Keeping fit the Chinese way

29th June 2007 at 01:00
T'ai Chi teacher is showing Perth youngsters how to relax and exercise.

Su Clark reports

STANDING ALONE on a large stage, John Connelly lifts his arms slowly, brings his hands together in front of his chest, fingertips touching, then gently pushes them down as if squeezing the air beneath him. The simplest of movements, it takes minutes to perform.

One hundred young people, clad in the white and black of Perth High uniform, gaze up at him from the floor, mimicking him exactly. Some are giggling, others are serious with intent, even the boys at the back watch him closely, keen to get it right.

For 10 minutes, Mr Connelly takes the group of S1s and S2s at the high school through the simple first movements, or "forms" of T'ai Chi Chu'an, the sedate martial art that has millions of followers across the world. At the end, he asks them to close their eyes. A hush has settled over the hall, and many of the children do close their eyes and keep them closed.

"It is very common to see people practising T'ai Chi in the parks in China, as its popularity dates back to the 1950s, when the Chinese government, concerned at the declining health of the people, developed a series of 24 simple forms that people could follow," says Mr Connelly, who teaches all ages from excitable primary children to arthritic octogenarians.

He says: "It has remained popular since then, and now we are seeing more and more people adopting it in this country."

Pupils in Perth and Kinross are among them. Over the past year, a project has been running in 12 of its primary schools, introducing T'ai Chi as part of a Chinese culture and language awareness programme, which is being used to facilitate transition. It is now moving into secondary schools and began with a taster day at Perth for 600 pupils.

Behind the project is Meryl James, education officer for languages at Perth and Kinross. She has a passion for all things Chinese and has succeeded in introducing Mandarin, as well as Chinese culture, to schools in the authority.

"It is wonderful to see the pupils participating so completely," she says, gazing at the slow moving students. "I feel so strongly about this. My doctorate 10 years ago was about young people and lack of exercise, long before obesity became the buzz thing. Even then we recognised it was a problem.

"We need to find something to engage the pupils, which will improve their health. Many schools in China begin their day with a short session before classes."

Jim Scott, Perth High's headteacher is keen for voluntary early morning sessions to be introduced at his school, run either by the PE department or community education teachers. "I'd be pushing my way to the front straight away," he says. "I wouldn't mind putting my shorts on for a session of T'ai Chi first thing."

Feedback from students who participated in the T'ai Chi sessions suggests he wouldn't be stretching and balancing on his own. After just a few minutes, Jessie Lindsay rushes to the back of the hall to discard her jacket. Even though the movements have been small and slow, she and her friend Lucy Weir, both S1s, are hot.

"It is quite relaxing but it makes you warm," she says. At a later session, Stephanie Boyle, also S1, admitted that she couldn't help laughing. She says: "I didn't mean to, but it was funny. I thought it was good but I'm not sure if I would want to do it regularly. Maybe."

But while it may take more than a 10-minute session to sell T'ai Chi to some pupils, many of the teachers are on board already. Their request for a session to be included in their next in-service day has been accepted and, if all goes well, Mr Scott may not be the only staff member pushing to the front of early morning sessions.

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