If you Google martial arts classes and then just kind of keep going down the rabbit hole, you may eventually happen upon a Lishi class in a boiler house in Stoke Newington on a Tuesday.
I did anyway.
Lishi is a Taoist martial art. Or at least I think it is. It’s nearly impossible to find a short definition of what it is. A little like Tai Chi and Kung Fu, borrowing elements from Chinese yoga, it is a system so multi layered that writing it up after just an hour in a class is a bit like standing on a ladder for 20 minutes and then coming down to tell everyone what it’s like to go into space. I shall tell you what I know.
We started with a warm up that’s similar to the type you’ll do in many martial arts classes – lots of joint rotations and so on. Every time I do this I find it enormously beneficial and make a resolution to do it every morning as soon as I get out of bed. Unfortunately I invariably get out of bed and grumble my way into the day and forget all about it.
After the warm up we did some movement and breathing exercises, followed by a demonstration of Chi to which the only reasonable response is: “What witchcraft is this?!”
For this we were split into pairs. One person tried to hold their arm straight while the other tried to force them to bend it at the elbow. Universally the one doing the bending prevailed. Then we were asked to repeat the exercise but this time the person keeping their arm straight was told to keep that arm and hand totally relaxed, and instead to focus on ‘sending’ their out-breath down the arm.
Something weird happened to all of us: no one managed to bend their partner’s straight, relaxed arm even though there was no effort or tension holding it straight. We were told this is Chi – or life force.
Now, the sceptical scientist in me tried to find lots of possible psychological and physiological explanations for this, but the sceptical scientist in me has a tendency to be a major buzz kill, so I decided instead to gawp and assume it was magic and just let it be awesome.
I left the class feeling relaxed and full of life all at the same time. I shall be going back as often as possible because I could do with some magic powers, and anyway it’s right next door to my flat.