Today brought a talk by Master Yang Yang, a tai chi practitioner and teacher from New York City; and a thirty-minute “Chi Energy” workout by a ‘kid’ who didn’t look older than most of my students, though he was probably in his twenties. Between the two teachings, one by an experienced master and one by someone who looks like he’s been practicing a trio of times a week for a few months, I think I have another qi gong routine to add to my practice, bringing my total to three: Five Golden Coins, Eight Pieces of Silk, and this new one.
I also spent some time today in yoga classes. I was determined that I was going to find an exercise program that helped dad. We took one of these qi gong classes together, and a yoga class, just the two of us, together. That was great for me, but hard on him, I think. Too much work on his knees.
It’s kind of like this discovery about bodies, that John Michael Greer says about civilizations. If you want your body to be strong and flexible and enduring in your seventies, you have to start in your fifties. If you want your body to be strong and flexible through your eighties, you have to start in your forties. If you want to live healthily past the century mark, you probably have to start in your thirties. The closer you get to old age (and “old age” here really means something like a major systems failure in your body, your immune system, your skeleton, your ligaments, and so on), the fewer options for exercise you have, and the longer and harder you have to work to maintain what you have got left of your health. Doctors and nurses and medicine can only do so much, relative to your own willingness to care for the flesh and bones you’ve gained or received from the universe.
As I watched him struggle through an intensive-but-beginner lesson on the Sun Salutation — Mountain Pose, Swan Dive, Plank, Chittaranga (spelling?), Cobra, Upward-facing Dog, Downward Dog, Warrior 2, Warrior 1, and so on — and experienced my own discomforts but growing ease with these forms, I considered the thirty year difference in our ages. He’s 75 (76 this autumn), and me 44 (45 this summer). He’s at an age where he’s not going to withdraw from life’s pleasures, for sure. OR in his words, “I’m seventy-five; I’m not going to live forever; I’m going to eat bacon four times a month for as long as I want to.” It’s hard to argue with that.
But it makes me consider my own mortality. I’m not married, though I’m in a long term relationship that I don’t see ending. I have a pseudo-step-daughter, but no children of my own. And while I could be six hours or twenty years away from being fatherless, the truth is that I’d like to hold on to him as long, as hale, and as happily as possible… And this goes for myself, as well. I haven’t come to any conclusions about Dad — I think that qi gong or yoga would be good for him, but I think qi gong is a better choice than yoga. But it’s also not my choice to make for him; I’ve made my choice for me, and I’ve found something that works, and I’ve offered it to him through this lesson we received together. But I can’t make him practice; only he can do that. For me, I’ve found some things that work for me. Tai chi and qi gong have made me strong; yoga and cardio will, I think, make me stronger and healthier.
They certainly have this week. The other day, I bailed out of a cycling class only 25 minutes in, shaking and trembling from the high heart rate and the intensity of the workout. Today, I was able to do seven miles of variable resistance on an exercise bike. Not the same as riding outdoors, by a long shot. But I was able to keep my heart rate between 130 and 140 for half an hour, with some short bursts higher than that, in good interval training.
One of the women in this morning’s Qi gong lecture by Master Yang said of the form he was teaching, “So it’s the process of getting there, not the getting there, that matters.” And he laughed, a beautiful and fair laugh, and said that this was exactly correct. “You have a saying here in America, No Pain No Gain, but in qi gong it is exactly the opposite: No pain is the greater gain.”
He also said something along the lines of, you are moving, you are shifting your weight, that’s 80% of the work, and then maybe 20% or a little less is the turn or the twist. But you are cultivating energy here, life force — and pain is a diminishing of that life force. Getting there means the energy is gone. And none of us here are ready to be gone yet. Are we? There was laughter. I wish I remembered his words more exactly, but that was the gist of it.
I consider the goal of yoga, though, in light of the private teaching my father and I had this afternoon. There, the goal is getting there — assuming the right posture, having the head and neck and spine and legs and feet all in the right place, and having the body connect muscles and ligaments and bones all in the right position so that the body is fully empowered to stand in the chosen posture for as long as is needed or wanted. The getting there matters.
But this is yin and yang, in a sense, more or less, exactly or approximately. Sometimes it’s the getting there, and sometimes it’s the being there, in these kinds of exercises. Sometimes you’re after exactly the right posture, and sometimes the best guess as to the appropriate movement. The kid who conducted the noonday Chi Energy Workshop said, even while doing a move called “brush the horse’s tail” too quickly, “Sometimes you’re going to do this move too fast, and sometimes you’re going to do it slow, or even stand steadily in just the basic posture. It’s good to be both static and dynamic at the right times.”
And that seems to be the gist of it. Static Dynamism. Dynamic Stasis. The process of getting there, and getting there, both matter each in their own specific and contextual way.