I GOT INTO TAI CHI BY ACCIDENT. I wasn't looking to find inner peace or connect with the warrior within; I just wanted to fix my tennis game. I'd recently finished a rookie season in the local United States Tennis Association league with a pathetic record of one win and countless losses to opponents who were, for the most part, older and slower than me. Discouraged, I sought help from Jeff English, 40, a former professional player and Santa Fe, New Mexico-based instructor who blends tennis-stroke coaching with the centuries-old Chinese martial art of tai chi.
Modern tai chi not only teaches hand-to-hand combat; it also cultivates physical power and mental stamina through free-flowing energy (or chi). Like yoga, it consists of stationary poses linked into slow, continuous movements designed to instill flexibility, mental discipline, mind-body awareness, and strength. Though it's a hugely popular health routine in China, tai chi has always been something of a fringe activity in the West. But that's changing as word begins to spread about its cross-training benefits.
The basic premise: By quieting your mind and dissolving tensions in your body with tai chi postures, you can generate pure, relaxed power in everything you dowhether it's playing tennis, mountain biking, surfing, climbing, or kayaking (see "You've Got the Power"). A few top athletes are already on to it. Tiger Woods reportedly practiced qigongthe foundation of tai chias a young golfer growing up in Los Angeles. Rami Zur, 28, an American flatwater kayaker who competed in the 2004 Olympics, says tai chi is the most effective exercise he's found for channeling energy into efficient, powerful strokes.
EVEN SO, I WAS SKEPTICAL. Moving with patience and relaxation is not my forte, and I wondered how poses with names like Part the Wild Horse's Mane could turn me into a competitive singles player. I needn't have worried. At my first weekly hourlong lesson last spring, English watched me whack a hundred balls over the net, then suggested that we radically overhaul my form to enhance my chi. "When you have awareness of proper technique," he explained, "you can shut off your brain and let the energy circulate freely." In other words, you won't think or strategize; you'll just flow.
Accordingly, English and I spent the next month modeling my tennis strokes on tai chi postures. The goal was for me to move different parts of my body in opposing directions at the same time to accumulate energy in my core, and then release it in a smooth, coordinated blast of strength. English called this "spiral power" and explained that it is the essence of all movement.
After months of spastically practicing my postures, I'd begun to incorporate spiral power into my muscle memory, and my chi was officially flowing. I knew I'd tapped into itnot just because my shots rocketed deep and hard to the opposite baseline but because of how I felt: smooth and liquid, my whole body flowing through each swing.
Actual tennis matches, however, were another matter. I was still losing. Granted, my strokes were more consistent, but I still choked easily and often under pressure. It was time to work on my head game. Happily, the path to mental focus was relatively straightforwardas simple, in fact, as breathing.
"Breathing helps you quiet the dialogue in your mind and connects your mind to your body," said English. "From this intent, the chi begins to flow." The challenge was to switch off my brainand its fixation on external goals like actually winning a pointand concentrate on my breath. "Instead of trying to beat your opponent," English advised, "be unbeatable."
It may sound hokey, but the mental shift worked. At my next match, I practiced inhaling when my opponent hit the ball and exhaling when I shot it back. This easy routine kept me immersed in each point and brought a welcome sense of calm to my game. After two long sets, I was so detached from the outcome that I barely realized I'd won the match.
INTRIGUED TO LEARN what else my chi could do for me, I signed up for one of English's one-hour tai chi classes, which turned out to be unexpectedly tough. Even the simplest stationary posturearms extended in front of the chesttaxed my brain and left my body quaking. But by my fourth class I was no longer feeling the pain, just the chi: a tingly electric current buzzing between my outstretched palms that seemed to elevate my arms without me even trying. Best of all, I had shut down my brain and tapped into a sweet and peaceful state of flowa fleeting blend of physical power and mental might that I hoped would carry over into other parts of my life.
Later that summer, at a whitewater-kayaking school on the Klamath River in Northern California, I discovered that I could roll the boat upright after capsizinga formerly iffy maneuverin one clean, easy motion. The fluid loading and unloading of energy in my torsonot raw, muscular strength in my armswas what righted the kayak and made me a better paddler. It was spiral power in action.
In the fall, I entered the Duke City Half-Marathon, in Albuquerquemy first 13.1-miler. I didn't know how to pace myself over that distance, so I decided to rely on my newfound mental stamina. As the miles clicked by, I felt strong and fast and focusednot on the finish line, but on each step, the woodlands near the Rio Grande, and my boyfriend loping beside me. Toward the end, when my quads ached and my rational brain scolded me to slow down or quit, I remembered my tai chi breathing and concentrated simply on inhaling and exhaling.
"Be unbeatable," I told myself, and I almost was. I finished second out of the 482 women who competed. To say the race felt easy would be an overstatement. But I have to admit that, like the tennis matches I was now winning, it did feel surprisingly effortless.
For more information about Jeff English's approach to tai chi and sports go to www.taichiforathletes.com where you'll find information on his three-day workshops being held around the country this summer.
CLIMBING With the Parry and Punch, rotate elbows inward. This opens the arm and shoulder joints to le the chi flow freely from the feet, through the body, and out through the hands. "A blocked joint is like a kink in a hose," says Jeff English.
SURFING Center-line awareness is crucial for enhancing balance and alignment on your board. Stand in Commencement and focus on your head reaching into the sky and your tailbone, slightly tucked, extending into the earth. Feel the chi accumulate in your belly.
MOUNTAIN BIKING Raise one knee in Rooster Stands on One Leg to develop awareness of your center line and improve balance and efficiency on your bike. Added benefit: more flexible hip joints, which can prevent soreness and injury during long rides.
GOLF The Shoulder Strike mimics a golf swing and helps you generate spiral power. "By extending through your back leg as you drop forward into your front heel," Says English, "you let gravity do the work a force much more powerful than your own strength."