White Crane Spreads Its Wings One Year Later

It's been 12 months since I wrote a column about taking up Tai Chi Ch'aun. I promised to report back after a year.

The teacher, Sifu Yee Yuen, is somewhere between 75 and 100. He's been practicing Tai Chi Ch'aun for 60 years here and in China. He's small, maybe five feet tall, bald, has a slight belly, and speaks with a Chinese accent. I take lessons from him and his ex-wife.

Classes are held in a city park. Students gather at 8:00 a.m. We close our eyes and stand in place for 30 minutes. This is a meditation called zhan zhuang. Then, we stretch, warm up, and begin practicing movements for an hour. Tai Chi Ch'aun long form has three sections and 108 movements. Section 1 has 17 movements, section 2 has 38 movements, and section 3 has 53. Last year I wrote, "At first, the movements seem pretty simple. I can't do them, but I can see, given time, how I could perform a passable facsimile."

Oh, braggadocio of oblivious youth!

It took ten months to get through section 1. Your mileage will vary. When I say, "get through," I mean, able to slog my way from beginning to end in the grossest possible manner. I mean, rough cut, Hippo-in-Ballet-Shoes-Attempting-Fouette Turn. This is falling, lurching from one foot to the next, moving twice too fast, not thinking of breath or intention or chi or moving energy in tight circle-eights from left heel to right ball of foot to right heel to left ball of foot -- those things are five years off -- but merely pushing, make that, shoving feet, arms, and torso in a cloddish approximation of Sufi Yee Yuen. Ten months, one section; the shortest section.

Seven months ago I started going to more classes, four per week, to get over the hump. This is a good deal more regularity than I'm used to. Three of those classes are 8:00 a.m. classes, which means I get up at 6:30 a.m. on those days, and considering that sleeping in is one of the most valuable trophies a writer possesses, 6:30 a.m. says more than one might, at first, surmise. And that wasn't enough. So, I began practicing by myself two days a week.

Six days a week. I don't know why.

I like how practical and self-evident the practice is. When Yee Yuen does White Crane Spreads its Wings or Return to Mountain or Needle to the Bottom of the Sea or Wave Hands Through Clouds or Snake Creeps Low in super slow motion, perfectly controlled, one movement effortlessly flowing into the next (you cannot see a beginning or an end to any one of them), well, either you can do that or you can't. There is no quibble to be had.

I don't know the other students; I say hello to three or four. I've had, maybe, a half dozen after-class conversations, but only about the usual blah-blah and none lasting more than ten minutes. It's not a jolly group.

Turns out the world of Tai Chi is like the other worlds humans create. I have listened to stories about some of the great masters and their smoking, drinking, fornicating, power grabbing, money grubbing, back stabbing -- acting exactly like the rest of us. Becoming an expert in Tai Chi Ch'aun doesn't make you a good person; or more precisely, for some it does, for some it doesn't. There's no telling what it will do for you.

In terms of physical health and well being, after a considerable investment of time and energy, I can say I feel better than when I started, something I began to notice a couple months back. Not much better, but I have more energy, more lightness, a happier mood, just enough to know it's real. An equivalent amount of time spent in a gym or on a track, on a bicycle, would have returned greater improvements.

I will not live long enough to get good at this. One master said that it takes doing the long form, left and right side, seven or eight times a day for 50 years before one is truly competent. Even allowing for a master's braggadocio, I will fall decades short.

So, there it is. I don't know what's going to happen. I might quit this week. I might practice seven days a week. I have no plan. In fact, I don't have a hint. But I must own, between you and me, that there is something about Tai Chi, something I have not been able to name, that calls to me. I hate that. Hate not knowing its name.

Cheng Man Ching, poet, calligrapher, painter, tui shou and swordplay master, wrote, "...but this is still a secret, do not speak of it, do not announce it to others, or even to yourself. Only stand, and move, and breathe, letting go, let the great thing happen...by itself."

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