Song 松 & Peng

Following the previous blog, a question was posted about it: “… How does Song relate to the other thing which is said regularly, that there should be ‘Peng’ in every movement? I take that to mean that Peng should be present particularly at the conclusion of every movement, and not as tension but perhaps as extension?

Peng is possible because, although you soften the white muscle tissue (the bulk of the muscle), you don’t exactly relax the fascia, or connective tissue, you extend/stretch it, treating it like an overall flexible/stretchy body ‘stocking’.
Think of your limbs like an audio cable – there’s the core(s) of the cable, which may be any number of wires encased in different coloured plastic, and there’s an outer shield. They are all wires, but the wires on the outer shield are often meshed and can be stretched or compressed, whilst the inner wires are usually long strands without the same flexibility because they are encased in plastic, and are not usually meshed.
For the purpose of the analogy, the cable is a limb; the cores of the cable are your bulk white muscles; the shield is the stretchy, flexible fascia.

Feeling it.
If you lift your arm in front of you as you read this, curving it so that the palm faces you at approximately chest or shoulder height, and relaxing all the muscles whilst still holding the arm in position, you are halfway there. Next you feel as though the back of the forearm is gently expanding away from you, but without involving any muscles; it’s as though the gaps between the joints have expanded, not because you have stretched them (which would involve muscles), but because they have loosened at the joints.  The arm should feel heavy.

‘Unbendable Arm’.
The Aikido exercise, the ‘unbendable arm’, demonstrates this concept perfectly.
If you’re not familiar with it, a brief description of it is that you place your wrist on a partner’s shoulder, and he gradually increases the pressure of his downward push on your elbow joint.
The more you tense your muscles, the harder work it becomes, but the more that you relax and loosen whilst simultaneously gently extending your arm, the harder it is for the person pushing downwards.  Your arm will flex slightly, but it is more like a solid rubber tube bending under pressure than a stick snapping.  A very interesting exercise.

Stretched (but not) & heavy.
The trouble is that people find it very difficult to stop using the white muscle tissue; it feels like a contradiction to relax, sink, loosen, and yet simultaneously lengthen.
It’s probably easiest to work on Song first and then add Peng, rather than the other way around, and this is where Pushing Hands or any two-person exercise comes into its own. It’s very helpful to have someone else to gently and sensitively test you by providing a small amount of resistance.

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James Drewe teaches Taijiquan and Qigong in both London and in Kent. Details of weekly classes can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Tai Chi on one Saturday a month.

CONTACTS:
http://www.taiji.co.uk
http://www.qigonghealth.co.uk
Email: taijiandqigong@gmail.com
Phone: 07836-710281 or 020-8883 3308

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‘Song’, 松 – Relaxing, Loosening, Connecting.

Softening can be difficult.  It’s a little more than just relaxation, almost a stage further.  The Chinese refer to this as “Song” 松.

There are really only two things that connect us to the planet – food and air; we eat/drink, and we breathe.  Most of the time we do both without much thought; they are functional so that we can get on with everything else we do.

Breathing
Leaving the food/drink aspect out of it, what does breathing actually mean?  We breathe in and out hundreds of times a day, but by altering our approach to this ‘activity’, we can use it to affect our over-all health.  You can’t do this every time you breathe, but there are many times in the day when you can play around with the concept; this could be when walking, going to sleep, driving, sitting on public transport, a quiet moment, etc.  Half the problem is remembering to do it.

Breathing is fundamental to ‘Song’.
You can’t relax if you don’t breathe, which is one of the reasons why breathing is encouraged during childbirth.  We’re not talking about ‘functional’ breathing here, this is about mindful breathing, breathing when you are fully aware of the breath, and not trying to think about something else at the same time.  This is breathing when you allow the oxygen to alter your cellular structure, when you open the cells to feed them, and when you organise your body in such a way as to get the most out of a single breath.

Song
‘Song’ is connecting yourself to your origins; you could say that this is a state of meditation; you are of the world, but at the same time you aren’t active in it, you are allowing the world to come to you.  You are resting in a conscious and fully aware state.   You are listening to what the world has to say to you.

