I Tried Tai Chi and Found My Center – But the Journey Was Humbling

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I’ve struggled to find my center ever since developing a chronic illness in 2021. “You need to be more in your body,” an energy healer once told me while conducting an aura reading in Sedona, Arizona. “This body is broken,” I responded with all the candor I could muster, thinking of my chronic pain and mysterious partial blindness. But when I was invited to try my first-ever Tai Chi class, I felt like this was the perfect opportunity to learn how to ground myself. What I didn’t anticipate was how challenging the process would be.

My initial thoughts around Tai Chi involved a slow-moving practice conducted outdoors to promote joint health and relaxation – aka my dream workout class. In terms of fitness, the low-impact movements of Tai Chi can have many tangible benefits, including improved balance, coordination, strength, and flexibility, per the Cleveland Clinic. Although there are many different types of Tai Chi, some of the earliest and most authentic practices are actually based in martial arts. In these martial arts-specific forms, you’ll learn how to ground yourself, release tension, and embrace the present moment, discovering a more subtle kind of strength.

Before trying Tai Chi myself, I got to (virtually) meet my instructor, Shifu Shirley Chock, CCWS, owner and executive director of Aiping Tai Chi. For Chock, the practice is all about learning how to interact with forces – whether they be physical or emotional. “I show people that [tai chi is] a martial art in its heart and soul, that allows you to really connect with your body and find your center,” she says. “The more you can connect with your body’s center when you’re moving, the more you can now apply that in your life.” The hard part, I realize, is connecting with (and even learning to trust) a body that likes to work against you. “It’s not that hard if you allow your brain to let go of everything that it thinks it knows,” Chock tells me. This was my first indication that Tai Chi may be more difficult than I had expected.

Image Source: Courtesy of Chandler Plante

My Tai Chi Experience

We can’t start the Tai Chi class without first entering an entirely new dimension. “We’re leaving this universe,” Chock tells me at the start of the class – mentally speaking, of course. Maybe a new dimension is exactly what I needed. We spend the first few minutes developing bodily awareness, seeing how heavy gravity feels in this alternate universe, from the heavy weight of the arms to the faint pull of each finger. Chock guides my attention towards my feet, helping me re-distribute my weight and turning my attention to even the most minor sensations. I connect with my tailbone to gently stretch the lower back and work towards a completely relaxed, neutral stance, feeling only the soft pull of gravity. This mindfulness serves as the foundation for the rest of the practice.

From here, we move on to “cloud hands” – a scooping movement of the arms and hands, accompanied by subtle weight shifts in the lower body. When done correctly, the body seems to move in an effortless wave, improving coordination, mobility, and quieting any racing thoughts. “This movement is iconic. You see this often in Tai Chi shows and movies,” Chock tells me. Without any logistical instruction, she asks me to replicate what I see, and I nervously follow her lead. “You are actually doing amazing, because you are seeing what you’re supposed to see,” Chock says, commending me for noticing the subtle turns in her upper body. “You’re just saying that,” I joke, knowing full well that I live for this validation.

Initially, I feel like some kind of cloud hands prodigy. But as Chock walks me through the movement in more depth, I start to flounder. I remind myself to focus on the float of the arms. As one arm goes up, the other is supposed to come down, with the hand rotating outwards. “Turn your torso and shift your weight in time with the motion of your hands,” I tell myself, trying to remember Chock’s earlier instruction. As I rationalize every step, I accidentally transport myself back to my old ballet studio, sacrificing any real release for the sake of structure. Chock notices the internal struggle.

“In Western society, we have analytical minds. It’s a society that rewards figuring out how to do something,” she reminds me. “In Tai Chi, that’s a part of the mind we actually want to quiet.” When we lose our connection to the natural forces, that means it’s time to scale it back. In this case, that means going back to single cloud hands and working our way back up to two. “Oh God, I’ve failed Tai Chi,” I think to myself, viewing this as a regression. It’s uncomfortable to have to do things over, try again, and abandon the analytical mechanisms I usually rely on to make sense of the world. But Chock is right – I’ve lost my connection. We try our double cloud hands again, and this time, I place my faith in Chock and allow myself to flow. Natural instinct takes over, and while the movement might not be as technically accurate, the motion feels better in my body.
“Do you see how much easier it was that second time, when you didn’t try to figure everything out?” Chock asks me. “You actually got into your body there.” Mission accomplished.

My Tai Chi Takeaways

I’m still trying to accept that this chronically ill body of mine is not broken – that it’s actually a pretty good place to exist. Tai Chi was an excellent starting point in rebuilding this relationship, giving me tangible tools to get more comfortable in my body, and let go of any hyper-analytical thinking. Chock tells me that once you’re grounded, your body can withstand a great deal of force, which is part of what makes Tai Chi so powerful. But in order to get grounded, you have to be willing to feel your center and redefine what constitutes strength.

“We can’t make [Tai Chi] powerful if we can’t feel ourselves,” she says. Her students, who she affectionately calls “stressbenders” (a name inspired by the Tai Chi influences in “Avatar: The Last Airbender”), are strong, but not hard – soft, but not weak. After my first class, I’m inspired to join this army of stressbenders myself, working towards becoming a stronger, more centered person. Plus, if I ever need an escape, I take great comfort in knowing that the Tai Chi universe is always there for me, just in case.

Chandler Plante is an assistant editor for POPSUGAR Health & Fitness. Previously, she worked as an editorial assistant for People magazine and contributed to Ladygunn, Millie, and Bustle Digital Group. In her free time, she overshares on the internet, creating content about chronic illness, beauty, and disability.

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