I don't practise T'ai Chi alone in public anymore. I used to until a policeman almost arrested me. He thought I was drunk.

Small wonder. A strange slow-motion dance with waving arms and legs is not something you see every day.

Just mention T'ai Chi to most people and visions of Bruce Lee punching holes through boards, bricks and people dance through their heads.

But T'ai Chi is for everybody-Young, old, male, female - anyone can practise this slow-moving, ballet-like exercise. And the Benefits are many. The ancient Chinese believed that daily practise was not only a cure-all for everything from poor diggestion and circulation to boils and psoriasis, but could add 20 years to your life. Many students still claim it helps relieve arthritis and high blood oressure, and acts a laxative and diuretic.

The origins of T'ai Chi (which means, literally, "supreme ultimate") are vague.Legends claim that a Taoist priest, Chang San-feng, either learned it in a dream or developed the soft style of fighting after seeing a snake successfully fight off a hungry crane's attacks through yielding and shufting its body at the right moments.

Another theory is that the founder in unknow say's T'ai Chi author/teacher Robert Smith, due to the Chinese tradition of burning records and books. But Wand Tsung-yueh is credited with introducing it in Honan Province during the 18th century.

There are now three main styles of T'ai Chi - Yang, Wu and Cheng - with variations on each form. The Yang style in its shortened form is the most prevalent in America, popularized by the late Cheng Man-in ch'ing - a master of the five excellences painting, poetry, caligraph, medicine and T'ai Chi.

Cheng and Smith in their books, say that "mind (i) and intrinsic energy (ch'i) are the complementary bases " for the exercise. When it's practiced properly, the muscles are unblocked and ch'i flows freely through the body, storing in the region below the navel - tan-t'ien. When the body's center of gravity shifts to the tan-t'ien, a sense of well-being, health and poers of self-defense are realized.

It's not macho strength, but ch'i that enables even the smallest T'ai Chi practitiones to overcome an opponent. Even when Professor Cheng, a small man, reached his mid-70s, he was never defeated in push-hands (the sparring form of T'ai Chi). In Taoist terms, less is more. Revenge at last for 97- pound weaklinds!

Many people practise T'ai Chi simply because it makes them feel so goods. It is often called "meditation in motion" because of its harmony with the continuous movement of the universe. Students of spiritual teachings find T'ai Chi compatible with their other disciplines.

I prefer a more wordly interpretation: Concentrating on breathing deeply, keeping your spine and head straight, shifting weight from one leg to the other and remembering to "sink and relax" makes it hard to think about anything else. Who can worry about failling plaster in the kitchen or even unpaid parking tickets while finally achieving that slowwwwww kick after minths of trying?