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A Tai Chi Journey begins Down South
by John

ate in the year 2001, along with sixteen other people, I was fortunate enough to be chosen to winter at one of Australia’s four Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic stations.  This would be my fifth winter south over the last twenty years.  From experience, I began looking for some kind of  “project” that might keep me mentally and physically occupied over the long, dark winter months.  I had tried several things in the past and had learned much from my years down south.  However, this time I hoped I may find something that would be of benefit in the years to come as well as the coming eighteen months.  At the time I received confirmation of the posting, I was visiting a close friend in Canberra whom I had known for many years and who had often mentioned her practice of Tai Chi.  I had many questions for my friend as I had become interested in Tai Chi after spending several postings in Asia.  There I had watched in fascination as thousands of men, woman and children gathered in parks and open areas each morning to perform this time honoured art.

My friend was a wealth of information and she very kindly obtained two videos from the Tai Chi Academy.  She presented me with this unique present, hoping that I may have a chance to watch them during the year.  Little did I know at the time that this thoughtful gift would eventually inspire me to take up this ancient skill and fill many hours with both mental and physical pleasure.

spent the first few hectic months, settling into the station and making sure most of the outside work was completed before the sun finally left us for good.  Then, I turned to the cassettes and starting watching them on a somewhat irregular basis.  Rather than watching the whole videos through, I thought it best to pace myself and view and absorb each segment as it presented itself - without trying to run before I could walk!  I was glad to find that the videos introduced me to my “virtual teachers”, Brett and Fontane.  It was obvious from the first few minutes of tape that they were both very experienced and dedicated instructors who would methodically and patiently “walk” me through my first faltering attempts.  I also sensed the appreciation that they displayed towards their own teachers.  As I watched the tapes, I began to understand that, like a great tree, the beauty above was only possible because of the strong foundation of the roots.

In around about June or so, I mentioned to one of our scientists that I was trying to learn Tai Chi with the help of the videos.  She expressed enormous interest and just after mid-winter, June 21st, we decided to meet in our small cinema each working day at around 6:45 am.  There we made a more determined effort to learn as much as we could before leaving the station in 2003.  And so our journey began. 

Each morning we would diligently watch our teachers explain each movement.  The first few weeks went rather slowly as each section presented a new stance that was unfamiliar to us.  It required an almost constant finger on the remote control to play and then rewind each section many times.  We were both concerned that we would wear out the tapes well before the re-supply ship would arrive.  Thankfully, the tapes held out and after a couple of months, we began to learn at a more accelerated pace.  We both agreed at the time that learning without the direct input of a teacher was often frustrating.  We would watch a move ten times over and still be uncomfortable with our interpretation.  We desperately needed some guidance but there was nothing we could do about it, except persevere.  Looking back now, I have come to think that what appeared to be a disadvantage for us at the time was nothing more than part of the challenge to be overcome.  Like anything in life that is truly worthwhile, it was not easy.  But perhaps because it was just that more difficult, I believe we gained a great deal more from our studies.

We found that not only did we enjoy our physical practice each morning, but that we were beginning to get something perhaps a little deeper out of Tai Chi than we had originally anticipated.  At first, our sense of balance and flexibility noticeably improved.  We would often go through the exercises and form and then sit down for twenty or thirty minutes and simply discuss what we both felt we were trying to achieve.  These discussions began to expand and touch on areas that we had not expected.  In the beginning, we were concerned about precision, speed and flow.  After several months, we found our minds wondering into other areas as well.  We found that Tai Chi began to reflect into our day to day lives and not simply the first hour of the day.  As Brett and Fontane had mentioned, we found the mental relaxation that Tai Chi promoted began to play a larger role in our working and social lives.

I recall that in the first month or two of practising Quiet Standing, we considered standing quietly for even five minutes an inordinate length of time.  We began following the Fa Soong Gong method of relaxation in Brett's manual.  Gradually, our ability to concentrate became stronger and we now find that even ten minutes is not long enough.  I look forward each morning to my “quiet time” and hope to understand more about this increasingly important part of me.

As the sun returned and the light turned our darkened world into a vista of unparalleled beauty, I began to look around me through different eyes.  Often I would simply stop during the course of my day and gaze out upon a sublime landscape and slowly breathe in the wonder aro
und me.  I began to take the time to appreciate not only this last, natural place on earth, but also myself as well.  The beauty outside began to work its magic inside me.  I noticed in my monthly medical that my heart rate began to slow and my blood pressure drop.  It was not an overnight transformation but a very gradual nipping away at my monthly averages.  I don't know if the same results were reflected throughout the other expeditioners at the same time but, for me at least, I felt Tai Chi was making its presence felt.

It was also at this time that we began to log onto the Academy's website and read the articles and interviews.  We had realised for some time that there was an enormous amount to learn and these web pages were helping us see the larger picture.  I sent a message to the Academy and in October, on the first ship of the season, arrived “Reflections Along the Tai Chi Pathway”.  The book explained in plain English a lot of what we had been trying to grasp by ourselves and was a great benefit.  We would sit down after each morning exercise and read a chapter or part of a chapter and discuss our interpretation of the article.

It is now February 2003 and in a few days time, I will be leaving the station and returning to Australia after more than five hundred days on the ice.  Tai Chi has now become a permanent part of my life. Every morning, I rise and look forward to each new day and perhaps understanding myself from a different perspective.  I will be travelling once again after visiting family and friends in Australia and I hope to spend some time in China over the coming months.  I also hope that I may be able to visit some of the places where Tai Chi was born and continue my own private journey along the Tai Chi pathway.

(This is an actual account, but the name has been changed for reasons of privacy.)

(The Academy would also like to thank John for his spectacular photographs.)