For most people, particularly residents of Brighton and Hove, tai chi chuan conjures up images of strange figures in the park at dawn making graceful hand gestures.

Though these handforms are the popular "face" of tai chi, the form is first and foremost an ancient Chinese martial art and can be taught as such, as I discovered at Will Thorne and Peter Ballam's tai chi class at King Alfred in Hove.

Split into two, hour-long classes, the first session concentrates on handforms and the second on the martial aspects of the art.

Based upon the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang, the system seeks to provide a balance in the physical and mental state of the student.

Pete, Will and guest teacher Ian each taught me a section from the various forms.

The handforms, short form and long form, consist of a number of slow, graceful movement combinations that are deceptively difficult.

Slow they may be but the nuances in hand shapes and constant weight shifts make the combinations hard to do and learn - and the long form has more than 100 shapes.

Beginners start with the short form, which has 34 combinations with such bizarre names as Grasping The Bird's Tail and Stroke The Lute.

When executed as one, flowing combination, the short form takes about five to ten minutes to perform and is the perfect daily exercise.

It will improve coordination, posture and body awareness and the slow breathing, which becomes automatic once the movements are learnt, enhances respiration and circulation.

When the short form is mastered, students go on to the long form which can take months or years to perfect.

Both forms demand great concentration, dedication and focus are often described as moving meditation.

Though primarily taught for health, the techniques used in both handforms have self-defence applications and knowledge of them will give you the confidence to protect yourself.

By working with a partner and learning drills called Pushing Hands, you can also improve your balance, reactions and your ability to judge distances.

The weapon forms, using the sabre, sword and spear, compliment the handforms, putting the self-defence techniques learnt into practice.

They are much more dynamic and demand an even higher level of fitness.

With two teachers on hand and other instructors often dropping in to help out, the classes at King Alfred's can cater for all levels.

The fact they have been going for more than 17 years proves how accessible they are.

Unlike other martial art forms, there are no gradings, compulsory competitive aspects or uniforms and Peter and Will are proud of the fact their classes are informal and welcoming.

Everyone can learn at their own pace, sticking to the short handform or really going for it with the weapons. Tai chi is truly the one martial art for all ages and abilities.

Tai chi at King Alfred, Kingsway, Hove, takes place on Thursdays from 8-10pm. Call Peter on 01403 257918 or Will on 01273 779291. For details of Ian Kendall's classes, call 07900 193230.