The beautiful mountainous countryside of southern China provides the backdrop for a mentally and physically challenging immersion in the meditative martial art of taijiquan, which teaches strength, balance and inner stillness.
It was hard to clear my mind and concentrate on my breathing as my legs started to shake and the sweat drops rolled down my back, and a caged mynah bird started squawking “nî hâo” over and over. I opened my eyes a crack to see if anyone else was crumbling as I was, but the rest of the class was locked into serene-looking contemplation, their arms held out as if they were hugging large tree trunks and their legs slightly bent. After what seemed like an eternity (but was, in fact, just 20 minutes), Master Ping brought us out of our standing qigong practice to my sweet relief.
This was my first day of a three-week course in the martial art of taiji quan —also spelled tai-chi— in a tiny peaceful village in rural southern China near the city of Guilin, in the province of Guangxi, which borders on Vietnam. I had always been interested in the mind and body benefits of taiji, and when planning a trip to China, I decided to make my introduction to the martial art in the country of its origin.
Upon arrival, in the village of Jima, I concluded that there seemed no better place for my beginning in taiji than the intimate Yangshuo school housed in old stone buildings from the Qing dynasty, which offered monastically basic rooms (think wooden plank bed and a small fan to cut through the sticky humid heat), set around a big courtyard where our two-hour training sessions took place twice a day.
Each session followed qigong meditation with a warm up, and then we got stuck into learning the form. A taiji form —the cornerstone of the practice— is a set sequence of postures that flow from one to the other. In Master Ping’s (who has been practicing it for over two decades, starting when he was nine) demonstration, it looked like a beautiful slow-motion dance of power and grace. As a beginner, I started learning just the first 18 postures of the full 74 posture-long primary form of the Chen style, the oldest of five main styles of taiji. Each one has been developed by a family over generations, beginning with the Chen family, who are thought to have started taiji in the 17th century.
As I learned in the classes, this is a martial art that is often described as meditation in motion. It is based on the six-millennia old Chinese philosophy of Taoism, which promotes living in union with nature. Taiji requires just the right subtle balance of tension and relaxation in your muscles combined with precise body alignment. The reason you practice a taiji form in slow motion is so that you focus your concentration on getting the mechanics of your body just right with each posture, which is what gives it its power and health benefits.
Practicing taiji is said to improve strength, flexibility and agility, help balance, reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, improve heart health and increase energy levels, and to top that off, it can reduce your levels of stress, anxiety and depression. And, because it is a low impact exercise that puts minimal stress on joints and muscles, it’s an activity that can be continued into old age (spend time in any park in China to see the over-80s practicing their forms with elegant ease).
Taiji is really a long game though, and as a complete beginner who was finding the simplest postures, a coordination and memory challenge, I certainly didn’t experience an immediate health boost, nor did I feel very meditative. Instead, I was frustrated at how easy the postures looked when the ever-patient Master Ping demonstrated them, and how conversely difficult they were for me to emulate them with the right alignment.
Other students reported feeling ji (the Chinese word for energy) coursing through their body by the end of a training session, but I just felt tired, sweaty and ravenous. Communal lunches and dinners of simple but delicious food —steaming white rice, stir fried egg and tomato, chunks of tofu with chilli, fried salty peanuts, and piles of beansprouts and steamed greens— were just what was needed to refuel.
I spent my free hours in between morning and afternoon training wandering around the peaceful village of Jima, where old houses lay between emerald-green rice paddies and huge karst mountains covered in lush foliage punctuated the skyline like mossy teeth. This magical landscape is one of the most famous in all of China, having been immortalized in painting and poetry for a thousand years.
It was only on the weekends off training that I really had time to explore the beautiful area surrounding the village. Renting a bicycle, I cycled past the rice paddies, through quiet villages and along serene rivers, and hiked up to the top of Green Lotus Mountain, which towers above the town of Yangshuo and offered the best views of my entire trip in China, a startling panorama of hundreds of karst mountains fading into the far distance like undulating waves. I floated down the Li River between Xingping and Yucun on a traditional bamboo raft to see Guanxi’s most famous scene, which is depicted on the 20 RMB bill: a ribbon of river winding gently between mountains. While signs of China’s unabated development were nearly everywhere, with new construction projects dotted all over the countryside, there was nevertheless a sense of timelessness to this landscape that I felt chimed with the six-thousand-year-old rooting of taiji.
As the days and weeks passed at the school, I made progress in memorizing the sequence of postures, and started easing into the flow of the form. The practice became less about remembering what came next and more about sensing fluidity between postures which brought a mental and physical calmness to my movements. Under Master Ping’s gentle tuition and guidance, I went from uncoordinated, frustrated restless-thoughts beginner to feel more centered, balanced, and just that little bit quieter in my mind. At the end of the three weeks, I tasted a small slice of the magic of taiji and it left me wanting more.