I did tai chi four times this morning, one for each of the cardinal directions. The first time through focused on breathwork and footwork. The second time I focused on the outward and upward movements. The third time, facing west, I focused on the downward and splitting movements. And the fourth time, facing north, I focused on the outward movement and breathwork again.
I feel pretty clean. There’s something about doing breathwork consciously and deliberately that clears one out, that makes one feel like stale air has been consciously expelled, and that quality air has been replaced. This is something of an illusion, because if air is dirty at all, it’s pretty much dirty everywhere — you can’t go fifty yards down the road, and do tai chi there, and expect the air to be cleaner. You might be able to go twenty miles down the road, and find cleaner air… but your car would have dirtied the air on your way there. My girlfriend and I were watching a David Attenborough video, and he asserted that the western winds of the Sahara blow dust and sand into the Amazon; while in the northern hemisphere, pollution from China winds up in Seattle; pollution from Montana winds up in Ohio; and pollution from Ohio winds up in Connecticut. It’s all interconnected — the storm that hits St. Louis one day with rain will dump snow in Connecticut five or six days later.
That interconnection certainly drives the tai chi body. I did four exercises this morning, because I felt like I needed to push myself before beginning teaching again tomorrow. And because I have an ongoing stressor in my right shoulder and elbow that just isn’t quitting or going away. You’ll notice that I didn’t do too much inward movement during my four tai chi forms. I concentrated on the outward, upward, and downward.
This is due to running into an old friend. I’ve known this friend for 10-ish years; he’s been practicing yoga for forty, and he’s in his seventies now. We talked about our daily practices a bit, and I asked him what he’s done lately; he told me that he’s more or less given up doing hand-stands, because the blood pressure change in his head nearly ruptured his eyeball recently, and his retinal nerve needed the care of a doctor for a while. Eeek.
However, he has an incredible talent for understanding body mechanics, because he’s lived with the challenges of asking his body to do difficult things, daily, for ten times longer than I have. I explained my elbow issue to him, and he nodded sagely and pointed out that in tai chi, all of the curved postures that I assume are designed to pull inward “and that’s where you’re experiencing stress, on the inward pull. So maybe focus on the outward pull, the counterbalance, for a while.” Good advice.
Today it helped. This elbow-issue has been around for a month or so — because last month I wasn’t experiencing it at the monthly dance event I go to; and last night was the dance event. Hanging out with one of my friends there, I got to do a bit of Push Hands, and I was reminded again how much of tai chi involves regular work with dynamic balance. I think we did five short rounds; he won three, and I won two.
My tai chi teacher once said that we should invest in loss: figure out what it is that causes you to lose, each time that you lose. In all three of my losses, I discovered that I lost right after trying to invest my energy in winning. It was a useful reminder that tai chi is a defensive art — you can’t go into a competitive situation convinced that you are going to win. You have to commit yourself to a situation where your opponent’s strength and power and eagerness for victory are ultimately going to be used against him.
Of course, I had my own challenges around that — it was my own quest for victory that caused me to lose three times. It’s so important to remain in the moment in Push Hands, because one’s goal is to let one’s opponent slide off and past you, rather than engage force-to-force. This is largely a matter of training rather than instinct, though… and the training takes much longer than I’ve currently spent practicing.