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During the 10-week tai chi series I participated in earlier this year, there were times in between practicing the previous week’s moves and learning the next one that I would ever-so-briefly slip into ballerina mode and turn the form into a dance, secretly wishing the instructor would dim the lights a bit, turn up the volume on the pan flute music, and not care that I was giving these martial arts moves a bit of rhythm and sensuality.
Tai chi is a practice of stillness, and yet the movements moved me: The extreme attention to detail, the microscopic focus, and the repetitive nature of the practice brought my mind to such a stillpoint that it became keenly aware of all the chi (energy) moving within. At times it was difficult to contain this flow of energy. It simply wanted to dance!
That’s why when I heard about a relatively new “dance meditation system” called Wu Tao—a blend of Chinese medicine, dance, and music—I agreed to go to the introductory workshop before I even really investigated what the practice was all about. A brief video on YouTube showed a medley of free-form movement and tai chi-like choreography, and that’s all I needed.
I felt very fortunate to be a part of the class, as it was one of the first offerings of Wu Tao in the United States; the practice originated in Australia, the brainchild of former ballerina Michelle Locke, who, after a back injury, went on to study Chinese medicine and healing. Wu Tao is the marriage of her two strongest passions, complemented by a third element: music to accompany the movement, composed by her husband.
Michelle described Wu Tao as a way to restore inner peace, balance, and energy (qi) in the body, and clearly the practice has had an effect on her: She came into the studio late after being gridlocked in horrendous turnpike traffic, yet somehow remained remarkably cool, calm, and collected. I couldn’t believe how such a soft and soothing voice could emerge from someone stuck behind a steering wheel for 2+ hours.
What makes Wu Tao stand out from other dance meditation practices is its connection to the visceral body, specifically the body’s meridian channels, pathways that run through our bodies bringing energy—qi—to our internal organs. (These meridians are the basis of acupuncture; you know, how a needle in your back can heal pain in your toe.) Each set of movements stimulates specific meridians, but in a subtle way, so you’re never really consciously thinking “large intestine, large intestine, large intestine.” You move, you breathe, and the energy transforms naturally.
Wu Tao’s movements are based on the five elements: Air, Water, Wood, Fire, and Earth; what a magic number in dance, as it reminded me so much of the energy behind 5Rhythms. The major difference, though, is that in Wu Tao each element has choreography—a “routine” so to speak—to learn, practice, and then execute with the music. It really was like a dance version of tai chi (or qi gong)—specific moves designed to keep the life force flowing, all while adding the element of music and personality.
Because it was our first time experiencing Wu Tao, we spent a lot of time learning the moves and practicing them, but experienced practitioners can complete a series in about 30 minutes, much like going through a tai chi form or surya namaskars. During the workshop, we learned and practiced the elements of:
Air: Several upward sweeping arm movements to stimulate the lungs and large intestine, all with a theme of letting go, casting away grief, shedding fear.
Water: Performed on the floor, mostly side-to-side rocking, rolling, and forward bends, all meant to stimulate the bladder and kidneys, as well as to honor our energy, rest, and allow the natural current of the water to carry us.
Wood: A dynamic set of movements to stimulate the liver and gall bladder, starting from grounding the body like tree roots to growing tall, a feeling of moving forward, direction, and purpose.
We didn’t have time to learn the final elements of Fire and Earth, but I imagine them to be very much like the rhythms of Lyrical and Stillness, respectively: Fire, a chance to come home to the heart; and Earth, a moment of being still, receptive, and finding grace.
We ended class with a guided “river” meditation, Michelle playing soothing music in the background as she encouraged us to imagine ourselves floating down a river. I have to say, this was the most vivid portion of class for me, probably because of all the work going on inside of my body after such a powerful practice. I envisioned myself dressed all in white, a kind of water-based angel flowing effortlessly down a river that twisted through snow-capped mountains and luscious green landscapes. I saw this from both a bird’s-eye view and a first-person perspective, changing focus with each bend of the waterway. It was absolutely stunning, like I was watching a painting unfold in my mind and body.
I realized after I sat up that the essence of Wu Tao emerges after the practice. Although I enjoyed doing the moves in the moment, I didn’t actually feel their full effect until I had given the newly transformed energy time to circuit through my body during the relaxation/meditation portion. It’s very much like how I feel during tai chi: sometimes not fully appreciating what I’m doing until it’s done, and then WHOOSH. A sudden feeling of inner peace.
