The Tai Chi Class

‘Now remember,’ said Mr Litlove, as he was leaving for work on Thursday morning, ‘the first time you go, you always meet the weirdos. So don’t judge this one, okay?’

‘Mmmm,’ I said, carefully neutral. The first tai chi class was scheduled for that morning and I’d been saying for weeks now that I was going to go. Needle-thin rain was falling steadily from a slate grey sky, I wasn’t sure where the community centre was, and it felt like very early in the morning for me, though it was almost nine o’clock. Ever since I’ve had chronic fatigue, first thing in the morning is not my finest hour. But as unenthusiastic as I felt, I was determined to make it. Whether I’d ever go a second time, though, was not a decision I was about to call.

As I rummaged about in the wardrobe, trying to find something that would do to wear, I felt even more insecure about the whole thing. I do not possess sportswear, as I do not possess a sporting bone in my body. The only thing I could face pulling on were an old pair of comfy jogging bottoms, all potatoed out at the knees, which I’d bought many years ago in a sale. This accounted for the fact they were trimmed in magenta, which matched precisely nothing else I owned. I’m not quite sure why, but I was convinced the room would be packed with trendy fitness-oriented mothers, their offspring parked in school for the day and keen to do something healthy and uplifting for themselves. I could just picture myself shuffing in, looking like a bag lady in all the layers I deemed necessary to stay warm in January. But still, layers were more important than vanity. So to top off my spectacularly un-coordinated outfit, I added my woolen zip-up cardigan with a hood, in a very nice sea-green colour. Alongside the magenta trim it was a statement of something, but probably best not to say what.

The community centre was easier to find that I’d feared (which ruined one excuse for going straight home), although it was one of those buildings with a wide array of full glass doors, only one of which opens. A few minutes later I found a way in, and then I was inside a building that was like every other community centre in the world, most probably. A central seating area papered with flyers and posters held some retired people, having tea (and probably enjoying the spectacle of people out in the rain pushing futilely at fixed glass panels), then there were two long whitewashed corridors heading off at right angles. It wasn’t hard to locate the large gym-like room in which the tai chi class met, though it wasn’t exactly easy to step over the threshold.

I arrived in the room in the blank and bewildered state of the newcomer, looking, I don’t doubt, pretty gormless. The first thing I noticed was that there were no young mothers in bendy yoga poses. In fact, I lowered the average age of the class by about twenty years.

‘Are you here to join us today?’ someone said brightly by my side. I turned and saw a neat grey-haired lady wearing a red t-shirt with a dragon on the front. She had, I noticed, a little Parkinsons shake about her head and neck and looked to be in her early seventies. ‘I’m Margot, the course instructor. Have you done any tai chi before?’

As a matter of fact, I had. But this was many years ago, when I’d gone to an evening class in a dance studio in Ely. The instructor was a Chinese man who’d taken us through the first section of the form with a perfectionist’s eye for detail. Every single movement had to be exact; he would come and shift a shoulder or an elbow a fraction of a centimetre, turn a head a quarter of an inch. I’d enjoyed it, though. As a child I did a lot of ballet, and although I had all sorts of habits to unlearn, it still felt enough like dance to be a relatively natural form of movement for me. That was a long time ago, though.

The class was forming out of an amorphous crowd as Margot called us all to attention. Although it was a beginners’ class, there were clearly several people who had been to workshop days as they were all wearing the same kind of t-shirt. I noticed a squat little old lady who had to be eighty if she were a day, whose chin was so sunk into her shoulders that she didn’t appear able to look left or right. She had one of the t-shirts on. In front of me was a bearded man, early sixties at a guess, in a zipped up navy blue fleece, to my left a thin, shy-looking woman, to my right a woman who I loved immediately because she was wearing a magenta t-shirt, making me feel right at home, both of them in their fifties. The class moved at a cracking pace, so by the time we’d got through the introductory segment that Margot wanted to teach us, we’d reached as far in the form as I had in three months with the Chinese instructor. Everyone around me had been surprisingly competent. I felt that it might be embarrassing if I needed a sit-down before they did.

There was a small kerfuffle at the back as a few latecomers arrived at the door. I saw my elderly lady with the sunken head shuffling off to greet them.

‘No, Edna,’ Margot called. ‘I want Terry to go. No, Edna. Edna, NO!’

Edna, who was clearly quite deaf when spoken to from behind was retrieved by her sprightly young seventy-year-old friend and we went through what we’d learned one last time. After that there was to be a break, and then the new people were to sit at the front and watch the old people, in every sense of the word, go through the complete form. I was doing a bit of useless hovering by the water jug and glasses when I was saved by a man who came to chat to me. Tall, another beard, ohh, mid-fifties, probably.

