Tai chi is the perfect antidote to a digital age

By Florence Waters / The Telegraph

Taiwanese scientists are making new claims for the health benefits of tai chi, and it’s the ideal way to slow down

This week a young woman came to watch our tai chi class to find out if she’d like to join in. By the first tea break she seemed a bit baffled by some of the exercises, in particular one that involved “rooting” to the ground by tipping the pelvis towards the centre of the foot. Mostly, though, she looked bored off her head. “I first tried tai chi 10 years ago. Thought it was a complete rip-off,” says one of my classmates. Sitting back cradling a palm-sized cup of green tea, he laughs at himself now. “Different frame of mind then, I suppose.”

Bored, baffled, ripped-off: all things that crossed my mind in my first few weeks learning tai chi. But eight months in, I can’t get enough of it. How did this happen?

Tai chi, like countless other therapies, was recommended to me by a medical practitioner after a chronic health issue took over my life seven years ago. I was cynical; tai chi, a centuries-old Chinese martial art, always struck me as too slow, too subtle to be of any real help. It was whimsy, combined with a bit of “last resort” that found me on a dark wintry night at Central London Tai Chi in Bloomsbury.

News stories sporadically proclaim tai chi’s health benefits, from boosting memory to slowing the progression of Parkinson’s. Only last week Taiwanese scientists found that people who practised tai chi had a higher number of stem cells than those in other groups. It’s “the first step to providing scientific evidence” for tai chi’s health benefits, according to Dr Paul Sanberg at the University of South Florida. But the numbers of people practising tai chi in the UK are tiny compared with those doing yoga. The reason often cited is that it’s harder; some say it’s more like taking up an instrument than an aerobics class. There’s also – for anyone like me who initially felt like a pseudo-Oriental giant aping a graceful 3,000-year-old art form – a tiny bit of mortification to get over.

Teachers are fond of encouraging new students by saying things like: “200  million Chinese people still practise tai chi”; or “these movements have developed over the course of thousands of years”. But why would anybody stick at anything unless there’s tangible progress?

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