by Mark Davies
A surprising journey into Tai Chi
I first met Debbie Fox at a Wellderness event in June 2021, where she held a Tai Chi session in a sun-dappled clearing in the woods.
I found the gentle tranquillity of Tai Chi, accompanied by rustling leaves and chirpy birds at once other-worldly and perfectly placed. Plus, as I skirted the edges, quietly photographing the group, I found Matt Dumbleton sat on a tree stump, tear-streaked cheeks bulging with the smile of a man whose vision was manifesting before his eyes.
In that moment, I realised why The Wellderness was so important and why so many people would benefit from the drive of Matt and his co-founder, Mark.
Ten months later, I spoke to Debbie about her journey through this ancient Chinese practice that felt so at home in ancient Sussex woodland. Her route wasn’t quite what I’d expected.
“I started Tai Chi because a friend persuaded me to go to a class with her, because she fancied the instructor, and she wouldn’t go on her own.” Debbie gave a little laugh at the memory.
“Something just clicked for me. When I went to the class it just felt right to my body.”
That first lesson wasn’t the start of Debbie’s journey to becoming a Tai Chi instructor. For that, we need to wander a few more years into her past, via a trip that would take her halfway around the world.
“Growing up, I felt there was a lot of stress in terms of the pressure to become a certain professional or succeed in society,” she told me in gentle tones that trickled through my tinny laptop speakers.
“I had chance encounters with a few people that made me think ‘oh, maybe there are other ways to navigate the world alongside academic life’,” she continued. “Things like meditation and yoga. And I discovered a few people who were practising things like that, and it sowed a seed for me.”
She went on to study environmental biology because she “wasn’t really sure what to do.” Aside from her interest in nature, and that fact that she’d always felt “most at home” outside, Debbie realised that there were issues with the environment. This, at a time when global warming was first being discussed and environmental biology only just being offered as a course.
Having completed her studies, Debbie still didn’t know what she wanted to do. A friend then introduced her to an organisation called WWOOF, a worldwide community that promotes organic agriculture and sustainable lifestyles.
“My friend said to me, ‘I think I’m going to do one of those in India, do you want to come with me?’, so I did! Yeah, we went to India and that led me to yoga, which… I will get to Tai Chi.” Debbie gave an apologetic chuckle and I encouraged her to continue.
“I discovered that people saw yoga as something you incorporate into your life, you know, you found ways of dealing with your own things in life, dealing with your own energy.”
She added that it doesn’t have to be one discipline, but something that can help us centre ourselves and connect us to something bigger. In Debbie’s case, particularly during her time in India, that “something bigger” was nature.
“So, I learned yoga. And that was an outdoor thing,” she said. “I went to several Ashrams, and I think that was a big turning point for me.”
In the end, Debbie stayed in India for nine months. When she returned to the UK the question of what to do next still hung over her.
With nature still a major interest for Debbie, she began a PhD on lake restoration with one of her former lecturers, Brian Moss.
“He was very well known in a discipline called Limnology, which is about lakes,” she told me. “And within that, I felt the need to carry on with something to help myself because it was very much an academic discipline. It was very much in your head, lots on the computer, the microscope and I could see that I needed something to balance that out.”
Unable to find any local yoga practices, Debbie looked further afield, which brings us back to her friend who fancied the Tai Chi instructor.
“Liverpool was a fortuitous place to be in that regard, because there’s quite a big Chinese community,” she added. “And within that, there’s quite a few disciplines from that part of the world.
Debbie tried different classes until she met a lady called Cathy Wu with whom she studied Yang Style Tai Chi, which was essential in maintaining her wellbeing.
“It was more to cope. To get better. In that kind of work, like in any work, you could just carry on working long, long hours because there’s always more to work on in academic life. You could stay in the lab really late and get lost, you know? So, it was a good balance for me to keep myself feeling okay.”
While I can’t claim any academic credentials, I can certainly understand the challenge of being stuck in front of a screen for hours on end.
Connection to nature
With the best will in the world, the British climate isn’t always suited to doing Tai Chi outdoors. But links to nature run throughout the practice.
“You can’t pinpoint a lot of the origins and things, but it has a lot of reference to nature,” Debbie said. “You have things like cloud arms and quite a lot of references to animals. And you stand like a tree.”
In that first Wellderness event, Debbie led our community through a sequence that incorporates the five elements: water, wood, fire, earth, and metal.
Having studied with Cathy Wu for eight or nine years, she moved to Worthing, where she continued to practice Tai Chi. Here, she met people with links to an instructor called Gerda “Pytt” Geddes, a Norwegian dancer who brought Tai Chi to a dance school in London.