‘I’d been ill,’ he said, ‘and this has been terrific for me. Can’t believe how much better I feel.’

‘So you’re not a beginner?’ I asked, wondering if anyone was besides me.

‘Well I wouldn’t say that. I’ve supposedly just finished the beginners’ course.’

‘Will you be part of the…?’ I gestured towards the rows of people who were lining up for the full form. There must have been about thirty of them and the room was steadily filling up.

‘For my sins.’ He grinned at me. ‘We haven’t a clue what we’re doing.  It’s organised chaos.’

Margot was now calling the new people together (four of us in all) into seats in a semi-circle in front of the group. Edna was sitting with us, too.

‘I’m here to give moral support to the others!’ she said, with a sweet smile.

‘Edna,’ said Margot. ‘You can’t sit there, dear. You’ll have to move to the end. Go along, dear, move.’ Edna took her ousting with good nature and Margot moved in to give us a bit of history about the group while we watched the full form.

There is something strangely awe-inspiring about a large group of people who are moving in complete silence. The full form contains well over a hundred moves and the exercise went on and on, through its slow, careful movements. Oh there were pockets of organised chaos, and I loved the expression on people’s faces that clearly said ‘I have no idea what I should be doing now’, but the force of the group picked the stragglers up and soon they were back in step. As I watched them, I thought how extremely graceful they were. I think, as we get older, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for us to move with grace. One man right in front of me had a walrus moustache, neatly combed grey-blonde hair and steel-rimmed aviator glasses. He had the sort of figure I’d describe as ‘cuddly’. But what a mover he was! He had the hand and arm movements down perfectly, the transitions between them flawless. He caught me watching and gave me a secret smile from beneath the walrus moustache, and by instinct I winked back.

There was a sudden, collective ‘HO!’ from the group, who slapped their thighs and caused us onlookers to nearly jump out of our skins.

‘We call that the principle boy move,’ said Margot, laughing. And I knew I wanted to learn that one. In fact, I wanted to learn them all. I had lost my heart, partly to tai chi, but mostly to my delightfully game new classmates, who moved like the chorus line from a grey version of Swan Lake. They looked wonderful.



35 thoughts on “The Tai Chi Class

  1. What a joyful, funny, sensitive post! I thought you picked up really well on that tentativeness of joining a new group, and that delicate feeling of being an outsider, until you transition to feeling part of things. That really chimed with me – I tend to resist new things and this is something I am working on, because I don’t think it’s a good thing.

    Btw I think you are writing a bit differently since you went on the writing course. I think the moods you create are a little more concerted and have more of a theme.

    • Thank you so much for your insights, Denise! I do feel like the writing course changed me, but I couldn’t have said how. And you are spot on, I DO resist new things like mad (and absolutely hate walking in alone to anything the first time). But I was very glad to finally get myself to a tai chi class and it’s really been worth it.

      • This reminds me of my post about criticisms! I was aware that I didn’t want to make it sound as if your posts had been *bad* before, because they were also wonderful. But it just seems as if your writing is bolder and more confident, and happier to not be just colouful, but a particular colour.

  2. I am really glad that this turned out much better than you imagined and you got such a lot out of it in various ways. Your version of sartorial elegance sounds like me on a daily basis if left to my own devices. I know nothing really about this discipline, but after your account can envision myself as an unfocussed morph wobbling about to no great purpose, like one of those organisms you see on tv vastly magnified in a culture dish.

    • Ah but in no time at all, you would transition into a spry, light-footed creature of the dance! Trust me! 🙂 And if you’d like to put your magenta and sea-green clothes on, I can assure you that you’d fit right in….. All joking aside, I really do like it as a form of exercise. It’s very gentle and yet effective – I’ve had a lot of people tell me so lately! 🙂

  3. I really enjoyed this post.

    Quite a few years ago I did tai chi after work and I often felt like skipping it, but after a session I invariably felt relaxed and happy.

    As I recall, we had Chinese music in the background which I loved enough to buy the cassette (hmm, it really was a long time ago); so glad you are going.

    It’s lovely to watch a crowd of people performing these slow graceful movements.

    • Oh isn’t it great? Seeing the whole crowd of them perform like that was really moving. I felt just like you before my most recent class, and then when I got there I was so glad I’d gone, and enjoyed it even more than the first time. We have silence, but I can imagine that the right sort of music would be rather lovely.

  4. Lovely post. When I lived in Oxford I joined a Tai Chi class and went every week for a year or so until life came along and moved me on. Very similar and delightful classmates there too. I really loved it and it sounds as if it’s just the thing for you as well.

