The Great Outdoors

Tai chi: Finding tranquility in the open air

Tai chi: Finding tranquility in the open air

When was the last time you stood still? Not sitting on the couch, or sleeping or staring at a screen. I mean just standing in one place, making a pointed effort to relax.

That was the most refreshing part of the recent tai chi class at the Houston Aboretum, one of a handful of regular outdoor courses held in the quiet nooks of our buzzing city. I’d always been intrigued by tai chi’s hypnotic movements and the calm I saw on the faces of its practitioners in Central Park in the background of TV shows like Law and Order. But as someone without any particular interest in Eastern philosophies, meditation or martial arts, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

I joined a few other newbies walking around in their socks in one of the Arboretum’s classrooms (It was cold and wet that night, otherwise we’d have been outside). My classmates were also beginners, one younger than me, a couple middle aged and all women. Our genial instructor, Dale Napier, explained almost anyone can enjoy the low-impact exercise of tai chi.

There also can be therapeutic benefits for folks with back and joint problems, he says, and many enthusiasts like him discovered the activity while looking for an alternative to the more physically intense martial arts. “As people get older, they start to realize there’s more to life than punching people,” says Napier, who began studying tai chi in the late 1970s after years in tai kwon do, judo and karate.

What developed as an exceedingly difficult Chinese form of hand-to-hand combat (tai chi chuan translates literally into “supreme ultimate fist”) was essentially slowed down hundreds of years ago to create the many forms of tai chi that exist today. The most common of them retain the discipline, focus and skillful movement of other martial arts, but in a series of smooth, slow and meditative motions.

We started by standing still and breathing. Easy stuff, you would think, but the rudimentary task of placing my feet so that my center of gravity was exactly above them was a lot more difficult than I expected. Between intermittent wobbles, I was then instructed to straighten my back and relax my muscles, particularly the shoulders, and breathe in and out at intervals of seven seconds each. After a few minutes, that alone made me feel like I’d just grabbed a satisfying nap. We then added a couple of the basic hand and foot motions, all while breathing slowly and in time with our movements.

In the broadest sense, the goal is to move one’s chi – the internal energy in Chinese medicine that controls health and can become blocked in certain places. Some people credit tai chi with reducing the frequency of migraines or easing pain from arthritis or joint surgery. It’s well beyond my limited understanding of Chinese medicine or recent medical research into tai chi to comment on its health effects.

But it must have done something, I thought, as I zipped my shopping cart around Fiesta after leaving class. I just felt good, full of energy, happy. It was like the feeling I get after a great bike ride, even though I hadn’t even broken a sweat.

Napier’s classes at the Arboretum take place Wednesdays and Saturdays, and weekly classes at Discovery Green will start up again in March. While classes are easy to find, they tend to be small, so it’s rare for a teacher to have enough students to support a school. “Some people just teach in the park. That’s really common,” Napier says.

That makes tai chi not only great reason to get outside, but also a great excuse to move slowly and stand still for a change.

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Tai chi involves a series of smooth, slow and meditative motions.
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Almost anyone can enjoy the low-impact exercise of tai chi. Photo by Martin Kenny