(This article, about an Indian practitioner of both yoga and tai chi who straddles a wellness world that stretches from China to Chennai, was published in DNA edition dated May 8, 2007.)
At daybreak on a beach in Hong Kong, as the gentle breakers on the South China Sea lap against the shore, Swathi Iyengar “Parts the Mane of the Wild Horse”. As his slightly parted legs take measured steps on the sand, his hands sweep the graceful arcs that characterise the sequence of movements of a difficult tai chi routine. So well-balanced and smooth-flowing is his posture that a group of early-morning walkers stop to gaze in silent admiration. It isn’t often that they see a non-Chinese person practice this ancient Chinese regimen for healthy living that has its roots in martial arts; still rarer is it to see someone so distinguished at it.
For Swathi Iyengar, being the centre of attention as an accomplished tai chi practitioner isn’t entirely a new experience. “In the early years of my practice in Hong Kong, I was almost the only non-Chinese person to take to tai chi,” he recalls. “And I was endearingly marked out as the ‘brown man’ who had embraced a Chinese tradition.”
But then, embracing cultural experiences other than his own comes naturally to Swathi. He heads a flourishing transnational ‘organic food’ business that sources produce from South America and from China. In his 20s, he was a footloose backpacker who travelled and lived in Prague and Vienna. And he now divides his time between Hong Kong and Chennai in southern India, where he lives with his Filipino wife and children, and is doing his bit for cultural integration by teaching tai chi in the land of yoga!
The circumstances under which Swathi came to master tai chi in Hong Kong are somewhat curious. In the Chinese tradition, it’s not the student who finds his master, it’s the master who picks his students: and that’s exactly how it worked for him. “Years ago, I was exercising in a park in Hong Kong, when I noticed that I was being watched closely by a group of tai chi practitioners,” recalls Swathi. “One of them approached me, and told me that her chi fu (master) wanted to meet me.” He went up and met the chi fu, a master from China, who said she saw great potential in him, and therefore wanted to teach him – for free!
“I laughed it off, saying that I thought tai chi was only for old people, not for a strapping young man of 30 like me,” says Swathi. Nevertheless, he was drawn to the chi fu by her inspirational words, and eventually enrolled under her. “Far from being easy, as I’d imagined, the first few lessons were most difficult: I couldn’t get my hands to coordinate or hold a posture, I found myself cramping up….”
But Swathi kept at it, and with his chi fu’s encouragement, entered and won tai chi competitions in Hong Kong and mainland China, where, as the only “brown man”, he was the object of much curious attention. Eventually, he became a qualified chi fu himself, and took to teaching tai chi: it seemed to fit in neatly with his “wellness” business – centred around organic food products – which began to do well. He taught for a while in Wuhan in China, before setting up an academy in Chennai.
In Chennai, Swathi conducts classes, and gives lectures at Geriatrics Society meetings to emphasise the beneficial effects of tai chi practice. He is particularly proud of one of his students, a 70-plus-year-old man with a degenerative eye disease that’s rendered him virtually blind, but who diligently practises tai chi – and now finds a slight improvement in his vision.
“Tai chi, like yoga, isn’t just an exercise regimen,” says Swathi. “It’s a practice of the body, mind and spirit, and there’s no greater illustration of that truth than the sight of a 70-year-old blind man who comes unfailingly everyday at 6 am and mindfully practises it.”