Unbeknownst to most, every Monday evening at Iffley Road sports centre an elite group of martial artists come together to practice the ancient teachings of Taijiquan, which are believed to have originated from the Taoist monasteries of the Wudang mountains in central China. Putting aside my fears that it would be just be me and a couple of over-spiritual monks prancing around, I decided it might be fun to see what all this ying and yang stuff is really about.
My first impressions were different from what I had expected; there were no slow, rhythmical movements, deep breathing exercises or reference to ethereal beings. Instead I was greeted by instructor Dave Baker, who was closer in image to the Worlds Strongest Man than the robed Buddhist I had envisaged.
Without any introduction to the session we were told to pair up and perform a warm up exercise which consisted of pushing your partner in the shoulder in order to knock them over. Obviously this was great fun, but it also had a relevant aim: to develop flexibility and the ability to absorb the blows from your opponent without moving your feet. Tai Chi involves physical bouts as well as the individual movements one can observe people doing in public parks.
After the warm up, we moved on to an activity known as Pushing Hands. Face-to-face with my opponent we put both feet forward and attempted to make the other person move. Those who were experienced gave me some pointers and in just a short space of time I felt myself improving significantly.
Unfortunately, as I learned by visiting the Oxford University Taijiquan website (the offical title of Tai Chi), my instructor is actually a previous World Champion of Pushing Hands (yes there is really a worldwide competition for it). If his immense physical presence wasn’t enough to put me off, he also had this accolade and seemed able to simply push me over on a whim. This same exercise must’ve have gone on for at least 45 minutes and being continually pushed over does wear a bit thin.
Finally, we got to the good stuff. Channelling your ‘force’ – moving in with the yin, then shifting your weight and going out with the yang ( to quote my instructor himself). We learned 30 seconds of a routine known as the ‘hand form’, in which you basically imagine you are in fight and practise the moves in painstaking detail. You must place your weight in the appropriate position at all times and you must have no tension apart from when striking. It was much more difficult than expected and it took 20 minutes to learn about 30 seconds of the routine.
All in all it was an entertaining way to spend an evening. Tai Chi combines martial skills and mental control in a way which could be useful. There is something strangely appealing about the potential of attaining inner peace whilst also being able to floor anyone who gives you a funny look in the street.