Fondly known as ‘moving meditation’, the ancient Chinese practice is as good for calming your mind as building your core…
It’s been one of those days. You know, the kind where you run out of phone data, lose your spare set of house keys and spill coffee down your favourite dry-clean-only dress. So when I settle into my first ever tai chi class I’m dreading the next 40 minutes of being alone with my thoughts, and fighting the urge to let off steam with a HIIT class instead.
Yet, the ancient Chinese practice - which famously brings to mind groups of people in Asian parks sashaying in sync - turned out to be the restorative force I needed. The slow, flowing exercises, which incorporate stretching and deep breathing, left me feeling significantly more like a supermodel than when I first arrived. No, really. Gisele Bundchen is a regular at Boston Kung Fu Tai Chi Institute.
Naturally, we’ve followed her lead. Or rather, it’s the science-backed benefits of tai chi, which translates literally as supreme ultimate, to both mind and body that have really caused interest to soar in the UK. “It’s the new yoga,” says Paul Underwood, the instructor leading my class, fresh on the timetable at Virgin Active.
The personal trainer, who teaches the martial art privately to a number of famous faces, believes the growing buzz has more to do with what’s going on beneath the surface, and less to do with learning how to master the ‘white crane’ and ‘repulsing the monkey’. He explains: “People are increasingly paying more attention to their mind, and this is one of the best things you can do.”
Indeed, Philly Masson swears by tai chi for dissolving her stress and anxiety. “The movements calm my racing thoughts because they divert my attention and force me to breathe properly,” says the 26-year-old from Brighton, who completes 20 minutes before heading to her day job as a digital content and marketing executive.
The ability to concentrate clearly in all quarters of her life was the draw for Stephanie Newport-Booth. “It trains you to really focus your mind as you zone in on each exercise, and the willpower you learn holding positions is invaluable,” reveals the 25-year-old founder of GoSweat, who began attending hour-long classes every Sunday after realising that sitting still during regular meditation failed to help her properly clear her head. Underwood explains: “It’s mindfulness done for you.”
Tai chi’s rise is also down to its proven physical health benefits. “Put simply, the low-impact, repetitive motion of the exercises lulls the nerves into letting go and this in turn releases built-up tension accrued from our modern, sedentary lifestyles,” explains Paul Cavel, founder of The Tai Chi Space London. He estimates that within six months you’ll notice a boost in overall wellbeing.
The evidence is rich in tai chi’s favour. Two studies published last month revealed that just 12 weeks of practice boosted brain function and reduced symptoms of respiratory diseases, including asthma. Previous research by the University of California linked it with reduced rates of illness, insomnia and depression. But most interesting has been a paper published in the American Journal of Epidemiology which found it to be almost equivalent to jogging in its ability to reduce risk of death.
It’s little wonder that typical tai chi devotees no longer fit a maturer stereotype. In fact, more fitness-focused young women than ever are adopting it to complement their regular workout regime. “It does wonders for your core strength, and has helped my ability to do yoga, swimming and netball,” says Stephanie. “Plus, it’s great for balance, and I truly believe it’s protected me from injury.”
But what exactly does a session involve? Underwood acquaints us with some of the key concepts, including the yin and yang movements, as well as the ‘three circles’ exercise. It’s the opposite of the vigorous sweat sessions I normally do, but by no means less stimulating.
It takes several weeks to learn a full sequence of - usually 108 - steps, for example, which are then repeated multiple times. “It’s best to start off in class with a teacher so they can explain what all these strange movements mean and how they all link together, as well as introduce you to different forms,” recommends Cavel. Indeed, those wanting to graduate onto tai chi as self-defence using swords: don’t try this at home.
As I take in the serene facial expressions and soft limbs around me, I finally understand Underwood’s description of tai chi as “like swimming in air”. If it’s good enough for Gisele…
4 things you need to know before practicing tai chi
1. Do your research
“Don’t be afraid to try out several classes to find an instructor you click with,” suggests Cavel.2
2. Wear comfy clothes
“Put on anything you like for a session, as long as it doesn’t restrict your movement,” he recommends.
3. Leave enough time
“You need to do at least 20 minutes to warm your body up enough to get the blood circulating and release tension,” he says.
4. Outdoors isn’t always best
“While being around nature is ideal for tai chi, doing it in cold, windy British weather could compromise your immune system,” he warns.
Places to try tai chi
The ‘Treatwell for fitness’ site allows you to book into tai chi alongside your TRX and spin anywhere around the UK.
The gym chain has begun offering tai chi in a number of its branches, including Crouch End, Brighton and Twickenham.
The Tai Chi Space London
Find weekly classes, courses and seminars in central London and Sussex.
Main Image: Getty