“She taught quite a few people who have spread her adaptations of the Yang-style long form Tai Chi,” Debbie added. “That’s how Tai Chi gets spread. Originally, it was passed down through families, and it was quite difficult to get taught.”
She explained that Tai Chi sequences (or, “forms”) were passed through certain lineages and that, especially for women, it would have been difficult to find an instructor. Pytt Geddes was able to find an instructor during her time in China, and she then introduced it as a way of helping dancers look after themselves.
“I’ve learned from different people,” she said. “The five elements that I’m teaching was taught to me by a lady called Gudrun Gylling, who was a student of Pytt Geddes. She taught me the five elements on a holiday in Sweden (which was taught to Gudrun by a lady called Caroline Ross).”
As with the five elements form, Debbie acquired her knowledge through the various workshops and teachers that she’s encountered since her time with Cathy Wu in Liverpool. For her own part, she never intended to become an instructor, despite Cathy telling her that she knew enough to do so.
“I’ve got lots of qualifications in life,” she said. “I haven’t got any official ones in Tai Chi.”
Which begged the question, how did she go from being a student of Tai Chi to deciding she wanted to teach?
At the same time as Debbie was learning in Liverpool, her mum, a science teacher, studied Tai Chi with one of the lab technicians from her school near Chichester.
“Sometimes I’d go to her classes, if I was visiting, and sometimes she’d come to Cathy’s classes with me. We kind of learned side by side.”
By the time Debbie moved to Worthing, her mum had taken over a local class run by Malcolm and Frederique, who previously ran Tai Chi adult education classes. When they moved away, Debbie’s mum, Angela, “ended up being a nominated teacher.”
Angela encouraged Debbie to take on the growing beginner’s group. “I wasn’t really sure,” she said. “But I did. And that’s how I started teaching.”
It was presented as an “opportunity,” which Debbie took with some reluctance.
“I found it really odd to begin with,” she said.
The way Cathy taught, talking wasn’t a big part of the practice and it was a process to learn how to explain it to other people.
“I think in the West, people expect more instruction, so I had to develop ways that worked to describe it. And that took a while.”
Over time, Debbie has learned to find a balance between verbal instruction and physical imitation. Having taught some of the same people for over 20 years, there’s little call for verbal instruction. But newer students require more guidance, coupled with periods of quiet where they can process what they’ve learned. Although, with over 100 moves in Yang Style alone, “you can be learning indefinitely.” And that goes as much for Debbie as it does for her students.
“There are different layers to it, I would say. First your body learns the mechanics of it, so you know what’s coming up – and that can take quite a long time. Then gradually, when that becomes more automatic for your body, you focus more on the flow, the breath and letting go of tensions to allow the body to cultivate Chi (energy).”
As Debbie puts it, Tai Chi is something that you build.
“You build a way of moving. It becomes a flow and more automatic for your body. And then it becomes what people would describe as a moving meditation.”
Like certain types of yoga, where you learn moves, which are linked through simple transitions.
“I think the main sequences stand out more first and then you realise the linking bits. Then, eventually, that thing that sort of cemented it for me is when I started teaching it, you really notice the bits that you aren’t so sure of.”
She laughed, then went on to explain how much more she’s learned through teaching and how much she values the time she’s spent developing her practice through passing her knowledge onto others.
“I don’t see myself as a teacher, but I guess I am,” she added. “I see it more like it’s a continuation from people having done it for so long. A wonderful gift that gets shared and passed on.”
The origins are thought to be thousands of years old – possibly as long ago as 5,000 years. Although there are many different stories of where it came from, there are roots in Taoism, the concepts of yin and yang and Chinese medicine, as well as links to martial arts such as Kung Fu.
The main forms Debbie practices are much more recent, dating back around 100 years to Yang-Cheng Fu. This means there’s more information about it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still passed down through word of mouth and through the teachings of people like Debbie.
“I guess it’s a continued evolution. What you do now, even compared to 100 years ago when this form came about, it will gradually be adapted and changed as everybody puts their own individual take on it. However, within the changes there will remain a recognisable core essence following the principles of Tai Chi movement.”
Even among Debbie’s fellow students who studied under Cathy Wu, styles will vary, as will the styles of their students.
“We all have our own slight take on it, so I encourage people to see it like that as well.”
It’s wonderful to think that something so organic exists in a world of digitisation and algorithms. To me, it only strengthens the ties between Tai Chi and nature. And that’s why it’s so perfect a fit with The Wellderness.
If you’re interested in experiencing Tai Chi, keep an eye on our events page. As a keen supporter of The Wellderness, Debbie will return to lead us through some simple sequences, surrounded by rustling leaves and chirping birds.
It’s hard to ask for much more than that.