This exercise-meets-meditation routine helped curb my anxiety and build core strength
Tai chi is the realistic method of meditating that I needed
You’ll hear a lot of people talking about how as you get older, you have to stay ‘young at heart’. I think at heart, I’ve always been a 75-year-old grumpy granny. I like cats, scowling at the ‘younger generation’ and complaining about how things are changing. My knees click every time I get off the couch I’ve made my island for the day. A Buzzfeed quiz in the style of ‘what TV character are you?’ is guaranteed to tag me as Downton Abbey’s Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham. I don’t disagree. She was my favourite character in the show, aside from her love for the monarchy and moments of bigotry. So it should have come as a surprise to no one when I took to tai chi like a duck to water.
I’ve always been curious about this martial art that’s long been relegated to the realm of the elderly. Since its mention in The Karate Kid (1984) — one of my favourite movies — I was obsessed. (As much as I love Jackie Chan, Pat Morita will always be my Mr Miyagi.) My sister and I practised doing the crane move more times than I can remember. We’d ‘wax on and wax off’ pretty much every surface, to the point where my mother should have put a duster in our hands and put us to good use in the house.
So when I attended the detox and cleanse at the Urban Wellness Clinic (UWC) by Atmantan Wellness Centre and Four Seasons, Mumbai, my eyes almost popped out of my head when I spotted tai chi on my itinerary.
Tai chi is a part of ancient Chinese tradition, and more often than not, completely misrepresented in pop culture. That’s what Prashant Sarsar, our tai chi master in the programme, told me. “People think it’s so slow and simple. Something for very elderly and injured people to do.”
I went into the first class with a headache from a previous late night but high energy and excitement for the session to come. It was short-lived. I felt my excitement first dip the moment Sarsar opened the session saying, “Think of tai chi as moving meditation.”
I was expecting a kind of slow, free-flowing, easy-breezy dance class. The moment he started talking about chi, energies, and the balance of yin and yang, my inner pessimist rang a blaring red alarm in my mind. But Sarsar kept it real. “It comes down to what you believe. If you believe you can connect with the energies around you; create a channel between your mind and nature around you, then you will feel it. If not, you’ll enjoy it as an exercise.”
I’ve always considered myself a slow-paced person. When it comes to voicing my opinions, I try to take in what the other person is saying instead of jumping down their throat. I open up to new people with caution, not ease. And I could match the pace of a tortoise with ease as long as it serves my laziness and comfort. We do win the race in the end. (At least, that’s my self-soothing mantra.) I expected moving my arms up and down slowly would come easily. Oh, boy, was I wrong.
In 30 minutes, every preconceived notion I held about tai chi flew out the window. It’s a low impact exercise, of course, but with knees slightly bent and core engaged, maintaining that smooth, flowy, slow pace while staying balanced and upright takes a lot of control.
I never thought I’d break a sweat doing tai chi. More than that, the entire time, my mind was a complete blank. In the best way possible.
Meditation and I have a complicated relationship. I’ve tried doing it for a few years now, on and off. I managed to pull off a month straight of meditation, only because I made it a challenge for myself. I did reap some of the many benefits of meditation that people always talk about. But it was always a task rather than a way to properly unwind.
I crave the stillness and calm that meditation is supposed to bring with it. But I’m also a overthinking millennial with an anxiety disorder. I’ve grown up on a stiff diet of YouTube videos and Candy Crush. I find sitting in one spot for long periods with nothing to do is harder than trying to stomach karela. A dog barking out in the distance, a clang of dishes in the kitchen, or honking cars. It doesn’t take much to pull me out of the meditative state I just about reach.
The slow movements of tai chi emptied my mind faster than I empty a bucket of popcorn while the trailers play in the cinema hall. My gaze followed my floating limbs as they twisted and turned through the tai chi moves. Without even really trying, I finally managed to meditate without worrying about anything else.
Something clicked in my brain. I don’t know if there was something in the wind that day, or if it was Sarsar’s low soothing tone that got my mind finally tuning in to the right frequency. I found a form of meditation I could realistically do. At the session’s end, I felt a strange kind of warmth in my chest. For once, it wasn’t acid reflux acting up. Oh god, I’m going to say it. I felt… zen. Like a dollop of butter on a hot paratha, happily melting and becoming one with its surroundings.
I didn’t care about my missed calls, emails, or what was trending on Instagram. It was a kind of peace where you want to just sit and stare out a window at trees and birds while sipping on hot tea.
I finally understood why tai chi would be a great practice for people who suffer from anxiety and high levels of stress to adopt, as studies have shown. Exercising that level of restraint and control over all your muscles and limbs does make it quite a workout too, that can help improve your balance and strength.
If you’re like me and struggle with traditional meditation, tai chi may just be the practice for you. Sarsar assured me at the end of our session that even if I don’t end up joining a class immediately, I’ll be fine practising on my own. Ten minutes every day help me unwind and truly feel calmer and more peaceful when I get into bed. The worries that kept me up at night are easier to let go.
There are different styles and levels of tai chi practice, and as a beginner, 70% of it can be followed by tutorials you find online. “If you’re looking to delve deeper and get more advanced, then I suggest you find a master to practise tai chi with as you’ll also feel the energy flow between you too. That’ll boost your practice,” says Sarsar.
If you’re a complete beginner looking to get moving again but fear the fast-paced instructions and thump, thump, thumping of the usual workout video, or just want to change up your routine, then give tai chi a try.
Pro tip: You may feel a bit silly doing it in the beginning, but imagine you’re moving water between your arms. Although if you’re an anime lover, it’ll be hard for your mind not to visualise yourself as a water bender. Okay, maybe that’s not technically meditation, but in my opinion, it’s just another of tai chi’s many attractions.