Tai chi is so much more interesting than Prince William’s beard.

A well-wisher left a message on here yesterday advising me to have a moratorium on the news for a week because current affairs are too depressing at a time when I am supposed to be relaxing after a major illness.

I thank him again for his concern but, of course, I was going to ignore his advice this morning until a combinations of things led me to doing just what he recommended.

One of the more irritating side effects of this brain haemorrhage business has been an intermittent trembling of my hands. I am told this will wear off but today is one of those bad days when my fingers just can’t turn the pages of a newspaper. Dammit.

I struggled for a while until I came across the “news story” that our own Prince William, the heir but one to the British throne, has shaved off his beard. Now, I could see the news worthiness of a story, say, about Her Majesty the Queen, his regal grandmother, growing a beard but, nice boy as I am sure he is, do I really care what this young man does with his body hair?

Well no I don’t – though I suppose if the papers got hold of an exclusive about his pubic topiary then I would understand them publishing and being damned by the royalists. It was his great great great great grandfather, Prince Albert who, allegedly, popularised penis piercing. So genital decorations may run in the family. Until a revelation hits the press of similar magnitude, I think I will continue to avoid royal stories.

I decided on the basis of these random events, that I would have that news moratorium – for one day anyway.

So I put down that paper and began to practise my Tai chi – one of the few physical activities and pleasures left to me in these long months of physical recovery.

Before my brain haemorrhage, I was spending anything up to about thirteen hours a week doing Kung fu and Tai chi. Practising or going to classes every day of the week and becoming more and more interested in the philosophy that lies behind Chinese martial arts…and reaching a level of fitness which, according to one of my neurological consultants, may have saved my life.

Tai chi chuan – or Suang Yang, as our form is called – is so-called soft style Kung fu. It looks graceful and gentle – almost as hippie-looking as Prince William’s dad talking to trees – but it is the classic iron fist within the velvet glove.

It can only look graceful if the practitioner’s body is strong enough to carry the movements – just like those sneered at ballet dancers, in fact.

Well, I was a lot stronger two months ago than I am now. This illness has taken its toll on my muscles giving the impression that I have lost weight in that ridiculously superficial “weight-watchers” way.

If I was in any doubt about that, Tai chi was quick to show up my weaknesses.

The form that I learn at my local Kung fu club, White Crane Fighting Arts, has 66 moves which I have been learning now for about four years and which I will have to study for the rest of my life if I am ever to get anywhere near to understanding it let alone doing it in a way that any Tai chi master would consider competent.

Well, I can, at least, do all the moves and I did them this morning in front of a particularly unforgiving mirror.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the best martial artist of them all?

Can mirrors laugh?

Well the good part of doing it with a fractured spine is that you have to keep your back straight and your head held high. This has actually improved some of my moves to such an extent that my instructor could even begin to believe that I have been listening to his oft-repeated advice.

The bad side is that this illness and my consequent weakness really shows up how quickly muscles can waste. Leg movements, in particular, that I never found that challenging, now leave me wobbling and shaking all over the place.

Maybe that is not that bad. It has actually let me appreciate subtleties in some of the moves which I had never noticed before.

The Chinese way – in philosophy, medicine and martial arts, if not in politics and the judiciary – has so many subtleties and it never fails to impress me by its awareness of the whole – body, mind and breath.

Somehow, practising Tai chi is always instructive – even when you are feeling great pain, depression and physical frustration.

I feel that I can use this time of convalescence as constructively, if not more so, as when I was up to full fitness.

My instructor, the ever patient and amazingly cheerful Neil Johnson, has stuck by me throughout this totally unexpected illness and has helped me every bit as much as my medics.
He has always concentrated on the positive and showed me ways of developing through adversity.

He is now encouraging me to start practising my Kung fu patterns again. In slow motion, of course, and without any pressure, but yet again, this has shown me so much already. If I stick with it and if I do get better, I should be able to return to Kung fu with a better technique than ever before.

I might even get to the point, as in Tai chi, where I actually start to see what my instructor has been trying to drum into my blonde head all this time.

There has also been a price to pay by having this life threatening illness. I will not be allowed to do full contact sparring again as a blow to the head could now be fatal and I have had to cancel my planned trip to China in February to study dog style Kung fu with a Chinese master.

But my spirits are up.

I hope to go to China next February and do my next Kung fu grading in April. Most of all, I hope to have grown through this illness into a better martial artist.

The Chinese have funny ways of teaching. I owe them, and of course my instructor Neil, a lot.

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