Tai Chi & Beijing Olympics 2008
Written by Iain Naylor
WHEN next year's Olympics unfold in China's capital city of Beijing, one of the new sports on show will be one of the world's most ancient physical disciplines; one being practised by an increasing number of Borderers.
Tai chi chuan is an 'internal' Chinese martial art often practised with the aim of promoting health and longevity.
Literally translated as 'supreme ultimate boxing', it is easily recognised from its slow-motion routines that people can be seen practising together every morning in parks around the world.
In recent times, particularly the last 20 years, the popularity of tai chi has blossomed, especially as a health activity among more elderly citizens, and the Borders has been no exception.
But next year, thanks to a universally agreed format for competition, tai chi will take its place as an Olympic demonstration sport.
And among the tai chi enthusiasts savouring the buzz from being in China during Olympic year will be a 40-strong party, including people from the Borders.
It will be led by Iain Naylor, head of the Hands of Light School, which now boasts around 300 students training in classes right across the region.
And last weekend in St Boswells, more than 40 Hands of Light students were treated to a special workshop and seminar by one of China's leading tai chi coaches.
For the past three years, Iain has been working with the Sport & Culture International Cooperation (Beijing) organisation and Master Chen Lei.
SCIC Beijing was founded to promote Chinese martial arts (wushu) and culture as part of the build-up to the 2008 games and Master Chen Lei is the leader of the SCIC Beijing.
The fortunate students attending Sunday's seminar were able to experience first-hand training with one of the activity's most important figures in China's preparations for the Olympics.
Iain explained further: "Master Chen Lei is one of the foremost and sought after instructors of his generation. He is only in the UK for 10 days and we were lucky enough to arrange two one-day seminars.
"He is an international-standard wushu referee and is often invited to the UK by the British Council for Chinese Martial Arts to referee national competitions.
As a four-times Chinese national wushu champion, it is a great honour for the school to be able to offer our students such a rare opportunity to study with someone of this level.
And this visit is part of our on-going links with China, promoting the martial arts as an Olympic event.
The Mandarin language can be 'romanized' (written in the English alphabet) in several different ways.
When it comes to tai chi chuan, to give it its full name, the name can also be romanized as 'taijiquan'– but don't be confused, it is the same tai chi being referred to!
Tai chi, or taiji, is considered a 'soft-style' martial art – an art applied with internal power – to differentiate it from the hard 'external' martial arts as exemplified by karate. There are five main classical 'family' styles of tai chi, plus a number of modern and hybrid variations. Tai chi training first and foremost involves learning solo routines, known as forms, and while it is probably typified by the slow-moving practice of these forms, many styles feature a second faster practice.
Traditional tai chi training also involves partner exercises known as pushing hands, and self-defence applications of the postures which make up the form.
Although a very effective martial art once mastered, it would be fair to say the majority of practitioners today are more interested in its health and mental welfare benefits than its combat qualities.
The philosophy of tai chi is that of yielding, rather than meeting force with force. Instead, students learn to meet incoming force with softness and 'stick' to it, then safely redirect it.
If performed correctly, achieving this balance in combat – and, by extension, in other areas of one's life as signified by the sport's swirling yin/yang symbol – is a primary goal of tai chi training.
Because of the exercise and health benefits of tai chi, myself and other tutors of the school have been involved with many projects with the NHS and local authorities.
We also do health in the workplace courses and work with local colleges and universities.
The rapid popularity of tai chi in the last 10 years or so has led to the Hands of Light School growing so much that we now have 10 tutors working across Tayside and the Borders, teaching almost 1,000 students each week.
Locally we teach from Eyemouth to Galashiels and from Jedburgh to Melrose covering most of east and central Borders.
Iain is now permanently based here in the Borders, living at Smailholm. His students practise the Cheng Man-Ch'ng style (a 37-step version of the Yang style), the Yang style in its traditional long form, and two modern styles being the 24-step Beijing and the 42-step combined styles – and it is this latter style which will be used for competition next year in Beijing.
Some of the Borders students also get the chance to practise partner tai chi (dance of warrior), baguazhang – another internal martial art – and weapons forms, including the Shaolin staff form.
For the last three years, Iain has also been organising and running study trips for students to the Shaolin Epo school in Dengfeng city, in central China.
We run groups to China each year for culture trips which include tai chi or kung fu training. Our next group goes at Easter next year and there are some people from the Borders going.