Guest Blogger Ellie: Trying Tai Chi

Remember how back in January, I said I was going to try a bunch of exercise classes and report back here? And how, after five months, I’ve only written up belly dancing and Pilates? (Still haven’t gotten around to writing up water aerobics, but who better than an otter to tell you about that?)

But then, do you remember how I also encouraged people to send in guest posts about their exercise experiments? Shapeling Ellie remembered that part, and she sent us this awesome post about starting tai chi, which I totally want to do now. Thank you, Ellie!

As an aside, dammit, I really need to move next door to this place, because it has absolutely everything I want to try, but I frequently get hung up on the “getting there is kind of a pain in the ass” factor. (And sadly, it’s really only kind of a pain in the ass, not even a huge one.) I’m still doing Pilates around the corner, some yoga at home, walking all over the place now that it’s spring, and one of these days I’m going to get around to joining Ottermatic for Squeaky Voiced Teen’s water aerobics class on a regular basis. But if a gym like that were around the corner? I’d be taking a class every day. Why the hell does getting to the gym always seem so much more daunting than actually working out?

Ahem, anyway, please enjoy Ellie’s take on tai chi. –Kate

After several people in the great Shapely Prose exercise discussion mentioned tai chi, I was inspired to check out an open house at the local Taoist Tai Chi society. I just finished up my first beginner’s level class, and I could not be more pleased to have tried it!

What it is: Taoist Tai Chi, a version of the “gentle martial art” that focuses on health and body awareness rather than fighting or meditation. The Taoist Tai Chi society is a really cool all-volunteer organization that promotes good works and cultural exchange, and I highly recommend them if you have a branch in your town. Other forms and organizations will be different.

What I needed: Just a comfortable outfit (jeans are fine) and a sturdy pair of shoes (or not – I did most of it barefoot).

How it works: The set is a series of 108 moves (not all unique) that you learn in a beginner’s class, which takes about three months. Then you can move to a continuing-level class, which works on different aspects of the set; you can also repeat the beginner’s class, or just continue doing tai chi at home.

Because of the cumulative nature of learning the set, you learn a few moves to get a sense of how Taoist Tai Chi works. Unless you absolutely can’t stand your first class, I’d recommend you stick it out for three or four more before you decide one way or the other.

My class met for an hour, two evenings a week. We started by doing the set as far as we knew it, and the instructor took questions. After a quick tea and water break, we learned the new moves of the day (usually one or two) and finished by going through the set once more.

Cost: Low. One of the goals of the Taoist Tai Chi Society is to make it available to everyone, so it’s cheap ($30 a month for 1-4 classes/week, less for students) and they will go all the way down to $0 if you can’t afford it.

Workout level: Low to Medium. The main benefits are to flexibility and balance, and mostly will give you a good relaxing stretch. The cardio component is comparable to a long walk – more fit people won’t be strained, but more out of shape people (like me) will get a moderate workout. There isn’t much of a day-after effect – no soreness or stiffness.

Fat friendliness: Very high. There are only a couple moves where a Rack of Doom, or large thighs like mine, get in the way, and a minor adjustment clears that up. We had people of all sizes in our class. Weight loss and calorie burn were never, ever mentioned. Health and body awareness were the main focus. I felt very welcome.

Contraindications (physical): There are a few moves that involve bending over, slow kicking, or twisting the foot around, so if those things are hard, you would want to proceed with caution. However, our instructor constantly tells us to “do what you can, don’t do it until it hurts” so the troublesome moves would be easily adjusted or even skipped.

Contraindications (mental): If you have a lot of trouble learning an action by watching it done, it might be hard for you to catch on. Our instructor will answer questions, but most of it is learn-by-seeing. You don’t need a great memory (just great peripheral vision, as my instructor would say) but it might be too frustrating if you find it hard to follow along with somebody else’s movements.

Final note: I found the whole thing really beneficial, mentally as well as physically. I enjoyed always having at least two hours a week to count on being totally calm, and I met some fantastic people in the class. I highly recommend checking it out.