Life

YJTI: Finding a New Flow with Tai Chi

How practicing this ancient Chinese martial art sparked a new connection with nature and a profound sense of alignment.

I met Nina Crist over Zoom in late February, after a mutual friend had introduced us, thinking we’d enjoy working together. Nina teaches yoga and martial arts, but what really hooked me was that when she was 17, she left home to live as a disciple at a black belt dojo in the woods in northern Maine. On this 30-acre property—a portion of which was only accessible by canoe—she inhabited a small cabin, heated only by a wood stove.

What can I say? I have a thing for strong women who make their own way.

Nina left that life when she was 37 to venture out into the world. She became faculty at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. But she is still steeped in spiritual and movement practices, having “lived, breathed, studied, and taught martial arts,” as she says, for decades. She’s learned the essence of karate, aikido, jiu jitsu, tai chi, qi gong (otherwise known as qigong, chi kung, or chi gung), and kung fu, in addition to yoga. And her teaching emphasizes how these forms help you connect with the natural elements that exist within each of us.

Finding the form in tai chi

My experience with dojos is limited to a several-months stint in 1999 at a Manhattan Shōrin-ryū (a traditional Japanese style) karate class. The sensei was unforgiving, the fourth-floor room wasn’t air-conditioned, and I was often yelled at for almost passing out and wanting to leave the room. He was classic John Kreese from the Karate Kid.

That same year, I took an informal weeklong tai chi class in a park in Beijing. My father led study abroad trips there and one of his Chinese teaching partners offered to instruct my brother and me. What I remember from those mornings was feeling clumsy while tapping into some new plane of grace that I had never touched before. I remember the energy of duality.

I didn’t think I had retained any of the moves I learned from either martial arts experience, until I started an online tai chi class with Nina this spring. The class was on a 24-form practice—a more accessible version of the traditional 88- to 108-form sequence that came out of China as Taoism and Confucianism developed nearly 2,500 years ago. Almost immediately, the somatic experience of moving energy, or chi, brought a flood of memories—memories that have been stored in my muscles for a lifetime or longer.

Don’t get me wrong: much of that first class felt awkward. My limbs felt too long and the choreography was complicated. I had to crane my neck as I constantly watched my screen and tried to mimic Nina, who now teaches from her home in Costa Rica with her own school—the Jaguar Path. But forming the ball of chi between my hands and then moving into “Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane,” in which the energy of the ball is split toward the earth and sky, felt solid.

Falling into the flow

The practice is a dance between gathering two energies from the earth and the heavens and bringing them back in, so you can integrate them into your being. “If you need more grounding earth energy, that’s what you’ll get,” explains Nina. “Or if you need the invigorating energy of heaven, that’s what you’ll get once you blend the yin and yang together in your body. Tai chi targets where you have stagnation.”

Nina describes the energy channels as the body’s irrigation system. The 24 moves of this particular practice track to the 12 main meridians, or energy channels, and help open each up gently and intentionally and spread elemental energy throughout the body.

We learned more moves each week, adding to the sequence, which in total takes about four to six minutes to complete when you are in the flow. I wasn’t in the flow yet. But one of the forms Nina taught on the second week helped me to get there: Grasping the Peacock’s Tail (also called Grasping the Swallow’s Tail). As soon as we got to this move, something locked in, and my body knew what to do instinctually. There is both a combative and wave-like quality to this form, as you strike forward then pull the energy back, then push it forward again. There was an instant, calming, churning sensation, both in and around me.

Nina explained that this pose is energetically connected with the quality of water, but is also airy (any posture with a bird name is going to connect with the energy of the sky). “With this movement, we are shifting, bringing in divine energy, awakening waters within, and defining our own sacred spaces,” she says.

As the weeks went on, and I repeated the poses over and over again, I could connect more to chi. There was a pulsing between my hands when I held the ball, and my arms went from feeling like Kermit’s to moving intentionally through water, even in a form called “Wave Hands Like Clouds.” My feet felt rooted, but nimble, and I could move from the earth to heaven and vice versa with more grace and trust, and with less watching Nina.

I had found a flow state, and it felt calm and connected. My days started to feel that way too. “In flow, distractions fall away, like debris caught in an eddy,” Nina says. “Tai chi keeps us fully present in the now, and connected to nature, whose essence and vibration are held in the postures. When we feel the essence of a river, clouds, or animals, we are bringing ourselves back online.”

See also: 

Searching for the Fountain of Health

Why Yoga + Martial Arts Is a Perfect Match

What Is Qi Gong? (And How You Can Start Practicing Today)