‘Song’ does not mean soggy muscles.  Dr. Lam refers to this as ‘…consciously and gently stretch(ing) the muscles from within’.  It is as though you are slightly expanding the pipelines through the body, particularly at the joints, but without using or creating any tension.

Peter Wayne, in “The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi”, refers to Song (he spells it Sung) as ‘active relaxation’:
“… Sung is variously translated as relaxed, loose, or open, or as a quality that permits the natural flow of energy. Sung is also described as a process related to sinking — not necessarily physically sinking, as in bending the knees or sitting into a deeper stance, but energetically sinking.  The Chinese character or pictogram for Sung depicts hair contained in a tight bun letting go and hanging freely.”

And later, in order to experience Song, he suggests a metaphor of a jar of honey that has just been turned upside down:
“It takes a while for the viscous honey to ooze back down to the bottom. … In Tai Chi training, you learn to let things “relax” downward naturally.  … To be able to flow down more freely, the Qi needs to dissolve first. Just as you would run the honey jar under hot water to turn the crystalized honey back into liquid, with Tai Chi, you use gentle movements, breathing, imagery, emotional and behavioral changes, self-massage, and other techniques to soften and free the Qi so it can more naturally settle, or experience Sung”.

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James Drewe teaches Taijiquan and qigong in both London and in Kent. Details of weekly classes can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Taijiquan on one Saturday a month.

CONTACTS:
http://www.taiji.co.uk
http://www.qigonghealth.co.uk
Email: taijiandqigong@gmail.com
Phone: 07836-710281 or 020-8883 3308

Balance – Walking the Tightrope.

Balance.
“An even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady”.
Some can, some sometimes can, and some find it almost impossible. Why can some people balance and others not?

According to The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, balance problems  rely on four body systems working together: 1) musculoskeletal (muscle strength, flexibility), 2) sensory (eyes, pressure sensors in the skin, muscles, and joints, and the vestibular system in the inner ear), 3) neuromuscular (muscle groups functioning cohesively), and 4) cognitive (fear of e.g. falling, and postural awareness whilst multitasking) .

Generally.
Over 25+ years of teaching tai chi, I have thought a great deal about balance, had numerous discussions with osteopaths, Alexander teachers, dancers (both ballet and contemporary), and yoga teachers, and have had to deal with my own balance issues.
I’ve noticed that some days are definitely better than others, that the body sometimes balances better on one side than on the other – but that this can change, and that being aware of certain postural habits, and really understanding how to correct them, can make a huge difference.

Currently, I think that tension is the main culprit; this could be in the form of muscular inflexibility (on a cellular level) as well as stress, (mental tension and therefore also an inflexibility).
Both of these amount to being ungrounded; the muscular meaning that your body locks up and is unable to settle like silt in a pond, and the mental meaning that your energy is up in the head.  In the first case your energy is locked in the middle of the body, and in the second it’s locked in the top of the body.

Fighting ourselves.
If we were to go along the path of least resistance, I guess we would just be piles of flesh and bones on the ground, and gravity would have won.  In a sense, we fight our natural inclination to be on the floor, (perhaps that’s why going to bed is so nice!); we have definitely “taken the weight off our feet”.

Gravity.
But we don’t collapse on the floor, and therefore the body spends it’s entire upright existence sensing or ‘reading’ gravity.
What this means is that, without being aware of it, the body constantly tries to find the position that requires the least energy to stay upright.  For example, when your body bends forward, the back muscles have to become more active to stop your body from bending forward any further, and therefore more energy is used.  We are permanently fighting gravity, but we look for the path of least resistance.

When ‘reading gravity’ goes wrong.
As we grow older, our muscles and tendons lose flexibility, our nervous system doesn’t function so efficiently (see below), and our ability to adapt to our environment alters.  We might still be able to ‘read’ gravity, but sometimes are unable to adapt fast enough.

8 Factors affecting balance.
Below are 8 factors that I’ve noticed affect balance.  Below that is a brief description of each of those factors.  It’s not necessary to read the lot!  If one of them appeals, it might be the one that’s relevant to you, but then again it might not be; I’m quite sure that I haven’t got all the problems down on paper!

