‘Tai chi teaches you about yourself’ – the Valley Gardens class honouring martial arts principles
Last updated Mar 18, 2024

If you find yourself walking through the Valley Gardens in Harrogate on a Sunday morning, you might spot an unusual sight – one that seems out of place in a Yorkshire town.

In the shelter of the pavilion, people perform a set of intentional and graceful movements, like a slow dance.

Every Sunday this group meet to practise tai chi – an ancient martial art known as a form of gentle movement, self-defence and moving meditation.

Guided by Paul Gitsham – the founder of martial arts school Bamboo Forest – the hour-long class is held in the gardens, come rain or shine. Hosting sessions outside is a way to ‘bring the natural world back into our lives’, according to Paul.

He explained:

“As the seasons pass, it’s a very different experience. You can be training on a cold winter’s morning or a spring day, and that will change how you move – it’s a very reflective art.”

One of Bamboo Forest’s Escrima, Staff & Stick classes

Passing the art to the next generation

Embracing nature is one of the many benefits Paul believes that tai chi can offer. Born in Doncaster, he didn’t take up martial arts until he was in his early twenties, and at first only considered it as a form of self-defence.

However, Paul soon found that studying tai chi offered him innumerable benefits, and he went on to train under the tutelage of one of his heroes, Nigel Sutton of Zhong Ding International.

He has travelled extensively to learn more about the cultural philosophies underpinning the practice, including visiting training centres in Penang, Malaysia.

With two decades of teaching experience across Yorkshire, he then set up his own business in Harrogate three years ago, as a way to continue the legacy of tai chi.

A younger Paul at a training centre in Malaysia

He believes that in the UK it can be often overlooked, due to the popularity of taekwondo, karate and judo.

Paul said:

“The essence of it as a martial art is really starting to fade, and as one of the younger members of the community, I didn’t want it to disappear.

“There’s a sense of passing on the art to the next generation.”

The name Bamboo Forest hold special significance too – firstly it works as a nod to the concept of Wu Lin (martial forest), which symbolises how all martial arts are distinct but intertwined.

Secondly, Paul believes that bamboo represents ‘strength, flexibility, and adaptability’ – all key principles in martial arts, particularly tai chi.

A familial structure

Paul’s classes attract a broad demographic – one of his youngest regulars is 30 years old, and the oldest is 79 – a true veteran of the art, having trained for many years.

He explains that a traditional Chinese class structure is one of family, rather than strictly student-teacher, to encourage a sense of community.

“It’s hard to translate the exact definition of the relationship as something gets lost, but it’s all about looking out for each other.

“There are people I’ve known and trained with for 15 years. And after class, we get a coffee from the Valley Gardens café, have a catch up and a chat.”

Paul runs two classes on a Sunday in the Valley Gardens: Applied Tai Chi, and Escrima, Staff & Stick which explores movements with traditional Asian wooden weapons.

The classes take place in Harrogate’s Valley Gardens

Reported benefits of tai chi have been increased flexibility, strength and posture, as well as improving cardiovascular fitness.

Paul himself highlights a ‘greater understanding of his body alignment’, which is helpful to people of all ages, but particularly older people, who may be more prone to trips and falls.

He added:

“Tai Chi teaches you a lot about yourself, and your awareness of space. It’s like driving – to start with you’re feeling your way around, but soon enough it’s second nature.

“It’s gentle, low-impact, and you can go at your own pace. It has a welcoming community too, you’ll get out of it what you put in, but the benefits can be enormous.”

Bamboo Forest’s Applied Tai Chi classes take place every Sunday in the Valley Gardens, from 9.30am – 10.45am, followed by Escrima, Staff & Stick from 10.45am – 12pm. 

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