Very slowly does it
An hour on down the Chiltern Line, from a garden which is being subsumed by the gathering dusk, the lights of Missenden Abbey appear. Here, a small group is attempting to find enlightenment and an antidote to the trials of life with a tried and tested remedy: tested over the past 5,000 years by its practitioners and masters, and tried on a daily basis by millions of Chinese.
Tai Chi is a holistic approach to mental, physical and spiritual health. It is actually a martial art but it is also a way of creating energy. Some refer to it as meditation in motion, or "wei wu wei", which loosely translates as "do without doing", or "act without action". It is best described as a series of linked breathing and movement exercises which will improve your co-ordination, balance, and sense of well being. Imagine line dancing without the cowboy boots, slowed down to a point just short of immobility.
Ann Sharman is a fellow initiate. She began teaching in 1969 and for the past 12 years has been working in Buckinghamshire primary schools. "Teaching has certainly more pressure than it used to," she says. "There is much more reading matter, more memos and pieces of paper that all need to be read and time has to be found to do it. When I get home, I just sit in the car for five minutes to focus myself, before I do anything else."
Our teacher, Stephen Gorwits is something of a newcomer to this ancient art, by Chinese standards anyway, having been practising it for only 16 years. He assures us that the weekend will be hard work. "It is far more difficult to move slowly than quickly," he says. "To the casual observer, the exercises appear to require little effort, but this is far from the case."
At the heart of Tai Chi is the belief of the Taoist philosophy that there exists a universal life force called Chi. Great creativity and power would flow through us all if we knew how to unlock it, and the key lies in establishing a balance between our Yin and Yang - two opposing forces which are present in everything but which have to be kept in balance to ensure harmony.
Our group, without exception, looks as though someone has pulled the plug on the Chi and it is probably just as well that the first of our YinYang balancing acts requires nothing more demanding than deep breathing. However, it swiftly becomes apparent that the Chinese expect something a little more energetic from this, the most basic of human functions. We are encouraged to breathe from our stomachs and to watch our tummys inflate and deflate with each breath. Relaxing this is not. Try it.
After a while, however, it does seem to become more rhythmic and the group looks a little less self-conscious. This deep breathing is not only "centering" us but also giving our internal organs a massage. Apparently.
From the heavy breathing we progress to waking up our energy channels or meridians as they are called in traditional Chinese medicine. This is ghastly because it means working in a pair and having to touch a complete stranger - not just touch them but give them a good smacking up and down their backs. The British reserve is a bit of a barrier at this point and we are all paralysed with embarrassment, our meridians receiving little more than a limp-wristed tap here and there. Thankfully it is soon over and the deep breathing becomes a deep heaving of relief.
The next day, the class moves out of doors to a walled rose garden. This has an immediate harmonising effect and the wake-up slapping is undertaken with more zest and less paranoia.
We begin learning the moves that will eventually be strung together to form a sequence of Tai Chi. It is unbelievably tough on the knees and even a fairly rudimentary stance, standing motionless with your feet a shoulder width apart, your knees bent and your arms by your sides, soon has your thigh muscles burning. But the sense of peace and the calm of the garden means that we concentrate deeply, and soon we are beginning to slow down to the invisible rhythms of the universe.
We are helped in this respect by the nature of the exercises themselves. Static postures have exotic names such as "dragon", "crane" and "eagle", and movements are even more evocative: "knocking at the gate of life", "gather the leaves" and "spread the wings". It is impossible to make your hands "talk to each other", for instance, or "go for a walk in the clouds" without feeling a certain transcendency to a higher spiritual plane.
Gradually, our ragged and unbalanced attempts become smoother, slower and more controlled. We can perform them with eyes closed and, by the end of the day, in synchronisation. It looks and feels exquisite.
"I find this absolutely fascinating," enthuses Ann Sharman. "I have never felt that I had time to actually stop, or contemplate. Here, you feel as if you are communing with nature. I now feel relaxed and fortified and go away with positive feelings."
Taoists believe that if one moves with grace and balance, one begins to live with grace and balance. For the world weary, what could be more appealing? Besides, how else can you learn to touch the sky and walk in the clouds?
Missenden Abbey runs courses on various subjects throughout the year. A weekend of Tai Chi costs Pounds 159 fully residential. There is a week-long course from July 28, and a week's personal development course which includes Tai Chi from August 11. Missenden Abbey, Great Missenden, Bucks HP16 0BD. Tel: 01494 890295