot. That's the point. Relaxing is quite literally the most important part of T'ai Chi. It's part of the first of T'ai Chi's Five Principles, which, according to the St. Louis T'ai Chi Ch'uan Association, are: relax and sink; separate the weight; waist is the commander; body upright; and lady's beautiful hand (the latter being a reference to hand positioning.)

The moves reminded me of my adolescent ballet classes. For one sequence, you began in a stance very close to ballet's first position (heels together, toes out), then dropped your weight to one leg and, along with some arm motions, moved a few steps within a 5-or-so square-foot area.

The instructor asked us to freeze in our final position, then wandered around the class to check on people's poses. He poked and scooted almost every aspect of my stance: My feet should be here, my knees should be there, my hands should look like this. The point he echoed most frequently was that I needed to relax my shoulders; they're apparently raised, and I should let them hang down. This is just how my shoulders are, I thought. I don't think there's a more ideal shoulder situation I could be offering.

Just as I was sealing my non-believer decision, the instructor made a point to the class about movement in everyday life. He moved one leg, and explained there's no reason it should affect the shoulder—but, as he pointed out, we often move one with the other. Valid point, but what does it matter if your shoulder moves, too? He then mentioned two of my most beloved things—a coffee cup and a keyboard—and explained that these commonplace objects, and their coordinating activities, often bring unnecessary muscle tension, including my apparent shoulder raise. My attitude stayed unscathed: How bad can it be if I move my shoulders to type?

The following day—as I sat at my desk, furiously typing—I went to stretch my sore shoulders, like I mindlessly do every twenty minutes. That's normal, right? The lecture from the evening before was still fresh in my mind, which made me question shoulders—why are you so sore? Reluctantly, I remembered David's advice and attempted to lower my shoulder; as much as I did not want to admit it, the shoulder had been up, and it felt better once I moved it back to its proper location.

A week later, I attended the class again. By then, the Five Principles of T'ai Chi began to make a little more sense, starting, of course, with relaxation. I've recently come to the conclusion that my only means to relaxation is distraction, and little is more distracting that imagining a class full of Michael Jackson-dancing T'ai Chi participants. You see, the sequence of moves we were practicing involved slowly—seriously, so slowly—raising your limp-wristed arms in front of you, zombie-style. My mind went straight to Thriller, which was probably the closest to relaxed I got. Sure, that can’t be the ideal T'ai Chi relaxation, but potato, po-taht-o—I reached calmness, so I'm still calling it a win.

There are other successes available through T'ai Chi, including the always-important breathing and stability. "It's a way of really relaxing [while] still moving your body through a good range of motion," explains Webster Groves Recreation Complex head personal trainer Dave Reddy. "Breathing is one of the foundation principles of health. A lot of us aren't breathing well…and T'ai Chi is wonderful for breathing." Reddy also notes balance as another T'ai Chi perk, explaining that the class can be beneficial for anyone, especially those with balance issues such as seniors or people with neuromuscular challenges.

Relaxation, breathing, balance… I was still less-than-amused. During my second class, the instructor mentioned to the group that if the work seems too easy, we should try 'sinking' a little more. What does that mean? The next time I tried the sequence, he told me to go deeper—which literally meant sinking my rear to the floor move without moving my feet. Oh! Then I could feel it. With this deep bend, I was finally utilizing the knee pleats in my Lorna Jane 'Skinny Flashdance Pant' from Dimvaloo Active Living. While this was not an 'intense' workout, I could feel something. Once I began practicing properly, that deafening rage decreased to a mere Can't we speed up a smidge? whisper. Fitness courses are much more enjoyable once you begin challenging yourself, even if it's not enough to break a sweat.

But that bend of the knees was not my real challenge. No, my true challenge brought me back to principle No. 1—and I could not (or rather, did not) accept the opportunity. With no willingness to relax, what did T'ai Chi offer? Body awareness. My shoulders are still 'up' as I type this, but I'm trying to keep them down. I may not have done much right in T'ai Chi—and most of it I'll probably never fix—but I'm now aware of at least one problem I'm willing to improve. Maybe someday I'll revisit relaxation.

LN Wishes to Thank:

Dimvaloo Active Living (dimvaloo.com)

Webster Groves Recreation Complex (webstergroves.org)

More Special Features articles.