Make your movements slow and smooth, like a weed-smoking sloth. Draw in and release energy from your center as if you were a rhinoceros giving birth. Walk around gently clenching and unclenching your fingers, greeting your fellow classmates as you would if you were a monkey in your tree community. I tend to embellish the teacher’s instructions during tai chi class, just a bit. They don’t know about it. My own special touch stays within my brain, coaching the execution of an ancient martial arts form which has been updated for us evolved monkeys to promote better health. I think I am crushing it, which of course, is not the mind-set one seeks with this method of movement. Process not product. My journey through this jungle is just beginning.
I saw an ad in a local paper for a free tai chi class that was specifically designed for arthritis and fall prevention. I had fallen, more than once, though not lately. Those falls had more to do with inattention to where I was going (the internal circus is always running) than to frailty or balance problems. This tai chi class may be helpful in other ways. It might be a good companion to my yoga practice and, as a newcomer to town, I wanted to meet people, so I signed up.
I walked into the first class in a basement room of an old church. I felt as if I was younger and more fit than anyone else there. I was surrounded by a sea of gray hair and some frail-looking individuals. There had not been any age requirement posted on the class advertisement (though I totally would have qualified based on age). I was worried that if they knew my current level of physical activity, they would take me aside and say this class was not for me. Then we were asked to fill in paperwork as this was a study by the local university. Shit. They were going to toss me out on my ass, as opposed to the usual falling on it. The fall question was time-limited and I had not fallen in the past year. Could I sneak in the fall I took three years ago where I broke my arm? If I got into the study, I would mention it so as to legitimize my attendance.
Evidently, I passed the requirements as the authorities did not unceremoniously ask me to take a hike (a safe one). After this acceptance, I felt compelled to confess I was a yoga teacher. Even that statement did not seem to disqualify me. I began the practice of tai chi. Slow, smooth, continuous. Mindfulness, life energy, moving in synergy. Bent knees. Ah, there was my Achilles’ heel, my squeaky knees. I was legit after all. How many weeks left?
Tai chi class has many similarities with yoga class. Claiming the same spot in the room for each class. Looking at other people to see if I am doing the same thing as everyone else, glancing at the clock because it already feels like it’s been an hour. Much like my early yoga classes, I stood in a big room, watching the instructor move in ways foreign to me. Each of those movements had names, which seemed to have no bearing whatsoever on the action being demonstrated. Week by week, more tai chi movements were added to create a powerful, flowing dance designed to keep me upright and in harmony with those around me. I let go of the yoga comparisons and allowed this art form to draw me in and honor its unique contribution to my life.
Our instructor would often give verbal cues that resonated with us, which we could relate to much better than the ancient names. The verbal cue “give the gift” was meant to be reaching arms out for personal delivery as opposed to clicking Send on the Amazon website. For the sake of stimulating my own memory with names which I could relate to the corresponding motion, and for my general amusement, I began to make up my own names. I thought I was mastering Grope for The Wall Like Marcel Marceau (a mime is a terrible thing to waste), when I find the name is called Single Whip, which makes no sense at all. The kitchen- oriented me wanted to Chop the Salad, which in proper tai chi language is called Wave Hands Through Clouds, which has a certain ethereal ring to it even if it is somewhat impractical. It was Tie the Knot and Throw It in the Garbage which frustrated me every time despite the title I’d given it. The real name, Leisurely Tying the Cloak, does not do it justice as there is nothing leisurely about it and the feeling it evokes is that it should be abandoned in disgust like the fuzzy food you find in the back of the refrigerator. There is one name I did not change: Parry, Parry, Punch. First off, it sounds like a personal directive as it has what sounds like my name—twice! And then finishes off with a socially disapproved action. Sometimes I imagined a face at the end of that punch. Nobody you know.
At first, the slow learning of the other class participants drove me crazy. Why did we have to do this specific movement 14 times when I got it after two tries? I was learning about my own impatience. As the weeks went on, students dropped out, until there was a dedicated core of 15 or so hardy souls left to carry on. We had two teachers who took turns by the month. The first teacher would do a move one certain way and the other would do it a little differently. I wanted to be movement specific, movement perfect. I wanted to know which was the correct way. I wanted to do it RIGHT! and never suffer the scorn of well-seasoned professional tai chi experts who may come by at any moment to judge my proficiency.
Well-seasoned professional tai chi experts were apparently busy doing other things. In 20 weeks, not one dropped by to scorn. As I began to make progress though the movements, my excessive need-to-succeed attitude cooled along with my impatience. I was beginning to get into the flow of it. Somewhere around ten weeks, a shift comes. I found myself absorbed in the movement, focusing on slowness, moving qi (energy) instead of just my arms, bending my knees to the right extent for me. Repeating Crank It Around and Slap Your Thigh (aka Brush Knee) multiple times, so that my fellow classmates could fall into the same attitude of meditation, became less of an irritation and more of a joy. We were all moving in the same direction and I finally felt a part of that flowing, breathing, moving community. I finally recognized the strength of warriors in all of us.
I had also succeeded in my quest to make friends. Two of my classmates were agreeable to retreating to a nearby sandwich shop for lunch after our classes, which was as essential to me as moving like a sloth and gaining the physical benefits. Lunch became a regular follow-up to our class experience each week, giving us the opportunity to converse more openly and get to know one another over breakfast burritos and blueberry smoothies.
Bonding over the colorful smoothies at Simple Cafe
On the last day of class, we had a party, our reward for sticking it out, and to thank our teachers. I signed up to take the teacher certification course and to continue learning the next part of the program along with a few members of my just-completed class. We were told that we are now part of the tai chi community. I could not wait to pass on to others what I had learned in just 20 short weeks. I promise to impart much tai chi wisdom and to keep all that monkey business to myself.
May your chi be plentiful and your monkeys be few,
Guest Editor Carol L and I knew each other in Houston but never really got the chance to hang out together. Since she moved to Asheville, we have had some fun that involves eating and drinking. She is a teacher but did not use a red pen when editing as red is an angry color. Blue is friendlier and lots of blue is the friendliest.