The first I heard of tai chi, it seemed the idea was that you wouldn’t be there for your opponent to hit you — the art of dodging, I thought. I loved the idea: a humorous approach to self-defense. Of course, that was a very simplistic understanding of a thoroughly complicated system, but as far as self-defense goes, it does get to the essential idea. Even though you are not there to be hit, the other side of that yin is the yang: that your opponent can’t lose you either. You stick. You assist your opponent to go in the direction his force is taking him. Because tai chi isn’t just a system of fight training, its essence is the development of internal energy, of practicing, with attention, long enough to begin to learn to feel how to open your body and let your chi circulate through its system.
Tai Chi came to China from India; it developed from yogic practices and works with the same energy centers. Tai chi developed from generations of practitioners observing the natural world, observing their own and others’ bodies, meditating, thinking, conversing, writing, practicing. For the adept, the power behind kicks and punches is the internal power of the chi propelling the foot or hand from deep inside the body. Its ultimate purpose, however, is self-realization; its method is to practice until you begin to notice, then to feel, finally, perhaps, to master, the forces of yin and yang, the polar opposites and tension of physical existence. It’s pretty heady stuff, and it never ends. That’s what makes it so interesting; there’s always another level, another insight.
I finally found my teacher when I was in my thirties, a fifth-generation Chinese doctor, Tzu Kuo Shi. He taught the Yang Long Form, which took me years just to get the moves straight, and as it turns out, is legendary in the USA — few people teach is because it takes too long to learn, and to do. I prize it and certainly prefer it to its shortened and complicated competition versions that are generally taught. They are more concentrated, they allow practitioners to exhibit mastery in a tightly controlled exhibition. But I love doing the long from. I love its flow, the swing and cadence its length and repetitions allow to develop and grow. It gives me room to learn how to do it, and what it can be.
Quite some time ago, I saw a notice at a yoga studio that never was open when I was in its neighborhood. There was a photograph of an old woman — old: scrawny, wrinkled arms and legs, stringy gray hair, ancient, craggy face — in a very strong and correct Warrior Pose, one knee bent, supported by the rear leg, arms outstretched with power and lift, back arched, head erect on a strong, if skinny, neck. Under her photograph was a caption that read, “This woman is 83 years old. She started practicing with us when she was 60.” I took a most valuable lesson from that encounter. I learned that I had the rest of my life, as much or as little as was left of it, and that it didn’t matter that I had come to tai chi late or was not athletic and was, basically, terrible at it. I had the rest of my life to work on it, and it made me smile deep inside.
I have continued my tai chi journey. I came to Bedford, Virginia, and a teacher appeared to show me how to dig down and begin to understand how to break through physical barriers (Hint: Break through your mental barriers first). But although I am no longer young, and or course getting older, I am getting better at it. I am learning, improving. Noticing what happens when I keep losing my balance, thinking about what I have to do to prevent that.
None of this is magic, of course; athletes, dancers, gymnasts, they all know how to keep their weight down and their heads up, to breathe through their efforts. But I wasn’t a natural athlete, and though I finally learned how to dance, until I began to understand what I was doing while I was trying to do tai chi, I didn’t have the full story.
Maybe you have been blocked from your usual exercise by this pandemic. Tai Chi and yoga need only a few square feet, and they can give you the world, the world that is inside you, infinitely. If you are looking for something that will never grow old, never wear out, never become routine, consider taking up the study of chi qong, yoga, or tai chi. Think about your posture, your breath, quiet your mind by paying attention to the rather demanding physical things you are doing. Heal yourself, strengthen yourself. Once you allow yourself to accept your effort, and understand that you might as well relax, because you are taking only the first steps of an endless journey, you begin to have fun and feel the adventure you have undertaken. You have the rest of you life, and it will take longer than that.