Is Tai Chi the New Yoga?

Confessions of an arm wafter.

Men doing tai chi in front of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at the Temple of Heaven complex in Beijing, China.
Men doing tai chi at the Temple of Heaven complex in Beijing, China.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Felix Green/Eye Ubiquitous/Getty Images

Suddenly last summer I became a bona fide alter kocker. I adopted the ultimate signifier of senior citizenship. No, I did not start jamming fistfuls of purloined Sweet’N Low sachets into my man-bag. And, no, I did not embark on an extreme couponing rampage. It’s worse than that. I took up tai chi.

My tai chi journey began when my husband and I decided to watch Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, the 1969 free-lovin’ satire directed by Paul Mazursky. We snuggled up expecting a light-hearted hippie dippy romp, and then it happened. I am talking about the opening credits. They hit me like a brick of organic tofu.


Against a clear blue sky, upon a nifty outdoor veranda, a phalanx of “gentle people” are slowly, smugly, smilingly practicing tai chi. Did I react with mockery and derision? After all, what could be sillier than a bunch of California “seekers” wafting their arms about in unison? No, I had a totally different response. Gotta get me some of that! is how it might best be described.


The next day, when nobody was listening, I began to make telephonic enquiries about tai chi classes in Manhattan. “How about yoga?” was the most frequent response. I made a few half-hearted attempts to locate a private teacher via Google and then gave up.  

This left me with two alternatives: Purchase a pastel velour sweat-suit, head down to Chinatown and find a gang of old ladies who would admit an aging gay Brit to their coven, or simply download a beginners lesson onto my laptop. I went with the latter. That’s when Dr. Paul Lam came into my life.


If Dr. No had a benevolent, angelic brother, it would be Dr. Lam. Instead of a malevolent cat he would be stroking a little butterscotch bunny. Based in Australia, the good doctor travels the world teaching classes like Tai Chi for Arthritis and Tai Chi for Energy. Rather than wait for him to come to NYC, I downloaded his Tai Chi for Beginners onto my desktop and became instantly addicted. By the time I concluded Lesson 1, Dr. Lam had already became my favorite person on Earth. He is a fantabulous teacher who radiates sweetness and addresses the magic and mystery of this gorgeous centuries-old Chinese tradition without ever sounding doctrinaire or annoying.


I did not tell my husband about this development. One day he came home and found me in the middle of “brushing the monkey.” Or was I “stripping the wild aardvark”? I can’t quite remember. (The movements all have such exotic names that it’s hard to keep track.) Either way, he freaked out. “Are you having some kind of episode?”


“Tai chi. It’s a series of movements. What can I tell you?” 

The fact that I refused to defend, justify, or explain what I was doing seemed to put hubby in a royal snit. In the subsequent days his snarky observations increased and became a soundtrack to my practice. I was glad Dr. Lam was not within earshot.

Now, six months later, my husbear has habituated to my daily routine. I still feel no obligation to explain why I like it or what I think the goals might be. The reasons for this are twofold: first, is there anything more boring than some zealot proselytizing, at length, about some new exercise obsession and its alleged results?

Second, tai chi is not Soul Cycle. There is no way to rationalize the effort via muscle tone or calories burned. It is intrinsically mysterious. The benefits are subtle, occur over time and vary tremendously from person to person. This much I can say: Me and my body feel great after doing it, and I love all the names of the movements: “splicing the snow-gerbil,” “scratching the donkey,” or something like that.


When, last March, Mrs. Obama appeared on the cover of the New York Times, wearing a sensible kitten heel, learning tai chi on a trip to China, I wordlessly slid the paper in front of my husband.

“Look,” he said, “she’s frowning. You can tell she is thinking ‘This won’t tone my arms. WTF?’”

“Just wait till she hits 60,” I replied.

Sixty seems to be the dividing line. Everybody over this age is Tai-curious. Everybody under 60 thinks it is utterly idiotic. (My Jonny is 14 years younger than me so will have to wait well over a decade before he is willing to start husking the manatee.)

Lest you, dear reader, accuse me, as my Jonny did, of being opaque and unhelpful, permit me to offer you a couple of tips. First, do not worry about trying to find a group. Tai chi is the perfect exercise to do via laptop. Dr. Lam and his blue-clad acolytes are available 24/7, can travel with you and will provide all the company you need.

Most important, be sure to pick some groovy sounds. Do not feel obliged to play twangy Asian grooves or Enya warblings while you are tai chi-ing. I myself often commune with Dr. Lam while listening to the Doors’ Greatest Hits, or sometimes, if I am feeling particularly frisky, I get the Led out, as in Zeppelin. The Qi Gong circular breathing practice goes great with When the Levee Breaks.

Now, cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good,
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move.

I couldn’t agree more.