After years of poor coordination, low muscle tone and lax ligaments, Liz Watkin was resigned to never being able to stand on one leg. Then she discovered t'ai chi…
As a child I had terrible problems with my joints and suffered numerous sprains and other injuries. I had no core strength, couldn't balance to save my life and my coordination was appalling. I just assumed I was naturally clumsy and – as children do – I accepted that was my lot in life.
Eastern influencesWhile training as an occupational therapist (OT), I spent a couple of months in Hong Kong and saw people practising t'ai chi in the park every morning on my way to work. The discipline's fluidity and grace intrigued me and I longed to try it, but I was too busy and suspected it was probably beyond me.
My eureka momentTwenty-one years, a marriage and two children later, after moving to Chesterfield, Derbyshire, I saw a poster about t'ai chi training sessions. I had recently sprained my ankle yet again and was fed up with my repeated injuries.
I was working as a paediatric OT by this time, and was hacked off with constantly being used as the ‘bad’ role model for OT students to study before assessing children, when they wanted to know how to spot low muscle tone, lax ligaments and no core stability! I’d always laughed it off and pretended that it didn’t bother me, but seeing the poster hit me like a eureka moment and I realised that I could actually try to change things. So I went along on the spur of the moment.
The prospect of trying to learn a new discipline in a group situation (in which, I imagined, everyone but me was already capable of patting their head while rubbing their stomach; not to mention standing on one leg for extended periods) was daunting – especially as I'd tried (and failed) to get into yoga (as my lack of core muscle strength meant I couldn't hold the poses for long enough) – so I was relieved when the instructor, Dave, agreed to give me one-to-one tuition.
Mastering the t'ai chi movesI'm a visual and kinaesthetic learner, so I found it surprisingly easy to watch, remember and learn the movements Dave taught me, although perfecting them sometimes took every shred of patience and energy I possessed. At first I'd collapse, laughing slightly hysterically, when trying to master a new move – especially those involving tricky balancing acts – but soon my muscles 'remembered' the sequences.
Despite my lack of coordination, I discovered a natural affinity for this Eastern discipline. T'ai chi isn't static: you flow from one move into the next, which worked well for me as I didn't have to hold the same position for more than a few seconds. The weekly lessons fired my enthusiasm and I worked hard in between, practising daily in the living room or on the lawn when my husband, Andy, and our children were at work and school.
Quick stepsWithin four years I'd completed the Five Animals form of t'ai chi that Dave taught. I've always been a fairly confident person, but it was incredible how much learning these intricate exercises boosted my self-esteem: I loved every minute. Although I knew I could carry out the sequences and t'ai chi forms well, I was still surprised when Dave and his colleague, Paul, asked me to teach a couple of sessions a week to school children. I'm sure their confidence in me was largely due to my extensive experience of working as an OT in schools and in running groups, but I don't like to pass up opportunities so I decided to go for it and fitted the sessions in around my part-time OT work.
Life lessonsTeaching t'ai chi to the children enabled me to use all the people skills I've learned over the years and I loved it straightaway: it's all the best bits of being an OT (i.e. helping people to achieve their maximum level of function,) without the bureaucratic hassles and vast amounts of paperwork. As an OT, I had to assess children with motor coordination disorders and I was worse than a lot of them. When I was demonstrating the various movements they needed to do to improve their coordination, I'd have to hold on to a chair to support myself. They'd say: "Why are you holding on if I'm not allowed to?" and I'd reply: "I can't do it because I didn't get the help I needed as a child, but I'm trying to find ways to help you."
Meditation in motionI also loved the direction my own t'ai chi journey was taking. My muscle memory and chi (internal strength) were developing well and I found practising the movements very calming. I didn't have to focus so much on what I was doing so it became a sort of moving meditation and I could easily lose myself in the movements for an hour or more.
