The ancient martial arts and those who master them are often praised for their speed, power, and feats of incredible strength.
Most people will likely think of Kung Fu or Karate, and conjure images of Bruce Lee’s famous one-inch punch sending men tumbling to the ground, or Jet Li utilizing a spinning crescent kick to take out multiple foes.
What tends to be left out of the deadly ancient martial arts discussion is Taijiquan, T’ai Chi Ch’uan, or as it has come to be known in the West, Tai Chi.
Modern Tai Chi is most often represented by a group moving in unison, perhaps in a park, creating forms together with the grace and intention of ballet dancers or yogis. However, what differentiates Tai Chi from ballet or yoga is its martial roots.
Advanced Tai Chi incorporates the use of weapons such as the sword, staff, and the lethal blade-tipped fan. Many martial artists out of China, including both Bruce Lee and Jet Li, were trained in Tai Chi from a young age.
Originating from just a handful Chinese families, Tai Chi practitioners can now be found all over the world, including the Yukon.
Actually, 2014 marks the 25th year of Tai Chi in the territory. Tai Chi Yukon was founded by Cheryl Buchan, who sought to continue her practice after moving to Whitehorse from Aspen, Colorado, where she first encountered the discipline. She was met with high local interest; more than 90 people tried signing up for the very first class.
Pam Boyde was one of those people. Now, 25 years later, she is one of the most experienced and decorated teachers in the entire country.
Boyde was the very first Canadian to be certified as an instructor in the Yang family certification system. The Yang style of Tai Chi is the most popular style worldwide, and is the style of choice for the Tai Chi Yukon instructors.
While Tai Chi does originate from a combative perspective, it has evolved to accommodate a different approach among practitioners.
“I would say a high proportion of people practicing Tai Chi today are doing it for health reasons, rather than the martial aspect,” Boyde says. “It’s a wonderful form of exercise in that you are using your entire body, but it’s also low to no impact so it’s excellent for your joints.”
Tai Chi may look slow and easy, but it does actually get the heart pumping.
“It doesn’t look aerobic, but you’re giving yourself a great aerobic workout,” Boyde says. “You don’t finish panting away – yet you know you’ve had a good workout. In fact if you are panting and out of breath the masters will say you’re doing it wrong. In combat, if you’re tense then you’re at a disadvantage. You have to be flexible and able to respond quickly to your opponent.”
Tai Chi is also closely related to the practice of Qigong, and incorporates many of the same philosophies. Qigong is the practice of harnessing one’s inner energy, called qi (or chi) through alignment of movement, breath and awareness.
“It’s about using your energy rather than being forceful,” Boyde says. “From the martial perspective you learn to manipulate and use your energy to overpower your opponent’s energy, as well as use their own energy against them.”
Tai Chi is also meditative.
“You get to a certain level where everything flows and your mind is just at peace,” she says. “You’re creating form but you’re not thinking of form. It’s that mind body balance. I love it.”
From the students to the teachers, most members of Tai Chi Yukon are female, but they are encouraging more men to give it a try.
Lorne Whittaker decided he’d give it a shot a couple of years ago, and hasn’t looked back since.
“I’m taking on as many classes as I possibly can,” he says.
Whittaker and his wife decided to try Tai Chi during a time when his body needed some special attention: just after having surgery.
“The aspect of healing your own body really intrigued me,” he says. “I’m seriously looking into studying more of the Qigong, as well, now. It’s the energy it creates. You develop the chi in your body, which you can use for healing. I really feel the benefit from it.
“It’s all totally relaxing. When you’re doing your moves it’s like you do them, but you don’t use your muscles; they just volunteer. And there’s no violence to it at all, they do everything in such slow motion.”
While learning Tai Chi is done in a slow and non-violent manner, that doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t also be used in other, more urgent situations.
“Pam Boyde does what they call ‘push hands,'” Whittaker says. “She could take you down in a heartbeat just by doing Tai Chi moves.”
Helene Dobrowolsky is another student-turned-instructor who joined Cheryl Buchan in that very first year and has continued to be a large part of Tai Chi Yukon.
“One thing we’re just about to launch is our ‘Inspire Your Tai Chi’ movement,” Dobrowolsky says. “We’re encouraging people to take Tai Chi out of the gym to a mountaintop or somewhere else that inspires them. It’s to remind people that it isn’t just something you have to do in this very structured environment.”
For those who would like to give Tai Chi a shot in a more structured group environment there will be ample opportunity in the coming months.
“Our main intake is in December and again in January,” says Dobrowolsky. “That’s when we have our true beginner classes. But we do a weekly practice in Shipyards Park every Thursday evening in the summer and we encourage people to check us out.”
Tai Chi Yukon hosts free drop in classes as well, which are open to everyone on Saturdays from 10 a.m. until noon at Takhini Elementary School in Whitehorse.
World Tai Chi Day is also coming up on April 26. Every year on the last Saturday of the month all Tai Chi practitioners are invited to perform for one hour at 10 a.m. local time. This creates a continuous loop of Tai Chi for the day, starting in Samoa and ending in Hawaii. The Whitehorse group will be performing at Shipyards Park.
“It’s nice to think that you’re part of this healing wave of chi you’re extending around the planet,” Dobrowolsky says. “When you can do this collectively with a group of people of any size it’s one of the best feelings in the world.”
Beyond the scheduled events, as part of the celebration of their 25th anniversary, Tai Chi Yukon will also be springing up spontaneously with surprise flash mobs. So be on the lookout for a slow moving, yet somewhat intimidating group of martial artists getting their chi flowing all over town.
For more information on class schedules and events, check out www.TaiChi-Yukon.ca