1. Tension in the hips (pelvis, sacroiliac joints, iliofemoral joints).
2. Tension and relaxation in the body generally.
3. Deterioration of the spinal column, particularly in the neck (cervical vertebrae) – common as we age.
4. ‘Over-connection’ between the upper and lower body.
5. Weakness in the leg muscles.
6. Weakness in the muscles supporting the spine (erector spinae).
7. Pelvic instability.
8. Concern about falling causes the qi to rise.

1. Tension in the pelvis, sacroiliac joints, iliofemoral joints.
The flexibility of the spine allows for balance and counter-balance to take place. As both the spine and legs attach to the pelvis, the pelvis  therefore becomes the pivotal point for the vertical body; if the pivot is frozen, balance and counter-balance are compromised.
In addition, when the pelvis locks, it affects the flexibility of both the knees and ankles.

2. Tension and relaxation in the body generally.
Good body tone allows freedom of muscular movement. Stress and tension cause the body to try to ‘hold’ itself in position.
When the muscles are well toned and stretched, when there is elasticity in the tendons and ligaments, the counter-balancing system of the body works efficiently.
Because the body automatically counter-balances itself, when there is tension in one part, another part will adjust.  The classic example of this is that, if you damage your lower back, you’ll often discover that your neck becomes sore a couple of days later… the top and the bottom ‘rearrange’ themselves.

3. Deterioration of the spinal column, particularly in the neck (cervical vertebrae) – common as we age.
Most often due to bad posture for any number of reasons, but nowadays frequently because of the time spent on screens, the cervical vertebrae wear more than the other vertebrae.
As a result, the motor messages from feet to head are compromised resulting in a fractional increase in time when the body tries to adjust itself.

4. Over-connection between the upper and lower body.
This is when the person’s waist no longer functions actively either for horizontal turning (turn your chest to left or right without your hips moving at all), or for flexing (bend down and touch your toes without involving your stomach!).
Therefore from the chest to the pelvis becomes an inflexible mass with head and legs sticking out (the potato man).
I’m not necessarily talking about overweight people; most people have inflexible waists due to lack of exercise.
As a result of this inflexibility, compensations of balance are less subtle, and double compensations – when you have to compensate twice in rapid succession, are impossible.

5. Weakness in the leg muscles.
Because the muscles are weak, the body ‘borrows’ other muscles to do the job that the leg muscles should really be doing.   In the Alexander Technique this is called ‘recruiting’.
In effect this locks the body’s balancing mechanism, rather like rust getting into the one part of an analogue clock’s mechanics and affecting the whole clock.

6. Weakness in the muscles supporting the spine (erector spinae).
The same principle as above.

7. Pelvic instability.
How the pelvis is held affects balance.
In a way this is an add-on to ‘5’ above.  When there is a problem lifting the knee (weak quadriceps and psoas muscles), the person will destabilise the pelvis by lifting it on the same side as the knee that they’re trying to raise.  (I’m not referring to what is often called a ‘pelvic tilt’; I’m referring to a left/right imbalance).
This creates such a major disturbance in the balance of the rest of the body that the body finds it difficult to compensate; it’s almost as though the maths of trying to juggle the balance equation is too much for it.  This is hardly surprising as putting the pelvis out of kilter is upsetting the very core of the balancing unit.

8. Concern about falling causes the qi to rise.
I have noticed, particularly when teaching older people who perhaps have had a fall, that they often spend a lot of energy trying to ‘lift themselves off the ground’, as though they are hoping that lifting their shoulders and chests – almost trying to float – will save their falling.
The result is to make matters worse; in effect they become top heavy.
I know that, from the weight point of view, this is illogical… After all, the person weighs the same whether he/she thinks up or down.
But in fact, if you try to 1) lift someone up who is thinking about the sky, and then 2) lift them up when they’re ‘playing dead’, thinking of their feet, thinking ‘through the floor’, or pretending they’re ‘asleep on their feet’, the difference is obvious.
But the other point is that, when our centre of gravity is lower, we are less likely to fall; you only have to think about that children’s toy – the impossible-to-knock-over wobbly man/woman with a rounded base coming to a smaller rounded head at the top – to know that this is true.

