Slowly breathing in strength

Twenty years ago Bill Douglas decided to stop smoking. Nothing worked until he picked up a list of college courses that advertised Tai Chi 101 as being good for stress. 'I'd never heard of it - and I thought it was pronounced Tay-Ee-Chy - but I thought I'd give it a go.' This week, two decades later, Douglas is still trying hard not to be stressed - about a world event, promoting China's gentlest martial art, into which he has put his life savings and his full pushing hands energy.

World Tai Chi Day is next Saturday, April 8, and Douglas hopes the world - and particularly the world's health organisations and professionals - will join in.

Last year they had 108 events around the world - by coincidence a lucky number in Chinese tradition - and this year they hope to have as many as three times that - from Slovenia to South Africa, from Thailand to Tel Aviv.

He has staked his savings on setting up the Web site ( and getting everything organised - the fax bill alone last month was about $15,000: what return can he possibly expect? 'I don't know: I have no idea,' he admitted on the phone from his hometown of Kansas City. 'I just know I had to try it.' Douglas, now 43, first became interested in spreading the word about tai chi when his mother died several years ago, during an angioplasty operation. Already a teacher of the martial arts form, he had tried to interest his parents in trying tai chi for their health, but both had rejected it as 'too weird'.

But afterwards he found a note his mother had written just before the operation.

'She said she wished that a couple of years ago she had paid attention to the exercise I wanted to teach her: she said she wished she had done it so that she could see her grandchildren grow up.' It made Douglas think about how many other people he could help before it was too late: 'I wanted tai chi to be so widespread that nobody could think of it as weird.' With missionary zeal he began to teach the breathing and the movements in local hospitals, schools, medical universities and even in prisons where apparently studies showed violence to have decreased by around 70 per cent after tai chi classes were introduced.

'It shows people where they can use that excess energy, so it can be constructive,' he said.

But running classes in hospitals and prisons in the local area is one thing. World Tai Chi Day, with all the organising and cajoling and free information kits whizzing around via courier companies is quite another. How did it happen? 'Now that is a weird story,' he said.

Douglas had originally had the idea some years ago, just after completing The Complete Idiot's Guide To Tai Chi And ChiGong. But after scribbling some notes to himself about how a global event could work he didn't go any further, or tell anybody about it: it seemed too ambitious, too time-demanding, too impossible to do from Kansas.

'Then a few years later, after my mother had died, my sister called me one morning and said she had this dream. She said my mother had appeared and said your brother has been writing some interesting things.' His sister had then described with an uncanny accuracy what those notes had said, and recounted how in the dream his mother had said he shouldn't have self doubt and should follow his ideas.

It was after that phone conversation, and with the blessing of his (slightly bewildered, but supportive) wife and his two teenage children (who 'did tai chi until they were teenagers when suddenly everything dad does is wrong', Douglas said cheerfully) he 'grasped the bird's tail' with both hands, and went into the project whole-heartedly.

'Does your sister usually have supernatural dreams?' I asked Douglas.

'No, actually she's very conservative - she was even on the election team for Bob Dole. She's not one of those flighty New Age types at all.' And her brother doesn't seem like that either.

His fascination with tai chi and qi gong is less about the arcane spiritual side than about the physical side, and he is full of anecdotes and statistics - which he can apparently send to anyone interested by e-mail as a database of 1,600 scientific studies - about how this is the best thing for mental and physical health since wholemeal bread.

'We had a surgeon who came to the class,' he said. 'She'd been in a really bad car accident a few years back - and had whiplash and chronic back pain that wouldn't go away. As a doctor she had tried everything that Western science could offer and nothing helped: after two months of tai chi she went back to normal.' About 70 per cent of illnesses, he continued, are caused by psychosocial stress: 'Five million kids are on Ritalin [an anti-stress drug] - if everyone did tai chi and learned how to control stress, then half the Health system in America would be redundant.' His enthusiasm - as he talked about how tai chi and qi gong are immensely sophisticated methods of cleansing the central nervous system and getting rid of past pain and trauma, as well as improving things like balance, posture and strength - was infectious.

The next morning, after talking to Douglas, I visited a free tai chi class in the fake Roman amphitheatre in Hong Kong Park. This one - which runs on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays - was mainly for tourists, organised by the Hong Kong Tourist Association, and involved running through the short form - from parting the horse's mane to being a needle on the seabed - again and again in the sunshine. It was taught by Lung Chi-fai, a 19-year-old computer student at City University who has the advantage of being son of tai chi master Lung Kai-ming, and grandson of another tai chi master from China. 'Most people who come to my classes haven't done tai chi before,' he said. 'So with every class I have to start from basics. But perhaps it will give them the interest to learn in their own countries. It is a great form of exercise: you move slowly, but you still sweat.' According to the Chinese Martial Arts Association ( [email protected]. hk or tel: 2504 8164) in Hong Kong, there are about 10,000 people in the SAR who have learned tai chi, and many thousands more who have dabbled. The association hopes that hundreds of them - and some beginners - will come to the Hong Kong World Tai Chi event which will be held at Lai Chi Kok Park (Mei Foo MTR) from 10 am.