    • How nice that you did tai chi, too! I’m really loving it – finally a form of exercise that I can actually do and enjoy. Up until now, it’s been all about forcing myself to do stretching dvds. This is a vast improvement!

    • I’ve never really tried yoga. I went to one class, years and years ago, and didn’t get on with it (no surprises, most forms of exercise I can barely tolerate at best). But you should try this! It’s so gentle and the breathing is absolutely minimal, I promise. 🙂

    • I think you are perfectly right! I am loving it at the moment, and even considering two classes a week (though I tell myself not to go mad! 🙂 ) Hmmm, I really must visit facebook more often – I want to catch up on your news properly!

  5. How wonderful! I’ve always wanted to learn tai chi but seem to have taken up ballroom dancing instead. Haven’t done that in ages though, perhaps it is time to find something new. I wonder if I can get Bookman to try it too? Enjoy your class and please do keep us up on how it goes!

    • Oh, I remember you and the Bookman doing ballroom dancing! Mr Litlove and I did some tango around that time and it does seem a long while ago. This would be very good for the Bookman because it’s very gentle and yet effective for his health, especially his joint movement and his lymph system. I am absolutely loving it and can recommend it highly!

  6. You do make this sound good. I’ve gotten recommendations about tai chi for years because it’s supposed to be good for people with knee issues, but I’ve never taken the time and had the courage to find a group. Go, you!

    • Do find a group, Jeanne! I now know lots of people who have used it to get over injuries and operations and they all swear by it (and look pretty fit, I can tell you!). It’s definitely worth a try, and so gentle it can’t do you any harm.

  7. Sounds great. Gentle, affirming, challenging and more. Will be a lovely chapter for a CFS memoir if you decide to follow through with that route. Your post reminds me of one of those lovely UK movies featuring Maggie Smith and others. Not that Maggie Smith would play you (obviously) but you would be the heroine who still manages to be stylish in her unmatched clothes. 🙂

    • I wouldn’t say no to Maggie Smith playing me! Ooh and what a great idea – a tai chi movie – sort of a supergentle, retirement-aged version of The Full Monty! 🙂 Gosh, you make me want to have a go at the screenplay! It is a lovely form of exercise, though, and I feel very evangelical about it at the moment. Never ever did I think I would ever see the words ‘exercise’ and ‘evangelical’ in a sentence of mine. 🙂

  8. Loved this piece! I joined the YMCA a couple of months ago, principally for the yoga class. But this delightful story has inspired me to check out theTai Chi course, which I’m certain the Y must have. I, too, was concerned about wardrobe. I went out and bought some yoga gear and a nice pair of walkers (you know…for all those miles on the treadmill I’ll take…one of these days.) expecting jazzy 30-somethings. Surprisingly, most we mature folks with non-coordinating outfits. Oh, and magenta was the rage color when my sister was in high school. She had an entire outfit in it. I think it has made a comeback!

    • Hurray for the return of magenta! One of my classmates has a lovely magenta t-shirt and she wears it very well. Wardrobe is never a negligible issue, is it? Though blending in with the group is the most important part of all…:) Do have a go at the tai chi, Grad, I am absolutely loving it and don’t doubt it will do me the world of good.

  9. Oh, this sounds good! I have been thinking I want to get back to yoga classes again, just to keep my body moving in all kinds of ways to counteract all the sitting I do. The classmates really do matter a lot! I’m glad you’ve found some good ones 🙂

    • They are a bunch of sweeties! You are very good to do yoga – it strikes me as a pretty hard and demanding way to work out. But in the end it was the amount of sitting around I do that provoked me to sort out some form of exercise – you do feel it in the end! Tai chi has been such a great find. You could probably find a group that has a creche for children (though my memory of the early years was of having a human bullworker who grew a little heavier every day – I’ve never had such upper body muscles since! 🙂 )

  10. So glad you are doing this. I have done tai chi in the past and think it is about the best CFS exercise. And so glad that your classmates were inspiring, too, at least in your appreciative eyes. Lovely reading about it all.

    • You are so right – it seems perfect for CFS, and of course now I wish I’d been doing it more regularly and for a long time! But never mind, I’m there now. I went again last week and enjoyed it even more – it is SO nice to feel connected to my body in a positive way. It’s been a while!

  11. It always takes such a lot of courage to join a group or some group activity. Luckily they were welcoming. I’m not sure whether I’d like to do Tai Chi but I like watching it.

    • It feels lovely – but having been through so many different kinds of exercise, all of which I have disliked more or less, I do know that it’s a very personal thing and you can only choose what really appeals. Isn’t it hard to get over the threshold of something new!! I hate it, but on this occasion, I was glad afterwards.

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