Other reasons for difficulty in balance.
There are other medical reasons for balance problems, such as inner ear problems, vertigo, eye problems, numbness in feet and legs, arthritis, heart and blood circulation problems, stroke, low blood pressure, diseases of the nervous system, and certain medicines (in particular ototoxic drugs that damage the inner ear).

Groups of drugs that can effect the inner ear (ototoxic):
antidepressants
anti-seizure drugs (anticonvulsants)
hypertensive (high blood pressure) drugs
sedatives
tranquilizers
anxiolytics (anti-anxiety drugs)
aminoglycosides (a type of antibiotic)
diuretics
vasodilators
certain analgesics (painkillers)
certain chemotherapeutics (anti-cancer drugs).


Drug groups courtesy of: http://nihseniorhealth.gov/balanceproblems/causesriskfactorsandprevention/01.html

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James Drewe teaches Taijiquan and qigong in both London and in Kent. Details of weekly classes can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Taijiquan on one Saturday a month.

CONTACTS:
http://www.taiji.co.uk
http://www.qigonghealth.co.uk
Email: taijiandqigong@gmail.com
Phone: 07836-710281 or 020-8883 3308

I Can’t Remember if I’m in Pain or Not.

Memory & the “Moment”.
The part of our brain that memorises events could never be said to be reliable; we remember the parts we want to remember (and even then those parts might be inaccurate), we give more importance to some memories than to others, and over time, even those can change – ‘bad’ memories taking on a rosy hue!
So with all of that going on, how do we “live in the moment”?

Pain.
In the case of pain, we know that something’s hurting (maybe physical, perhaps emotional), but to ‘get out of’ the pain-situation and back into the more comfortable-situation of which we have a vague memory, i.e. to relieve the problem, can be tricky.
So, our memories tell us that there’s an alternative, a preferable one that stems from the time before the pain.

Making ourselves healthily more uncomfortable.
Plenty of people take up yoga, Pilates, Feldenkrais, tai chi or qigong in an attempt to improve their health; this could simply be because they want to improve posture or coordination, have more energy, improve muscle-tone or balance, or perhaps it’s because they suffer from back pain, migraines, musculoskeletal disorders, arthritis, Parkinson’s, or any other number of reasons.
My interest in this is that, by trying to better our health, we often unintentionally bring pain or discomfort on ourselves; having done that, we then want to get back to the same state of comfort we were in before we began the new health regime, but at the same time, we want to keep the newfound health that we may (or may not) have acquired.

Hoping for the best.
At the start of this term, two people came to try out a class, both suffering from different problems – one from recurring migraines, and the other from ME.
As usual, I warned both of them to take things very easily, to sit down as often as they wanted, not to push themselves, and that there was no competition involved – in short, to only do as much as they were able.
The next day I received emails from both; one had a sore neck (the person who suffers from migraines), and the other had a hip that was uncomfortable.  Both won’t be returning.

If it sounds as though I’m moaning about this, I’m not – the choice was, and is, entirely theirs; I know that I did everything possible to make their experience a positive one.
However, what I do know is that, as soon as you start to try to change stuff about yourself, to ‘improve’ yourself, or to take control of your health, things change, and change can often be uncomfortable, and can happen in parts of you that you didn’t anticipate.

The Comfort Zone.
Our ‘comfort zone’ is where we are at ease with our situation and environment, it could even be uncomfortable (comparatively).  Most people try to live in this ‘comfort zone’, hoping that things will stay as they are for as long as possible, whilst at the same time waiting for the (perhaps) inevitable change which they feel to be out of their control.

So, how DO you do something about it?
If you currently have pain somewhere that, as far as you know, has arrived out of nowhere, how do you relieve it (without using painkillers)?  One moment everything was fine (comparatively again), and the next it wasn’t.
Nearly everyone wants to get rid of that pain, but as soon as you try to feel your body back to its previous state you’re definitely not ‘living in the moment’… you’re trying to bring back what you think you’ve lost – attempting to go back in time.
Isn’t this the fear of the loss of the ‘comfort zone’ – the fear being that it will never return?  In your memory, how your situation or environment used to be was a lot better than how it currently is.

