I started practicing Tai Chi before I turned 30 – here’s why

If you’ve ever heard of Tai Chi you’re probably thinking one of two things: 1) isn’t that an exercise for old people? Or 2) Isn’t that a really slow martial art? If you’re nodding right now, especially in response to the second question, think about this: what does “really slow” mean to you? In our fast-paced lives we seldom reflect on our need for instant gratification. We want answers and results and we want them NOW. We live in a world of go, go, go and there’s just so much to do. It’s no different when we workout: how many of us choose high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts over gentle stretching and meditation classes? If you can relate to feeling this way it’s totally understandable.

These are issues I faced myself two years ago. I worked in a high pressure, deadline-driven environment which demanded rigorous attention to detail, and allowed very little room for error. In addition to juggling the hectic demands of my career, I was also finishing up a doctoral thesis, and trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy in my relationship and friendships. By the end of 2015 I began to feel like I was running on fumes. Constantly exhausted, I chased one caffeine or sugar high after another (it may sound facetious to refer to ‘highs’, but bear in mind that some studies, perhaps most notably [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23719144] suggest that sugar is more addictive than cocaine). In addition to feeling physically exhausted, I was also mentally and emotionally drained. I began reading about some of the devastating effects of chronic stress, and was alarmed to find that I had all the symptoms of adrenal fatigue. Plagued by constant acute infections, I ended up in hospital twice: first with a kidney infection and the second time with stomach ulcers. My entire endocrine system was affected: blood tests revealed hypoglycaemia, hypothyroidism, a vitamin D deficiency and a host of other worrying results.

I was 29 and well on my way to burning out physically and having a mental breakdown. I needed to change my lifestyle and shift my thinking. My first breakthrough happened one afternoon when I was watching a YouTube video about how beneficial Tai Chi is in relieving stress. I had nothing to lose, and I knew that my local gym had weekend classes I could attend. I showed up, not sure what to expect, and was thrown into the middle of the room while the rest of the class was completing a form.

Bewildered, I tried to mimic what I saw – all the while been sussed out by the resident Shifu. Excruciating moments crept by until he eventually called me aside to say that he needed to see how well I handled being frustrated. The short answer is: not very well at all. I held my tongue and got through my first class, which concluded with me being even more frustrated and completely overwhelmed. The Shifu seemed to thoroughly enjoy this. However, as overwhelming as the first class was, I noticed a change in myself, a subtle shift – a slight awakening.

For the first time in a long time I had forgotten about the stress which felt like it was consuming me from the inside out. The class required immense focus, and it required that focus and concentration in both body and mind. I had to let go of all I was feeling and simply be in the moment. It was that awareness, which I would later find out is actually ‘mindfulness,’that got me practising Tai Chi regularly. It’s not always easy, and sometimes you think your body, limbs, and brain will never connect to get a movement just right, but the moment I stop thinking and ‘just be’ is when I realise that I can. Tai Chi is both meditation and medication in motion – the healing movements, the mindfulness, the deep breathing and the steady (not slow) pace – has taught me so much.

I’m still in the process of working on healing my burnt out body and mind, but clean eating and the mindshift Tai Chi has catalysed changed my life forever. I think the best part is knowing that in being fully present in the here and now while I practise allows me to invest in my future too: the more I listen to my body, the more I learn to read it, the more I slow down, breathe, and pause the better prepared I am to face the challenges of time, and of my external environment. Tai Chi has taught me self-discipline, it’s taught me patience, and it’s taught me the value of my health. Isn’t it time you tried it for yourself?