Tai chi moves

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 October, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 October, 2002, 12:00am

Walk through any park in Hong Kong during the early morning and you'll see hundreds of people, mostly elderly, moving with grace, balance and co-ordination, all following the same movement pattern. Pop into a health club and you're likely to find people, mostly young, going through the same movements. Once thought of as an exercise for the elderly, tai chi is now a popular class in gyms.

According to Henry Hsiang, a Chen tai chi instructor, young people are taking up this ancient discipline for simple reasons: it's dynamic, it's a good workout that produces great results, and there's something for everyone. But not all tai chi is alike. The Yang and Wu styles are most often practised in the parks around town. These forms focus on meditation and calmness by using slow, circular and rhythmic movements. The Chen style also uses slow, transitional steps but every so often, includes some rapid and hard movements. As Hsiang performs these quick moves, it's like an electric shock has jolted his body.

Hsiang teaches his style of Chen tai chi through a step-by-step process, starting with standing exercises then progressing to silk reeling and forms. The standing exercises, or zhang zhuang, are the breathing forms. Initially, people stand in a certain pose for five to 10 minutes. More advanced practitioners stand for 30 minutes, twice a day. The point of being still for so long is to teach proper body alignment by relaxing the upper body while stressing the lower half. Add proper breathing and, according to Hsiang, you have a sense of 'rooting'.

The next step is the silk reeling exercises, the goal being to increase co-ordination between movements in the legs and arms. Hsiang calls this 'coiling'. It works on the flexibility and strength in the ligaments as well as the muscles. And, of course, the legs get a great workout. The final section of Hsiang's class is called forms. This, essentially, is the 'flavour of tai chi'.

The forms link the standing meditation and silk reeling exercises into one smooth, flowing movement. This is repeatedly practised in the second half of the class. By combining any number of standing and silk reeling exercises, the variations of forms are endless.

In tai chi, there's no age limit and no special equipment required. It's an ideal way to raise awareness of how your body moves. It's not effortless, but you come away feeling like you've done your body a favour. Of course, a master such as Hsiang may make you think the sequence of movements is effortless. But then the good ones always do make it look easy.