Falling into the old habits.
As an example, I have recently had a pain in my upper back somewhere between T2 & T4.  I wasn’t entirely sure why it started, and because it was tiring I wanted nothing to do with it.
So I tried all the usual things: I ignored it, I tried gently stretching it, I breathed into it, I put heat on it, I practiced a lot of Alexander Technique, I took it for a steam & sauna, I focused on consciously relaxing it during everyday actions (walking, sitting, etc.), – all to no avail.
Finally the penny dropped and I realised that, because of a number of changes that I’d been working on recently (postural etc.), other things were bound to alter.  It then started to get better… and I realised that this had finally happened because I’d accepted it and thereby brought it into the present – I’d allowed it to be, rather than trying to change it.

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James Drewe teaches Taijiquan and Qigong in both London and in Kent. Details of weekly classes can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Taijiquan on one Saturday a month.

CONTACTS:
http://www.taiji.co.uk
http://www.qigonghealth.co.uk
Email: taijiandqigong@gmail.com
Phone: 07836-710281 or 020-8883 3308

Aspects of the Yang 24-Step Form with Master Huang Ping

Aspects of the Yang 24-Step
with Master Huang Ping

– Saturday 24th February 2018 –

10.00am – 4.30pm

This course will look at various aspects of tai chi using the 24-Step as the working tool.  It is helpful if you know the form, but not essential that you are familiar with the entire form.

The aim isn’t to learn the form, but to take a detailed look at various parts of it, e.g. opening & closing, using the centre, and understanding how the body works efficiently, comfortably and effectively within movements.  With this in mind, participants are very welcome to ask any questions about the movements including their applications.


  • Venue :   The Abbey Community Association, 
                   34 Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BU
  • Time   :   10.00am–4.30pm [Doors open at 9.30am]
  • Cost    :   £80
  • Tube   :   Westminster, or St. James

Master Huang Ping was born in Yunnan Province of China, and was first introduced to Wushu at the age of eight. At this age, she was taught Wushu basics including stretching, stance training, footwork, kicking and hand drills.
By the age of 10, Huang Ping had caught the eye of the Yunnan Provincial Wushu Team Coach and was invited her to join the Yunnan Wushu Team.  She was taught the arts of Bagua Zhang, Xing Yi Quan, Tong Bei Quan, Chang Quan (long fist) and Tai Ji Quan, and many weapons forms.

At the age of thirteen, Huang Ping took part in her first senior All China National competition, and over the following years took part in many All China National competitions.  Considering the intense competition and high skill level within a country of over a billion people, this was no mean feat and is testimony to Huang Ping’s skill and dedication to her Wushu training.

In 1979, Huang Ping joined the China Wushu Team, and in 1987 became a coach for the Yunnan Wushu Team.  In 1991, she was selected as a Top Judge for National Competitions, and in 1994 she coached the Burma Wushu Team, taking them to compete in the 1995 South East Asian Competition held in Vietnam, and in the 1996 All Asia Competition held in the Philippines.
In 1997, Huang Ping returned to China to continue as coach for the Yunnan Wushu Team. 
She came to the UK in 2001, where she now lives and teaches.

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James Drewe teaches Taijiquan and Qigong in both London and in Kent. Details of weekly classes can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Taijiquan on one Saturday a month.

CONTACTS:
http://www.taiji.co.uk
http://www.qigonghealth.co.uk
Email: taijiandqigong@gmail.com
Phone: 07836-710281 or 020-8883 3308

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Standing Qigong and ‘Balance’

The Position.
There are many positions In which to do Standing Qigong, but I’ll use the one with feet a shoulder’s width apart, knees bent, and hands lifted to opposite the upper chest, as in the picture.

What does ‘balance’ mean in this context?
In this context, balance means the sense of the left and right sides, the front and the back, and the top and bottom sides of your body all working equally together, so that no area is more dominant than any other area.  It is the feeling that a balloon might have (if a balloon were able to feel) both on its skin, as well as internally (equal pressure to all parts of itself).

