Saskatchewan·In Your Shoes

A time to try tai chi: is it possible to stop stress from poisoning your life?

An afternoon trying an ancient Chinese practice reveals stresses and tensions I didn't even realize I carried, and shows me a different way to approach them as well.

Simply slowing down offers insights on how to recharge energy, and find balance

Eric James, head teacher at the Prairie School of Tai Chi Chuan in Regina, and his student, Tammy Tincher, take advantage of clear skies on a Sunday morning to practice the art of chi kung and tai chi at Wascana Park. (CBC News)

This article was originally published on July 29, 2018.

Slow.

Breathe.

In.

Out.

These are easy things to say, but hard for me to do as I try to get in a chi kung frame of mind.

I've seen people practicing the ancient Chinese forms of chi kung and tai chi in parks before and always thought it looked graceful, and blissfully restful. So when I saw an opportunity to try the drop-in activity at Wascana Park, I decided to give it a go, my feet sinking into the still-soggy ground from the rainstorm of just hours before.

The earlier forbidding weather seems to have scared away other participants though, and when I show up, Prairie School Tai Chi Chuan head instructor, or "sifu," Eric James, and student Tammy Tincher are the only other people standing in the now-sunlit field.  

James leads us through warm-ups, explaining this practice is based on the similar principles of meridian lines used in acupuncture. The idea is to open up channels and removing blockages, of the stresses and tensions he describes as ones that are "literally poisoning you."

It's strange — I don't think of myself as an anxious or stressed individual. But I realize, as we move through the slow exercises, consciously breathing and releasing the tightness in various parts of our body, that I am indeed holding tension in my shoulders, legs and even my jaw.  

We rotate our necks and arms slowly, which feels so alien to the way I normally live. Everything goes at rapid speed, my brain ticking away through tasks of the day, whether it's at work or at home with family. Even my workouts are frantic bouts of cardio squeezed into whatever half hour I have free. Maybe I'm afraid of what might happen if I slow down for even just a moment, to be confronted with my failures and limitations.  

But here I am. Slowly breathing in and out.  

Holding a horse stance proves to be no easy task, but staying straight with the correct posture for an increasingly longer time can have positive physical effects, such as helping to build bone density and improve circulation, according to James. (CBC News)

I watch Tincher, as we hold ourselves in what James calls a "horse stance," legs spread apart, arms extended on either side. My posture is weak and I can only hold it for a few minutes, but Tincher remains fixed, ramrod straight, for ages. When James encourages us to let go, we stand up, allowing the blood to rush back into our fingertips. James encourages us to feel the energy flowing through us after this exercise.

"That's called relief," Tincher corrects him, laughing.

These exercises might seem arbitrary, but he assures us they are not.

"There's a blueprint in our bodies of perfection," James explained, saying these exercises are intended to stimulate the meridian lines. "Over the centuries, these have been created in order to bring our bodies back to the blueprint."

When I give to myself, I feel like I have something to give to others.- Student Tammy Tincher

For Tincher, this has been life-changing. She'd injured herself a few years ago lifting a heavy object and hurting her right arm in the process. The injury turned into a longer-lasting pain.

"Doing this practice, chi kung and tai chi, over time in the last two years, I have become pain free," she said.

She also finds the efforts have helped her in her work as a massage therapist, reducing the wear and tear on her body, and helping her recapture the joy and satisfaction in her work that she'd earlier lost.

"Now I'm like, 'I love my job.' When I give to myself, I feel like I have something to give to others."

The act of moving slowly and deliberately proves to offer a different way of being. (CBC News)

She'd struggled through several tough years in Regina, carrying the stress of being a caregiver. Connecting with the school and these classes was a game-changer.

"When I found Eric's class, it was like finding an island after being in the ocean without a buoy," she says. "It was like, 'Oh my gosh — finally."

It's a familiar feeling for many of us, of lying awake thinking about work that has to be done or bills to be paid, adrenaline and cortisol surging through our bodies, running amok and wreaking havoc on our health.

So over the next week, I try to pause every so often and feel the sun on my face, to consciously take a deep breath and purge tensions through the exercises. I feel my body loosen and my mind clear.

I'm far from a blueprint for perfection. But I think if we take the time to look for it, we can find the path there.

I remind myself: remember to go slow.

Breathe.

In.

Out.   

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janani Whitfield works on CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition. Contact her at janani.whitfield@cbc.ca or on Twitter, @WhitfieldJanani.

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