I’ve been a little stiff and sore the last couple of days, so I gave myself permission to spare myself a really deep day of Tai Chi today. The goal here is the crafting of a daily practice. That doesn’t mean a sprint, as the old cliché goes; but it doesn’t mean a marathon either. Pheidippides ran something like four marathon-equivalent runs before he ran THE first marathon in 490 BC… And it killed him. We don’t want to be killed by our daily practices; we want our livestock be enriched and extended by them. Accordingly, a gentle day now and again is no bad thing.
I think we know when we need a gentle day by the hurt in our bodies. It doesn’t have to be a “wow, I can’t get out of bed,” hurt. In fact, we want to avoid that hurt. Pain is no gain, as my tai chi teacher used to say. It’s a very different attitude than the modern hype of our fitness culture, but it’s also an ancient teaching. A practice that’s supposed to make us more fit should not leave us groaning in bed, unable to walk or move.
So it shouldn’t get to that point, ever. Yet at the same time, we don’t want a practice that’s never tough on us at all. We don’t improve if we don’t practice, and we don’t improve quickly if we never practice at a higher level of intensity and difficulty. What should be the signal that we need a gentler day than normal?
It’s been my discovery that the body tells me. It used to tell me, “not today.” Then it would groan when I did tai chi anyway. Now it tells me, “not so rough today,” in a creak or a muscle twinge that’s real rather than a vague sense of unease. That seems to be the key… Make your daily work, workable. if you have too many gentle days, you make no forward progress. If you have so many harsh days that you’re always in pain, you’ll never build the strengths necessary to have a daily practice.
Nor are all the strengths physical, as it turns out. There’s a mental discipline too, and a component of willpower, and an implacable firmness. Those strengths need as much development as the physical body does.