Saturday, November 10, 2012

List of the Month - T'ai Chi forms for the new century

I've long been interested in t'ai chi. Well, I think the fascination began back in the early '90s, when I saw an early morning exercise programme on British TV with the beguiling title Stand Still, Be Fit - that sounded like my kind of fitness regimen! And the chap demonstrating the postures was doing it on the Hong Kong waterfront, which added an irresistible extra layer of exoticism to the show.

One of my few regrets about my time in China is that - apart from trying to join in with the grannies in the park occasionally - I haven't got down to studying or practising t'ai chi properly. I suppose I've made the excuse to myself that it is an old person's exercise system - and I did not yet feel old... or did not want to admit to myself that I was starting to.

T'ai chi, of course, is tremendously popular here (though probably not nearly so popular as when I first visited the country, nearly 20 years ago), and widely practised in public - often in large groups in public parks and so on, early in the morning. Moreover, I often find myself noticing an unusual elegance of movement in the way some people perform mundane activities, like sweeping the road. And I wonder if the practice of t'ai chi is responsible for the admirable grace - and ergonomic efficiency - which these people have achieved.

Indeed, there are certain patterns of movement that I see repeated so regularly, they almost could be t'ai chi exercises. I'm pretty sure they're not, but they look as though they could be. Hence, it has become a frivolous little game with me to invent names for these everyday actions and poses that seem to have something of the essence of t'ai chi about them.

It is great fun. I encourage my readers to give it a try - and perhaps to add some of their own suggestions in the comments.

Here are a few of my favourite examples.

With hands hanging down by one's sides, slightly away from one's body, standing upright with legs together, one pivots briskly on one leg through 180 degrees, bends forward very slightly at the waist, and takes a step backwards. Then one moves one's arms out from the body, keeping them straight, until the hands are a distance of about 30-40cm away from the legs, while simultaneously bending at the knees until one is nearly in a squatting position. One then returns the arms to one's sides, and stands upright again. Finally, one adopts a wider stance by moving one leg 60cm or so to the side, and dramatically crosses one's arms.

I call this one Using Your Parcels To Block The Subway Doors.

With legs slightly apart and slightly bent, one swings one's arms across one's body, down to around hip height to one's right - palms parallel to the ground and fingers fully extended, the right hand below facing upwards, and the left above facing down, just a few centimetres apart, as if holding a small object between the fingertips of the two hands. One then straightens one's legs and swings the two arms - while maintaining the same relationship between the hands - very slowly across to the left, until the two hands are at shoulder height, as far to the side of the body as they can possibly be without making one lose balance. At the same time one gradually swivels one's head around to the left, the eyes tracking the hands. At the end of the movement, one inclines the head very slightly, no more than ten degrees or so. An enigmatic smile is optional.

Really, I see people doing this a lot, and I have no idea what the purpose of it is. Perhaps this one really is a t'ai chi exercise. I have come to think of it as  Serving Tea To A Leper.

It's quite similar to.... 

With legs slightly apart and slightly bent, one swings one's arms across one's body, down to around hip height to one's right, while at the same time turning one's head and upper body to the right, but keeping the feet facing forward. Unlike Serving Tea, the fingers hang down towards the ground, and may be slightly curled; the right hand reaches further to the right than the left. One then straightens one's legs and swings the two arms very quickly across one's body - keeping them at hip height all the way - continuing the motion around behind one on the left side. The head returns to looking straight ahead, but - and this is very important - one must try to extend the hands as far behind oneself as possible without moving the head or upper body to the left at all, but instead keeping them facing directly forwards throughout.

This one, of course, is  Removing Your Bicycle From The Rack. This is one that illustrates t'ai chi's essence as a branch of the martial arts. Evidently the Chinese award themselves brownie points for scything down with their bicycles any unfortunate pedestrian approaching along the sidewalk from behind them - especially if it happens to be a foreigner.

Standing upright with feet slightly apart, one places one's right hand on one's hip, while raising the left arm - open palm facing upwards - in front of the body and slightly to the side. When the arm reaches shoulder height, it bends upwards slightly at the elbow, so that the hand is at or slightly above eye level. One raises one's head to look slightly upwards, and swivels at the waist, very slowly tracking first 45 degrees to the left, then to the right, then back to the left again.

This one is the less often seen Looking For Cellphone Reception In The Mountains.

From a more or less upright position with arms loosely at one's sides, one suddenly extends one's arm - elbow bent slightly upward, palm facing forward - as far to the right as possible, and takes a long step with one's right foot diagonally forward to the right, while hunching the shoulders and lowering the head slightly.

This is the less-common-than-it-used-to-be but still familiar Cutting In Line At The Ticket Window.

You see - HOURS of fun!!!


JES said...

Okay, I've just completed catching up on reading everything I'd previously missed here. Will start a round of commentry with this one...

I developed a fascination with t'ai chi several years ago -- but not as a practitioner nor, really, as an observer. I was working on what I called a "political thriller," an alternate-universe thing about one of those shadowy underground conspiracy groups in rebellion against a wicked government. It was political, all right, but not particularly thrilling. (Did have its funny moments, though, thanks to several major subplots having to do with Warner Brothers cartoons...)

ANYHOW, the Shadowy Underground Group wanted to keep its membership in good physical condition, despite their all being computer types who spent hours a day at screens and keyboards. The solution: t'ai chi, particularly the variety known as "sticky hands." This (vs. "push hands") is a combat style which lets you let your opponent do all the work; I thought that might particularly appeal to sedentary types like computer geeks.

(Here's a blog post I found back then, including videos, about the different styles.)

The movements you've cataloged here really do suggest a REAL catalog, don't they? (I'd like to see a cartoonist tackle the illustrations.)

Froog said...

I assume your nerd rebels would remain seated for their exercises sessions, simply rolling their desk chairs over to a partner?

Thanks for that link.