I’m standing in an airy, well-lit fitness studio, with a melodious soundtrack emanating from the speakers and people in silken uniforms swaying all around me. Despite extensively reading up on tai chi before heading to a class, the practical application of the ancient martial art form has caught me off guard.
Instead of the aggressive movements I had anticipated, the session was surprisingly slow, graceful … and calming. Master John Duval, of Golden Eagle Martial Arts, started the class with stretches to loosen the body, after which we were directed into a semi-squatting position with one simple instruction: "Hold."
With our backs straight and our tongues touching the roofs of our mouths (to help circulate energy better), we were guided through a series of hand movements and wrist rotations, with a couple of “power moves” (read: punches, stomps and elbow jabs) thrown in. The emphasis was on breathing techniques, with frequent reminders to stay hydrated.
It’s almost easy to forget that this is a high-level martial art, as Duval reminds me after the class is done. “Back in the day, in China, you were not allowed to do tai chi until you’ve done 10 years of kung fu. Its teachings only became more public because of the many health benefits it offers.”
But how can this soothing, swaying routine ever be considered a defence against attacks, a one-upper in a fight, I ask? At that Duval smiles, stands up and repeats the same movements done in the class. At the pace he's mastered, they transformed into deadly effective blocks and jabs.
“All the moves you saw are meant to be defences and counter-attacks at the same time," he explains. "We train people to do them slowly, so they first understand the technique, the motion. When the strike actually comes, it’s more effective because it comes from the whole body – it’s body kinetics.”
The rationale is impressive for an art form that originated in mid-17th century China. Tai chi or Taijiquan traces its history back to Taoism, a philosophy based on the balancing of opposites, the yin and the yang. As Duval puts it: “Tai chi was like a secret martial art that turned villagers into soldiers.”
Physical and mental benefits of tai chi
Its modern-day popularity as a form of exercise can be credited to a number of factors, crucially the many health benefits it promises; numerous studies have shown that the practice alleviates lower back pain, osteoporosis arthritis and blood pressure, and increases flexibility. One of its biggest benefits is mental, with studies finding tai chi can reduce stress, anxiety and mood swings.
Long-time practitioner Samia Mousa, who started taking tai chi lessons in 2010, after her son took an interest in kung fu, says she loves it because of the mental benefits and she has persisted for more than a decade. “It’s good for the bones, for flexibility. But I love the calm feeling I have when I practise tai chi. It’s too powerful for words to explain.”
Dubai resident Mohammed Moghazy, who is from Egypt, also took it up two years ago to relieve stress. “Like many others, I felt like I had too much stress. So I started doing my research and enrolled in a session. I felt so relaxed, that I signed up for more classes. A few months later, I started noticing the physical benefits.”
These included gradual weight loss of more than nine kilograms in two years, and decreased pain in the back and joints.
This should come as no surprise. While the movements look easy, they are not. Simply holding the semi-squat position requires willpower, effort and a lot of practice.
Tai chi also encourages the the body to keep moving, and Duval recommends practising it a little every day – even if you aren’t able to make it to a class.
“If you do it right, you can lose weight – but it will be gradual. It’s not supposed to be a quick fix against anything. It’s a lifestyle,” he says.
In homage to its philosophy and benefits, tai chi was added to Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage list in December 2020.
“It was long-deserved and long-awaited,” says Duval. “We are hoping more people in the Middle East are open to understanding it and trying it out. Modern medicine may aim to cure, but ancient medicine and ancient wisdom aims to prevent.”