I am increasingly interested in therapies and activities that work on an energetic level in my body, and did a short course in tai chi chuan recently on the advice of a friend. Usually referred to as simply tai chi, tai chi chuan is an ancient non-competitive Chinese martial art that originated with the Chen clan of ancient China. A martial art it may be, but it's a soft one - there are no belts or grades and the emphasis is on balancing the body and mind rather than combat.
In practice, tai chi is a moving meditation combining slow, gentle, graceful movements with the breath to stimulate chi. Also spelt qi, this is the Chinese word for the life force or vital energy of the body and the universe. Known as ki in Japanese and prana in Sanskrit, chi flows through channels called meridians in the body. It's when these get blocked that health problems occur, and encouraging the energy to flow freely helps calm the mind, keep the body supple, reduce stress and improve circulation - just like yoga or therapies such as shiatsu and reiki.
There are various forms, and a whole series of moves which can take years to perfect in their entirety. The basic form is a continuous sequence of movements with 24, 48 or 108 steps. I confess I felt a little silly at the beginning, moving with my knees bent and apart, pretending (at first) to hold my invisible ball of energy. Once I got the hang of it, however, I found it a liberating, dance-like practice, which really helped to chill me out.
At the heart of tai chi is a belief in the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang, the primal opposing but complementary forces said to be found in all natural things. Yin is an expansive, relaxing, cooling, female force, while yang is a contracted, energetic, heating, male force, and for a healthy body and mind you need to get a balance between the two. Chinese therapists will tell you that unhealthy yang qualities can include lots of tension, stiffness in the body, a loud voice, and a stubborn, aggressive, obsessive personality. By contrast, an unhealthy dose of yin may see you low in energy, with a quiet voice, under confident, overly sensitive and untidy. Best, then, to keep a balance.
A related practice is chi kung (also spelt qigong), a Chinese exercise regime based on similar principles which uses breathing and movement to develop a strong chi. At its core is the art of wu wei - letting go of habitual striving through simple movements and standing postures. I'm all for anything that helps us to let go of our striving - and what's good about both these activities is that they're suitable for people of all ages and levels of fitness. They don't need lots of equipment, but are usually practiced in light, loose fitting clothes and socks or bare feet.
An increasing number of spas and retreats offer tai chi or chi gong as part of their exercise programmes. These are especially good to take if you've only got time for a one-off session. As the basic movements are simple to grasp, you'll be able to have a relaxing, in-the-moment experience rather than spending the time "learning" something complicated. Like yoga, they are also easy to practice at home, even if you just do a few moves each morning. Some spas offer variants, such as "chi ball", an exercise using coloured, sometimes scented balls combined with graceful, flowing movements - though I confess I prefer the real thing.
For devotees, both disciplines are intricately linked to Chinese philosophy, culture and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), an ancient holistic system of care that treats the mind and body as a whole based on the concept of chi. TCM uses tai chi and qigong as treatments, as well as herbal medicines and therapies such as acupuncture. When I visited China, I was particularly moved to see parks full of people practicing it daily together.
If you'd like to learn tai chi and qigong in their country of origin, the adventure travel company Intrepid runs an impressive two-week wellbeing tour called China Mind Body Spirit, which combines TCM and cooking with martial arts, massage and cycling. The trip starts with tai chi classes with a Chinese master in Hong Kong, and includes classes in kung fu and qigong as well as three-hour Shaolin sessions with the monks at the famous Shaolin monastery (www.intrepidtravel.com/trips/CSY).
Caroline Sylger Jones is the author of Body & Soul Escapes and Body & Soul Escapes: Britain and Ireland, compendiums of places to retreat and replenish around the world. See @email:www.carolinesylgerjones.co.uk