As I signed up for extracurricular activities at the beginning of the semester I was particularly excited about the possibility of a gongfu (kung fu to any Westerners reading this) class, envisioning myself copying the epic moves from martial arts movies. However, a few days later we received an email: “Gongfu isn’t available, how about taijiquan (Tai Chi)?” Disappointed (I’d seen elderly Chinese practicing taijiquan in parks in the U.S. and it looked pretty dull), I was planning on picking a different activity – but during a free afternoon I decided I’d give it a try.
From the first lesson I was hooked. I was surprised by how soothing it was to glide through the poses – but it was also really difficult! The smooth ease with which our teacher demonstrated the routine turned out to be much more demanding and challenging to replicate than I had initially assumed. There was always a palm or foot at the wrong angle and instead of a smooth progression my version of taijiquan was a jerky string of movement followed by a long pause as I forgot what came next….Instead of being frustrating, the challenge was absolutely absorbing and I left class glowing with the excitement of something new. When I told my roommate where I’d been, she responded “that’s what old people do here,” and seemed slightly surprised when I said “they’ve got the right idea.”
Since that first week I’ve been to every class. My technique is definitely improving but unfortunately the sequence doesn’t seem to be sticking in my brain – as my teacher succinctly put it, “you do it well but you have no memory at all!” He also chuckles a little as he demonstrates a leg lift – this man in his late fifties or early sixties casually sticking his leg straight out at hip height – and we all topple over trying to copy him. Taijiquan is generally quite relaxed and low-impact in terms of physical effort but my hip flexors were in a lot of pain after practicing that move.
Every week we reliably attract visitors. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised given that we are a group of young foreigners practicing an “old people’s” exercise in front of Yunnan University’s most famous historical building. It’s a popular photo opportunity but their cameras often surreptitiously drift from the beautiful facade to our group and several passersby will stay to watch. I was very amused when we happened to be sharing the space with a taijiquan practitioner in the middle of a photo shoot. He clearly had no idea we understood Mandarin and every pose for a photo was punctuated with comments about our poor form and demonstrations to his companions of the proper technique. He looked very confused when I started laughing! I was baffled how someone who clearly was very skilled himself was so concerned with our little class – maybe it was an insult directed at our teacher or maybe he was offended by foreigners attempting taijiquan? Or maybe we were just that bad…
My classmates and I have turned into Tai Chi nerds – while on a bike trip a few weeks ago we stopped for a rest break and I found myself pulled into a Tai Chi practice session on the side of the road. Everyone who drove by stopped to stare – but luckily they had nothing critical to say!