By Martyn Lewis
‘After playfighting with son Marcus 30 minutes earlier, what was a tiny twinge in Martyn’s problematic back has turned in to an excruciating swollen disc! Moving, staying still and even breathing all caused painful spasms. It looks worrying and at the ripe old age of 30, Martyn lies on his back on the cold tiled floor of the kitchen with children Naomi and Marcus staring down wondering what is wrong?’
I started my career at 16 in the lift industry when I would at times be moving heavy materials and then in my early 20’s I punished my body at the gym with heavy weights. As a result, I was potentially facing years of chronic back pain and, looking around at my colleagues, possibly a few fused vertebrae and a couple of inches shorter by the time I get to 50 years old!
A few days after suffering debilitating back pain I discussed the experience with a friend and mentioned wanting to learn kung fu to strengthen my back. “You need to take up tai chi,” he replied.
By coincidence, just a few days later whilst chatting with a new acquaintance on the train one morning the subject of my back pain and tai chi came up. “You’re interested in learning tai chi? You should come to the leisure centre on Wednesday evening.”
The first class was challenging but also very relaxing. ‘Where did that hour go?’ I thought. What started out as a weekly one hour class at the leisure centre quickly became a regular routine of often daily practice in search of qi (internal energy) and improved bodily posture.
I’m lucky to have stumbled upon Master Wang Hai Jun, a world class practitioner of authentic Chen Family Tai Chi, the parent form of all styles of tai chi (Yang, Wu, Sun etc). Master Wang has been taught by traditional training methods in Chen Village, Wen County province, China; the birth place of tai chi around 400 years ago. He moves in an indescribably smooth way during his demonstrations and I was captivated.
Tai chi is based on the theory of ‘yin and yang’ – soft / hard, empty / full, defend / attack. For each action there must be an opposing reaction to gain internal equilibrium. The stereotypical image of old people waving hands in the park is a long way from the reality of tai chi. Focusing on posture and breathing, foundation ‘silk reeling’ exercises develop the practitioner’s ability to use the waist to guide the movement of the entire body in a coiling motion from the feet to the hands.
Long term practice of traditional ‘forms’, executing a series of ‘fixed postures’ and interlinking steps coordinated with breathing gives a deeper understanding of the martial art. Hidden in the forms are innumerable techniques and combat strategies. Some will become apparent to the practitioner while others may never be known.
Power is expressed externally from waist movements and transferred out through the limbs in coiling movements while the mind directs qi internally. When the body is calm and balanced so is the mind. Distractions from the outside world fade away and a state of calmness ensues.
Tai chi is recognised to have may health benefits. Regular practice improves cardiovascular function, reduces blood pressure, strengthens the immune system, reduces stress levels, improves flexibility and balance and more.
I have practiced tai chi for 15 years now and noticed some of these benefits, and although my back will never be 100% free of pain that day in the kitchen is a distant memory. Additionally, I have found aches and pains from my dodgy left knee and right elbow have disappeared since I started on my tai chi journey.