new_health (2007-04)

Slow Mo

Tai Chi is tougher than it looks

by Wendy C. Smith

Many years ago, I watched a friend do a class with his Tai Chi Master. It looked simple enough. My friend was moving very, very slowly. He took a slow step and gracefully moved his hands and arms in rhythm to the step. Like I said, it looked simple enough, but within minutes my friend was sweating and getting quite a workout. If I remember correctly, it took him about 30 minutes or more to go through one series of exercises.

That particular event always comes to mind whenever someone mentions Tai Chi. The experience gave me an awareness of it as a difficult and disciplined practice. I’ve threatened to take up Tai Chi on several occasions, but because I’ve always heard it takes years to even get through a series, my need for immediate gratification always took me to other disciplines such as yoga. Although yoga also takes years to learn and master, the benefits and effect can be felt after one class. Tai Chi, on the other hand, seemed like something that required a real commitment. Little did I know…

After having a lovely conversation with Bill Pickett one afternoon about the practice of Tai Chi, I decided to check out the first class of one of his beginner’s series. Bill has been practicing Tai Chi for more than 20 years and teaching for the last five. He studies with Dr. Paul Lam, a medical doctor who has come up with a Tai Chi practice to help arthritis ( ) and Master Chen, real name Master Yun Xiang Tseng, a transplanted Chinese native who comes from a long lineage of martial arts practitioners (

I really didn’t know what to expect, but I thought it was a good sign when the person at the sign up desk said, “You’re going to love this.”

The class had about 12 students, a few of whom had taken the beginning class before. It’s a series class and lasts 11 weeks. Bill’s presence was very centered and calm, and his enthusiasm for Tai Chi was obvious. He started the class by explaining a bit about Tai Chi and its origins. It was originally practiced as a martial art, but now is much more likely to be practiced for its physical, mental and spiritual benefits. As Bill put it, “the need for martial arts has decreased as the use of gunpowder has increased.” Tai Chi is a progressive practice in that the skill level is always developing. The more one practices it, the deeper the benefits are realized. It can take a lifetime to really learn Tai Chi and its principles.

Tai Chi increases flexibility with its smooth, gentle movements. It also strengthens muscles, especially the lower leg and ankle. It helps adjust and correct poor posture as the “Tai Chi Walk” demands good posture. It increases cardiovascular health by increasing blood flow and stamina. And it aids in relaxation, stress reduction, gaining focus and uplifting the mood through its mind-body connection. Bill said that Tai Chi has had a tremendous effect on him; he’s been much calmer and healthier since he began his practice. 

The first thing we did in class was kind of shake around to loosen up our muscles. We did a short series of ankle exercises as well to get our feet ready. Bill teaches 24 Form Tai Chi, which is the most widely practiced form in the world. It was developed in the 1940s-’50s as a competition form so that judges could compare the same movements in different competitors.

After loosening up, Bill taught us the “Tai Chi Walk.” This is one of the most basic things to learn about Tai Chi. The beginning walk consists of moving forward in a very determined and centered way. One has to place the heel first and then place the whole foot while directing the body in the direction of the foot. It didn’t look hard when Bill did it, but once we tried, it was very difficult. It’s also more difficult the slower it’s done. Of course, I am not the most coordinated person, but that aside, the focus with which one has to approach the walk is quite astounding.

The next thing we did was add the hand motion called “parting the wild horse’s mane.” Bill taught us how to make an energy ball with our hands (yes, you can feel the energy) and move that energy around. That part was great fun. Then we had to walk and move our hands at the same time. This required immense concentration, but felt really satisfying at the same time. After that, we practiced “walking” to the left in a quarter circle. At the end of an hour and a half, I felt a bit tired physically, very centered and mentally alert. I slept like a rock that night!

Bill says that although he’s been practicing Tai Chi for two decades, he is only now starting to “get it.” I can believe that. I’m pretty sure it would take me a long time just to get the walk, let alone understand all the subtleties of it. However, after this class, I realized that I wouldn’t mind taking the time the way I originally thought I would. m

Bill Pickett and his wife Linda teach beginning and advance Tai Chi and can be reached at (865) 584-3864 or .