What a joy it is to return to class and reconnect with our tai chi buddies. We’ve spent a large part of 2020 with very little human connection, and where there was connection, it was over Zoom or Skype. We practised our tai chi on our own, or not at all.
Those moments where groups of us met in parks to practise together were a highlight in the week.
Now back at class, the hubbub is delightful. Little clusters of people gather together to chat before class. There are smiles and laughs and expressive hand waves. It’s almost a shame to ask everyone to stop talking so we can start class.
Then after class, small groups can be seen chattering in the car park 20 minutes after class has finished. Friends head over to the pub for lunch or the cafe for a cuppa and ring each other through the week.
This tai chi community we are all part of is very special and serves an important role in the wellbeing of us all.
But it’s more than just the friendship. Something special happens when groups of people exercise together in unison. The term “collective effervescence” was coined by French sociologist Emile Durkheim to describe the “euphoric self-transcendence individuals feel when they move together…” and that activities like ritual, prayer or work help people feel connected to one another and to something bigger than themselves. According to Dr Kelly McGonigal, psychologist and author of The Joy of Movement, “We crave this feeling of connection, and synchronised movement is one of the most powerful ways to experience it.”
“Something bigger than ourselves” is a good description of tai chi and qigong, which date back to about 400 and 4000 years respectively. There is history, philosophy and culture to go with all of the physical and emotional benefits of these exercise arts.
Exercise makes us feel good for a variety of reasons, and if you think they are all in your head, you’d be right. Physical activity causes the release of a blend of brain chemicals that reduce inflammation, depression, anxiety and loneliness and increase feelings of optimism, happiness and resilience.
We can enhance these effects even more by adding music, joining a group of people, and moving in time with each other.
It’s the effects of synchrony that I find the most fascinating. There is a beautiful energy and real collective joy when flowing through long-form tai chi where the group stays in time with each other. I know many of us have felt this.
The next time you are at tai chi class, make a real effort to stay in time with your instructor and the group at large. Notice how you feel. At the other end of the scale, if you find yourself completely out of time with the group, how do you feel? I can tell you that I feel quite stressed out if I’m in a group with many different timings. I can’t get into a flowing rhythm and it bothers me greatly. Conversely, I feel relaxed, “in flow” and attuned with my fellow classmates if we are all in sync.
So what do you do when people are moving at different timings during a class?
Firstly let’s differentiate between timing and technique. There will always be small differences in techniques and that’s fine and the way it should be. And I’m also talking about tai chi here more so than qigong, where we mostly face the front and therefore can see the instructor much of the time.
When in a formal tai chi group setting there is an etiquette regarding timing that is helpful to know.
Be aware, observant and open to learning. When we practise by ourselves is when we can move to our own rhythm. When with a group, we tune in to what’s going on around us, show respect to the group leader, and try to keep together.
If a Master is doing the form with the group, then that is who we try to follow. If you’re on an edge and facing away, don’t be afraid to turn your head to look behind you to check that you are in time.
If there is no clear leader of the group, then things get a little more tricky. One way is to follow the next down in the leadership hierarchy, so the resident senior instructor, then instructor, assistant instructor and trainee. But it’s not always that easy either. We all have our quirks and some of us are known for going a bit fast, or too slow, or quick in some parts (like the kicks) and slow in others (like cloud hands).
When the group has the potential to get a bit ragged and you don’t know who to follow, then follow the slower person. If you turn to face a different direction and find that some people are ahead and others behind you, then slow down and match the slower pace. Whichever way you turn, match the slower pace.
We spend enough time racing through our lives, in a hurry to get to the next thing. Let’s not be in a hurry, let’s take our time in this moment. Stay focussed and mindful and present. Let’s enjoy the shared movement, the shared bond and the collective high from flowing through our tai chi and qigong in sync with each other: together.
The Joy of Movement: How exercise helps us find happiness, hope, connection and courage. By Dr Kelly McGonigal
Together: Loneliness, Health and What Happens When We Find Connection. By Dr Vivek H Murthy