The practice is accessible for all skill levels; moves can be modified, and Michelle even offers special classes for adults with dementia and a chair-based class for those with physical limitations. Wu Tao for Two is a specialized practice designed for couples as a way of deepening connection and spirit:
In fact, Michelle and her husband will be offering a Wu Tao for Two class this weekend at Jaya Healing Arts in Lambertville, New Jersey. It’s a sweet spot above an antiques store in a super-cutesy central Jersey town, right across the Delaware River from New Hope, Pennsylvania. (The coffee shop a few doors down offers almondmilk for your lattes…HUGE selling point, in my book!) She’s also teaching regular Wu Tao classes Monday and Wednesday July 23 and 25 at Lucky Lotus Yoga Studio in Brooklyn before heading back to Australia.
Would I do Wu Tao again? Absolutely. It requires the attention of tai chi/qi gong but with the added element of freedom to flow and infuse your own individuality, a perfect blend of healing and moving arts. And anything that can allow me to sink into such a blissful state of relaxation afterward is definitely worth pursuing.
Several weeks ago I was contacted by a rep from Beachbody, asking if I’d be interested in voluntarily browsing through some of the company’s in-development products. I really dragged my feet on this one, mostly because, personally, I have no interest in the company’s existing catalog.
There’s no doubt that Beachbody’s products (e.g., P90X, Insanity) are wildly popular and effective, but for someone like me who is trying hard to explore more of the “mind” and “spirit” elements of the mind-body-spirit trifecta (aaaaand who has a torn hip labrum), the notion of groaning and grunting my way through something titled “The Asylum” seemed to fall just slightly beyond my boundaries of comfort.
(No offense to Beachbody sensation Shaun T., a fellow Rowan University alum. I’ll admit it’s kinda cool to see someone you danced with in college rise to fitness stardom.)
However, of the three Beachbody programs in the pipeline that came into my inbox, there was one that stood out for me:
I clicked the link cautiously, afraid that what I hoped was going to be somehow related to tai chi would actually end up being some sweaty, teeth-grinding hybrid of my beloved low-impact martial art and, say, the muscle-ripping CrossFit.
I was pleasantly surprised. One of the first quotes on the website’s accompanying video, from who I am assuming is Beachbody CEO Carl Daikeler, is “What about training that’s NOT about extreme?”
Not extreme? You mean no veins pulsing through my forehead, no teeth gnashing? My interest was piqued.
Daikeler went on to tell an anecdote about his father, who had hip replacement surgery. “I had nothing in our catalog I could provide to him,” he confessed. With that concern in mind, Daikeler aimed to develop a program that both seasoned athletes and once-sedentary individuals or those recovering from injury could benefit from, a program using one of the oldest fitness regimens in the world: tai chi.
As Daikeler spoke, Tai Cheng’s namesake/creator Dr. Mark Cheng–a martial arts master trainer, traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, and physical therapy-based corrective exercise expert–demonstrated the Yang style of tai chi in the foreground. His movement was utterly hypnotic and dance-like. My first reaction was, “I wanna move like him, sign me up now!” I know I’m only in the sixth week of my own weekly tai chi class, but I had this silly impression that I moved with grace. Then I saw Cheng’s demonstration, and now I feel more like a cactus tumbling through a sandstorm than seaweed dancing through water, which is what Cheng appears to be.
I like that Beachbody is promoting this program for a full spectrum of fitness abilities and not stereotypically equating tai chi with older or less active individuals (Daikeler reports that his focus groups included people ages 18 to 80). The videos here are short snippets about how Tai Cheng can benefit Insanity, P90X, and TurboFire fans, as well as everyday gals like me who want to move with precision, grace, and control, while also reaping the mind-calming effects of the ancient martial art. Soundbytes that stood out for me in the introductory video were “developing exquisite control in proprioception” and “better stability, better control, and better performance.” Sounds a little like yoga, huh?
Tai Cheng is slated to become available sometime in this first quarter of 2012, and while I am impressed with the product and commend Beachbody for expanding its demographics, this isn’t to say I’m going to follow through and invest in it. I am a much better student when part of a live class, and unless I’m trying to soothe a backache through Viniyoga, DVDs just aren’t my thing. I feel a bit ADD when standing in front of a TV screen, and since Tai Cheng is a comprehensive 90-day “program,” it is very likely I would never steadily stick to the 3-month plan. However, if it’s something one could do, say, once or twice a week, then perhaps I’ll be more open to the concept. For people who crave routine and a “graduation” from a fitness program, then Tai Cheng could be their theng…err, thang. 🙂
Speaking of tai chi, did you know that Saturday, April 28 is World Tai Chi Day? My sister and I plan to attend an event at a local fitness center that will feature demonstrations and group participation activities, plus some tai chi sword forms!
Note. I was not paid/compensated or asked to write this post and have no vested interest in Beachbody or Tai Cheng.