Feeling the position – the concept.
When you squeeze a balloon, two forces come into play – an inward and an outward force.
1) The pressure that your arms exert inwards, so that you don’t drop the object, and …
2) The pressure inside the object which pushes your arms outwards.
A balance is therefore achieved.  In other words, in Standing Qigong positions, you are being expanded whilst at the same time holding on.

The legs.
Hold the legs as though you have a ball between thighs and knees.
As above, this is a two-way sensation; you feel an outward expansion (as though the ball were pushing your knees apart), but at the same time, because you don’t want to drop the ball, you squeeze inwards.
If you get the idea for the legs, the rest will be easy to follow.

The arms (1).
The arms use the same idea.
The ball is between the elbows/upper arms and the front-sides of the torso (in other words, it’s not exactly the sides, nor is it the front… it’s what you might call the anterior-lateral aspect of the body).  Again, the same principle applies – the ball is pushing your arms/elbows away from your body, but simultaneously you don’t want to drop it.

The arms (2).
Feel as though there’s a ball within the circle of your arms.  It expands your arms, but you don’t want to drop it.

The arms (3).
Feel as though there’s a ball outside the arms and around your back.  Your back and arms expand, but simultaneously compress inwards.

The legs & pelvis.
Your knees are bent; you are sitting on a ball.   The ball is pushing your knees forwards (which lowers the buttocks), yet at the same time you want the buttocks to be lifted by the ball.  This is similar to how it would feel if you were to attempt to push an aerobics ball into e.g. a swimming pool; whilst you push down, the surface tension would be pushing up against the ball.

The fingers.
This is exactly the same principle as above.

Other applications.
You can apply this concept in many other ways:
The same idea between the toes as between the fingers.
Ditto from the backs of hands/outsides of arms to the back.
Ditto feet to head.

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James Drewe teaches Taijiquan and Qigong in both London and in Kent. Details of weekly classes can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Taijiquan on one Saturday a month.

CONTACTS:
http://www.taiji.co.uk
http://www.qigonghealth.co.uk
Email: taijiandqigong@gmail.com
Phone: 07836-710281 or 020-8883 3308

The Neck – The Master of Counterbalance.

Your neck controls your future comfort.
It’s never too late to do something about your posture, although it’s probably true to say that the earlier you start, the more comfortable your later years will be.

The ‘Seesaw Law’.
In some respects, your spine works like a seesaw; if you do something to one end, there will be a reaction not only at the other end, but across the entire length of the seesaw.  In other words, if you position your neck incorrectly on your body, you are automatically setting up a series of detrimental chain reactions.

An adult head weighs something in the region of 11-12lbs (5-5½Kgs).
When balanced correctly on your body, the line of gravity passes straight through the middle of the body to the supporting feet.  So, when you incorrectly position it forward of that line, the neck is forced to take extra strain as the head moves further forwards.

The musculature in the body doesn’t like this, and will automatically try to find the most comfortable position.
Therefore, following the Seesaw Law, it will make a number of ‘better-than-doing-nothing’ adjustments; in other words, it sets up a series of counter-balances, the objective being to try to make the situation as comfortable as possible.

With these in place, you might not be 100% comfortable, but at least you can function as long as you don’t do anything extreme with your body.

The 21st Century Person.
One of our main activities which encourages both back & neck problems, and helps us to develop a permanently poor posture is the way that most of us use our mobile phones.  This can easily become a ‘habit’.

A few pictures say it all:

                                   

The ideal phone posture to save your neck.
This photo is one way of demonstrating the best position to hold the mobile phone.  You have to lift the phone high enough to look over the other person’s shoulder, and the body is upright.  (It doesn’t take into account a font that is too small, which makes us tighten the neck, perhaps pulling it forward also).

Unfortunately, one of the downsides of using the phone whilst draped around someone else is that walking becomes slightly impractical…

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James Drewe teaches Taijiquan and qigong in both London and in Kent. Details of weekly classes can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Taijiquan on one Saturday a month.

CONTACTS:
http://www.taiji.co.uk
http://www.qigonghealth.co.uk
Email: taijiandqigong@gmail.com
Phone: 07836-710281 or 020-8883 3308