By this time, I'd graduated to a new instructor, Gary, another of Dave's colleagues, who's trained in lots of different martial arts and was able to help me progress. Through him, I met Alison, a qualified exercise-to-music teacher. It didn't take long for us to realise that we three had a diverse but very complementary skill set… and that's how we came up with the idea of setting up a business teaching t'ai chi to people of all ages and abilities.
Giving up the day jobWithin just a few months of juggling OT with teaching t'ai chi part-time, the positive feedback I was getting from teaching brought my feelings about my day job into sharp relief. I'd been becoming increasingly more disillusioned with occupational therapy over time and as I became more proficient and confident at teaching t'ai chi, I started to wonder whether it was time to leave the profession I'd loved for many years.
I became an OT because I wanted to have ongoing relationships with people as I helped them to be as independent as possible, despite their debilitating physical and mental challenges. But after 22 years in the job, I felt the emphasis in the NHS had changed to be far more about numbers: getting people through the system and discharged as quickly as possible, not helping them to be the best they could be. After devoting most of my working life to OT, my heart was no longer in it. I felt I needed a change. The thought of giving up my salary was scary, but Andy was totally supportive so I decided to leave OT and try to turn my passion into a business*.
A martial art for everyone'Alternative' exercise was starting to move into the mainstream, so schools were open to ideas and we got our first school bookings for Phoenix Tai Chi for the start of term in September 2007. We now teach four different styles of t'ai chi, to children in mainstream schools and to adults, many of whom have some form of disability, from autism to Down's syndrome, Parkinson's disease and strokes. We’re also about to start work for a local charity who are supporting recovering addicts. T'ai chi will help them as they work to stay off drugs and alcohol.
Good vibrationsI love the fact that because we work with the same people on a long-term basis, I can see the difference t'ai chi is making to their coordination, concentration, range of movement and confidence. Some clients – especially those in a wheelchair – can be reluctant to take part initially, but once they have a go and realise how much fun it is, and how good it makes them feel, they always warm to it. The children call me 't'ai chi Liz' and their zest for learning never fails to lift my spirits.
Channelling energyThe sessions we run in schools involve everything from gentle stretches to fast but low-impact aerobic exercise, qi gong breathing and – once they're warmed up – full-on t'ai chi sequences. The sessions we run with adults are gentler, leave out the aerobic exercise and use a more sedentary style of t'ai chi that's more suitable for adults with physical difficulties.
Alternative occupational therapyOur USP is that we aim to always have all three of us teaching simultaneously – one facing the class, one facing the same direction as they are – to ensure that our clients can see what they're meant to be doing from all angles and one moving round the group. If any of them are in a wheelchair, one of us will do the (specially adapted) movements sitting down, while another mirrors them standing up, leaving one of us free to help people get into the correct position.
I love helping people to become more mobile and in touch with their body. My experience as an OT isn't wasted either: it's second nature to me to realise when someone's in need of extra support. The teachers often ask for my advice, which makes me feel that I still have something special to offer. I also feel appreciated for my skills, which is what I missed towards the end of my career in OT.
All about me!As well as growing my business, I still love doing t'ai chi for myself and try to practise every day, because that's essential in order to be a good teacher. For me, it's all about the mindfulness of being in the here and now: it's a very holistic experience. When I'm practising, it's all about and for me, which is just bliss! I can't imagine t'ai chi not being part of my life now because it seems somehow interwoven into some intrinsic part of me. It's enhanced my life so much, and not just in terms of work. I feel far more centred and in control of my physicality now.
Life balanceT'ai chi is all about discipline, both mental and physical. It takes an enormous amount of control to do it well because a lot of the time, all four limbs are doing different things simultaneously. Half an hour of t'ai chi is the equivalent of an hour in the gym because you're working your core and all your limbs at the same time. Funnily enough, at work I'm usually the one modelling the poses: after 12 years of practice, my balance is much improved and I can even stand on one leg, although I still can't pat my head and rub my tummy at the same time!
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