Four weeks ago, I started taking a weekly tai chi class with my sister. The intention was for my grandmother to take class with us, but she just hasn’t felt up to it. Nevertheless, I’m enjoying having something permanent on my schedule every week, especially because I get to see my sister. We’ve been trying to do “after-class” socializing too, whether it’s going out to dinner at the local vegetarian restaurant, visiting my sister’s friends and their new baby girl, or getting salads to go and eating dinner at my grandparents.
And, oh yeah, the class itself is pretty good too. 🙂 The studio space is a bit “clinical” (bright overhead lights, a bit on the cool side), but I’m trying not to let those things bug me and focus entirely on the movement. Here’s what I’m digging so far about tai chi:
1. Attaining a clear and focused mind. After an hour of meditative movement and breathing (along with listening to my hypnotherapist teacher’s voice), my mind is in such a better place. I always enter the room a bit rushed and dizzied, having driven there right from work, but I’m in a totally different mindset once I leave. Any crazy guilt I have about not getting a “real workout” (i.e., sweat and breathlessness) on Thursday nights dissipates once class is over because I know that I have given my mind the workout it needs and deserves.
2. “Beach” feet. Yoga, tai chi, qi gong…whenever you’re doing an activity that requires absolute presence and mindfulness, you begin to feel very in touch with your surroundings, including the way your feet feel against the ground. Sometimes yoga makes me feel like I have tree roots growing from my soles into the earth, but tai chi makes me feel like I have “beach” feet, as though I’m standing barefoot by the ocean, my feet sinking softly into the wet sand.
3. Balance practice. Part of our warm-up is to shift from one foot to the other, balancing in place while “holding the ball” in front of our abdomen. Standing on one foot after a day of sitting at a desk or driving isn’t always easy, but it gives me a sense of attaining balance not just on my feet but in life in general.
4. The diversity. I’m 31, my sister is 26. The teacher’s assistant looks like she is in her 70s and wears orthopedic shoes throughout the class. There is a woman who has spinal issues and cannot twist and a “senior student” Asian man for whom tai chi looks second nature. The class brings in people of all different ages, abilities, and backgrounds, and there is something endearing about such a diverse group of students all learning the same thing together.
5. The flowing nature of the style. When all 24 postures of the Yang style are linked together, the result is a flowing work of choreography. We are still learning just the basic moves, but with time I hope to synchronize the arms and legs more; sink deep into the ground; and use the whole space available, not just one little spot on the floor. This woman is my inspiration:
I am so excited to be adding a new item into my toolbox of mind-body-spirit “flowtation” devices: tai chi!
Starting this week, my sister and I (and hopefully our grandmother) will be taking a 10-week series in tai chi chuan.
It is not the first time I have dabbled in tai chi. My gym offers a class (led by a master instructor), which I’ve dropped into a few times, and then in the summer of 2010 I took a 6-week series in tai chi chih. I took the chih class during a very stressful time in my life, and that weekly gathering kept me grounded. My mind was all over the place that summer, and that one hour and 15 minutes each week was my lifeline. However, as much as the practice contributed to my well-being, in the end, I definitely felt a greater attraction toward the chuan style of tai chi.
Tai chi chuan is the style most people are familiar with, the steady flow from posture to posture that resembles an underwater dance. Tai chi chih, on the other hand, is a series of 19 movements that are done more like repetitions in a set. They are just as flowing as the movements in the chuan style, but they are not linked as seamlessly and it is not considered a martial art like chuan.
My sister, her boyfriend, and I took a free introductory class last week. My grandmother–who we’re trying to encourage to attend class–backed out at the last minute due to painful sciatica flare. We are trying to rally as many people as we can to take this class; as this article describes, there is pretty much no reason not to do tai chi. It helps improve memory and balance, can lower blood pressure, and helps reduce depression. The day of last week’s free class, as if on cue, this article popped up on my Google Reader from the New York Times wellness blog, about a study touting the benefits of tai chi for individuals with Parkinson’s disease.
Even after practicing for an hour under bright florescent lights (ugh!) and an overhead fan (on a 35-degree night–brr!), I left last week’s class feeling pretty darn good. I had been trying to get my lower back to crack all day; it had felt “stuck” since 7 a.m. Sure enough, after class I pressed my hands against my sacrum and pop! Relief. I loved the class’ gentle warm-ups, the way the movements felt like a dance to me, but one in which I had to exercise concentration and control. The instructor is also a certified hypnotherapist, and I swear after listening to his steady voice for 60 minutes, my brain had shifted into a very peaceful state of mind. It was not the workout I am used to at all, but it gave me that same focused and centered mind that I usually achieve after doing yoga.
Finding this class–convenient in terms of location, time, and cost–as well as the fact that we’ve got some family involved, makes me feel good. Really good. If only I could get the whole family to try it out, and then we could turn suburban New Jersey into a mini Beijing: