Monday, June 10, 2013

Day 29 - Tai Chi

I have never done Tai Chi. Similar to my previous experience with Yoga, Tai Chi is not a practice that ever piqued my interest. Although more real to traditional form than American Yoga, I always viewed Western practitioners of Tai Chi in the same vein of energy worshippers and modern hippies I attributed to Yoga. While I never held ill will toward anyone that practiced either, I simply viewed Tai Chi and Yoga as practices that had been manipulated by Western culture and branded as a spiritual fix for all afflictions. I didn’t buy the hype, and I wasn’t about to embarrass myself by standing out in the open making slow, fluid movements with my arms and legs that appeared to be made up on the spot. That stated, my recent and altogether surprising experience with Yoga made me more open to the idea of trying comparable practices as a part of my ongoing “I have never…” challenge. In turn, I located a Tai Chi class I could attend and made my way to my scheduled appointment this morning.

The day began with an early rise to give myself time to get ready for the day. I spent nearly an hour augmenting my normal morning routine to ensure I packed the supplies and clothing I figured I would need for the Tai Chi class. After getting prepared, I grabbed my bag and headed for the door a full 30 minutes before the start of the class. With a 15 minute trek to the Group Health Cooperative facility on Madison’s Westside at which the Tai Chi class was to be held, I figured I would arrive with plenty of time to get ready for the class and to get acquainted with the space…Unfortunately, rush hour beltline traffic decided otherwise.

After making my way out of downtown Madison, I entered the beltline at the John Nolen Drive interchange. I was greeted with three lanes of packed traffic moving at little more than five miles per hour. The minutes passed as I crept along the highway at a pace roughly equivalent to a person jogging. I felt tension building as the idea of my arriving late to my Tai Chi class became a very real possibility. My eyes shifted back and forth from the road before me to the clock in my car’s dashboard as I waited for a break in the traffic. “Come on… Come on…” I said out loud, hoping for some sudden, miraculous change in traffic conditions. I looked at the clock once more to find I had 12 minutes until my class began. Realizing I had moved less than one mile since I entering the highway, I started to come to terms with a late arrival to my Tai Chi class.

Several minutes later the jammed traffic finally gave way to regular highway speeds. Relieved, I focused on getting to the class as fast as possible. I kept my eyes peeled for patrolling police officers as I sped down the blacktop road. Based on my current pace and my location at the time, I thought I could still make it to the class only a few minutes late. Maintaining focus, I pressed on, shifting lanes to avoid slower traffic at all costs. Eventually, I made it to the Westside and pulled into a clinic parking lot to attend my class.

Grabbing my bag from the passenger seat, I hurried out the car door and rushed across the parking lot. I entered through a large rotating door as I glanced at my phone appointment for the Tai Chi class and read “second floor” on the description. Upon entering the building I glanced to my left and saw a sign reading “second floor” at the base of a stairway. Without delay, I walked to the base of the stairs and ran to the top. After walking down a hallway, I entered a glass door and stopped. Looking around the room I took in the sight of a few people sitting in a waiting room bordered by several hallways. In front of me sat a receptionist desk with a “Diabetic Clinic” sign above it. My heart sunk as approached a woman sitting at the desk. “Excuse me, do you have a Tai Chi class scheduled here this morning?” I asked in a tentative tone. The woman cocked her head in confusion at my question. She began to shake her head as she said, “No… No, we don’t. I wish we did though!” I looked around me once more before grabbing my phone and glancing at the Tai Chi appointment details. I quickly asked the woman the address of my current location. While the receptionist rattled off a series of numbers and names that did not match the address on the appointment, a sense of disappointment consumed me. In my rushed state, I had confused the clinic for an upcoming allergist appointment with the clinic I was supposed to attend the day’s Tai Chi class. Already late, I had found my way to the wrong location.

In an obvious state of urgency I asked the receptionist if she was familiar with the clinic at which I was supposed attend the class. She confirmed she was, and rose to give me concise directions to the appropriate location. Advising me it was only about a mile away, she pointed the direction I was to head. I thanked her and dashed for the door, hearing the woman say, “I hope you make it!” in trailing words behind me. After descending to the lower level of the facility and bolting back to my car, I started the engine and returned to the road as fast as possible. I followed the woman’s directions as best as I could remember, whizzing past office buildings and retail strip malls.

The only photo from the day -
Cameras were not permitted in the building
“I’m already 10 minutes late” I thought as I rounded a corner. A feeling of uncertainty gripped me as I wondered whether I would be able to complete the class that day. I started thinking about what alternatives I had to keep my “I have never…” challenge afloat if this event fell through. Wracked with nerves I abruptly stopped at a three-way intersection. Directly in front of me sat the building at which I was supposed to arrive some 12 minutes earlier. I drove into the parking lot and ran to the building’s front door. As I entered my head rapidly moved from left to right searching for a stairway to the second floor. Finding it, I ran up the stairs and saw a small receptionist desk on my left. From several yards away I called out to a woman at the desk and asked her if I was in the right location for a Tai Chi class. She smiled and nodded her head. “It will be in the room to your right” she said pointing to the opposite side of the room. I made it, but I was 15 minutes late.

I entered the room breathing heavily from my bursts of activity in the previous minutes. A petite woman roughly 50 years of age was the only person in the room. She sat alone on a mat in the corner with her eyes closed and her legs crossed. As I walked in she slowly opened her eyes and smiled at me. “Is this the Tai Chi class?” I asked confused at the lack of other participants. “It is” she said standing and walking toward the center of the room. After a quick introduction and several apologies from me, the woman, Terri, proceeded to explain I was the only attendee for the morning class. Despite my tardiness, she stated we had more than enough time to work through Tai Chi basics, so I gathered my things and prepared to begin the class.

Terri guided me to the center of the room discussing some of the fundamentals of Tai Chi. She began by instructing me to take a standing position facing the large windows lining the room’s exterior walls. She directed me to stand slightly pigeon toed with my hands folded over the center of my torso at my waste. Together we focused on our breathing as Terri continued explaining the history and purpose of Tai Chi. Her voice was soft and slow, speaking in segmented sentences bridged by brief periods of silence. Eventually, Terri asked me to focus only on my breathing and relax as I held my eyes closed. She fell silent for several minutes as we stood before one another, breathing in through our nose and out through our mouth. In moments I found myself letting go of the stress associated with my journey to the class and focusing only on the direction Terri had provided me. I was sinking into a quiet, relaxed state that guided me to what I could only assume was “my center” as Terri had described it earlier. As if aware of my internal state, Terri finally broke the silence and said, “Ok, now you’re ready to begin.”

Terri turned toward the windows and explained we would start with “Open Tai Chi”, which included slow sweeping movements of the arms across and away from the torso while relaxing and contract the core with each inhale and exhale. She provided me guidance on the position of my hips and legs as we continued the gradual movements of our arms through the air around us. At first, I found it difficult to synchronize all of my movements, but in time I began to find the rhythm and get lost in the calm that came with the pace of our actions. Terri began adding new Tai Chi movements to our repertoire periodically as our bodies engaged in continuous movement focused solely on internal strength and breathing. I found it challenging to organize my movements and follow her direction with each new addition to our routine, with Terri remaining vigilant over my form and movements. She gave direction to correct my muscle tension, the placement of weight on my feet, and my posture as we shifted and turned, our bodies in slow, constant motion.

With repetition of our movements I began to become more comfortable with the exercise. Eventually, I found myself falling deeper into my subdued, peaceful state. The events from the morning, thoughts of my forthcoming workday, and the stress associated with a busy travel week fell away as my movements became my only focus. Over time, my arms began to feel buoyant in the air as though they were moving through water. I was losing myself in the moment and it felt great. Finally, our exercises culminated with “White Swan Spreads its Wings” an exercise that was combination of all the actions Terri taught me previously. We practiced “White Swan Spreads Its Wings” with periodic visits back to “Open Tai Chi” and other simple movements.

As the end of our session neared, Terri had me come back to center with my hands folded over my torso at my waist. Again, we focused on breathing as Terri drew the class to a conclusion. She proceeded to explain to me the art of Tai Chi required 100 hours of daily focus on form to start the more complex forms of the exercise, and advised me with time the power of the art would become apparent. Terri then concluded the lesson and asked me my thoughts on the process. Still dazed by the release induced by our practice, I advised her the sense of peace that came with our time together was welcomed and enlightening. Although I told Terri I would not likely have much time to practice Tai Chi in the near future because of my ongoing “I have never…” challenge, I gave notice the practice intrigued me. As participants in her next class started filing in the room, Terri invited me to practice with her and other participants at the Monona Terrace on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Acknowledging my need to depart, I thanked Terri and made my way out of the building.

Today’s experience with Tai Chi gave me a great deal of insight regarding the power and beauty of the practice. Walking in a bit skeptical about Tai Chi as a whole, I left Terri’s class with a new perspective on its ability to affect people. The balance and stamina required to make Tai Chi work definitely made parts of my body sore, and the cleansing feeling that emerged from my first experience with the art was an unexpected occurrence. I don’t know when I will do Tai Chi again, but I can say without reservation I now understand why people are willing to make themselves look so ridiculous for the sake of practicing it. If I was able to gain the peace and balance I experienced today each time I practiced Tai Chi, no amount of awkward looks from passersby would deter me from continuing. Today was one of those “don’t knock it until you try it” moments for me. Seriously, I encourage anyone to give Tai Chi a try and tell me it doesn’t make them feel the same way.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    I was looking for blogs about tai chi and came across yours blog.I also agree with you for that Tai Chi classes are very very important for we need Tai Chi classes regularly.


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