New year, new you - Taoist Tai Chi Society extols the health benefits of its ‘moving meditation’ and welcomes in the Year of the Dog
PUBLISHED: 12:51 23 February 2018
The European Centre of Taoist Tai Chi Society hosted hundreds of enthusiasts for a five-day event. Mark Edwards finds out about the energy-boosting, illness-battling benefits of the ancient art bringing people from all over the world to Colchester.
On February 16, the start of the Chinese New Year, one of the world’s leading practitioners of Taoist Tai ChiTM arts, along with other students of the ancient flowing movements from all over the world, were gathered at a former barracks in Colchester for a banquet to welcome in the Year of the Dog.
The building, in Bounstead Road, is now the European Centre of the Taoist Tai Chi Society, and the organisation’s first home in the UK. Such an international spread of participants at the banquet, part of a five-day international workshop at the centre, is testament to the global dissemination of the teachings of the society’s founder, Master Moy Lin Shin, and the central role of Colchester and Essex – there are classes in Weeley, Witham and Clacton among others - within Great Britain.
I feel equally privileged and unworthy to be invited to the banquet – qualms that soon fade due to the universal friendliness of my fellow guests. The centre looks stunning inside with Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling, a glistening shrine to a trio of deities unifying the teachings of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism (the religious side of tai chi is there, but very much an option to members), a splendid dancing dragon curled up in a corner – society members can bring it to life, holding it aloft by its bamboo canes and moving in unison beneath it – and the room filled with more than 200 tai chi enthusiasts from countries such as Spain, Norway, the Netherlands, Poland, France and the Czech Republic.
This is what Moira Jackson, the chair of the North East Essex branch of the society, calls “the huge family of tai chi” - a global community of support, service and compassion which ‘Master Moy’ - as everyone here seems to call him - first envisioned when he left Hong Kong for Canada in 1970 to spread the tai chi message to the West.
The banquet also offers an opportunity to see students perform a snippet of the 108-move set, with each move given a wonderful name such White Stork Spreads Wings and Wave Hands Like Clouds, designed to bring mind, body and spirit into balance and which form the framework of Master Moy’s teachings and have been taken up in 26 countries by more than 40,000 people.
In 1981, an American student of Master Moy moved to England and started the first class in Great Britain. Master Moy visited for the first time in 1986 and when the European Centre was opened in Colchester, he hosted its first workshop in 1994. Paul Davies, now executive director of the Taoist Tai Chi Society in Great Britain, was at the workshop as a keen student and Master Moy, who died just two years later, left an indelible impression on him.
He says: “He was another level of being. He would look at you and you felt like he was looking inside you.”
Paul is also an instructor at the Colchester branch, which runs classes for beginners and more experienced tai chi students, throughout the week. Like all the other instructors he is approved by the National Instruction Coordination and must attend regular training workshops and meet annual accreditation requirements. Also in keeping with the other instructors he offers his services voluntarily. Such selfless service is integral to the registered charity and Paul says promotes good health as much as the diligent practise of the 108 moves.
He says: “In Taoist terms health is something that can be continually developed to an enlightened state of being. With good health we are able to perceive things more clearly and to do that we try to cultivate an open body and mind. The moves are a kind of physical letting go and the helping of others works in the same way.”
Though generic tai chi can have connections with martial arts and there is an exercise known as ‘Push hands’ that is practised by two people together, Taoist Tai ChiTM Arts focuses on cultivating physical, mental and spiritual health and considers any thoughts of hurting others as detrimental to one’s own health.
Paul noticed positive physical and mental effects from the first class he attended, on the Monkwick estate in 1990, and as his involvement in the society, which has taken him to centres in Canada, Florida, the Netherlands and Spain, has increased he has seen incredible, almost miraculous, physical improvements in some of the students.
He says: “When I took my first class I was interested in martial arts, I wasn’t sure tai chi would be for me. It seemed so slow.
“But I loved it from the start. After that class I remember being so full of energy. I felt a ringing effect through my whole body.
“I was also suffering from chronic back pain at that time because I was working in construction, but in my first year practising tai chi it just went. One day it just wasn’t there anymore and I had been suffering since I was 19. I also suffered from migraines and asthma, but they have gone. I haven’t used an inhaler for 10 years.”
There are plenty of others advocating the health benefits of tai chi when I turn up for an evening beginner class at the centre, some sharing moving stories of how the practice has helped them through serious and even life-threatening illness.
The tables, streamers and origami dogs from the banquet are now gone and the hall looks bigger than ever. Around 40 class members, many in their 60s and 70s, are moving through their 108 moves in silence. I can see why tai chi is called “moving meditation”. There is a wonderful grace and focus to the moves and everyone looks supremely peaceful.
When the group breaks for a cup of tea there is a chance to chat to a few about the effect tai chi has had on their lives.
Bob has been coming to classes in Colchester for 19 years and is now in his sixties. He says: “It seemed a form of exercise I could do as I got older and now I feel I am a bit more supple than guys that are younger than me and I can stand up at work all day with no discomfort.”
Tilly, a glamorous 60-something, tells me: “I damaged my back at work, but I’ve been doing Taoist Tai ChiTM arts practice for 21 years and it has really strengthened my back and legs. I don’t run or do other sports, but this is something I can do.”
The voice of Sue, the bright as a button joker of the class, begins to crack as she tells me how tai chi has given her the strength to battle life-threatening illness. She says: “I went down with breast cancer in 2011. I did tai chi as part of my recovery for five or six months and it felt so good I did more. The cancer returned in 2014. This time I was back doing tai chi three weeks after surgery. All the instructors helped me.”
The European Centre, in Colchester, offers a Health Recovery Class in which the tai chi, done seated if necessary, is geared towards those with serious health problems, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, stroke and brain injury. Many people are referred by their doctors to the classes. Sue attended the course and found it inspirational. “There were people there doing tai chi who had had a stroke. I thought if they can do it then so can I.”
Most of the people in the close-knit class are in their later years. They all seem spry, energetic and happy - a wonderful advert for the health benefits of tai chi.
At the banquet I also get a chance for a quick word with Sean Dennison, executive director of the Taoist Tai Chi Society in the USA, who had travelled from the society’s US base in Florida to lead sessions over the five-day workshop. All the instructors in Colchester I talked to, spoke reverently of Sean’s understanding of tai chi and Paul described him as “first generation” as he was a long time student of Master Moy in Canada.
He does exude a disarming and intense calmness and though he describes himself as a “grandfather” he has a youthful vitality that belies his years.
The benefits of tai chi to the elderly and unwell are clear but the society would dearly love it if a greater number of younger people started taking classes. If Taoist tai chi can counter the aches and pains of old age, along with boosting energy and building resilience against disease, think of how it could future proof the health of people who take it up in their 20s or even younger.
Paul took began practising Taoist Tai ChiTM arts at the age of 24 and Crispin Barker, the President of the Taoist Tai Chi Society of Great Britain, began at 19. It is only the silvery shade of Crispin’s hair that gives away the fact he is now in his forties. The many years of tai chi seem to have left him still boyishly lithe and fresh-faced.
Crispin says: “I used to run a lot when I was young, but I was always suffering from very painful knees. A soon as I started tai chi that knee pain disappeared.”
Whether you are young or old, a beginner or experienced, you will be welcomed to the centre. Membership is £22 a month (£17 for seniors or students) and you can then go to as many classes as you like. For a full timetable of classes, visit here