White Crane Spreads Its Wings Four Years Later

I began tai chi lessons in February 2004. Since there is nothing in my past that would foreshadow an interest in tai chi as opposed to, say, an interest in small-town bars, I decided this development was odd enough for a once-a-year column. To see what happens. This report is three months late, which fits nicely with last year’s theme.

I still go to class Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Week in, week out, I am there. I’ve become habituated. There’s a lot to be said for doing something whether you feel like it or not, because after that something is over, you get the good feeling of completing it and can claim whatever knowledge that trails along as bonus.

This year I have not practiced regularly on my own, and when I do I am not engaged. This has led to a separate and distinct practice, best described by a Lyle Lovett lyric: “What do you do when it quits being new?”

So, what happened?

Follows is taken from the inaugural 2004 column: Yang style tai chi Chuan has three sections and 108 movements. Within one or two decades I should be able to demonstrate for you Grasp Sparrow’s Tail, White Crane Spreads its Wings, Embrace Tiger Return to Mountain, Needle to the Bottom of the Sea, Wave Hands Through Clouds (9 times), and Snake Creeps Low. Please check back then.

Today’s take: Prescient. One to two decades sounds right, although I’d bet the over.

From the 2004 column: 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.”

Today: Perhaps the dumbest sentence I’ve ever written.

From 2005: 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, lurching from one foot to the next, moving twice too fast, pushing, make that, shoving feet, arms and torso around in a cloddish approximation of my teacher.

Today: I can do section 1 on the right side. Not like a pro, but well enough so a practitioner would recognize what I’m doing. Section 2 is getting better, section 3 is a work in progress. On the left side, section 1 is okay. The rest is a mess.

From 2006: We’ve been working on the left side for the past six months. This goes slowly. We’re spending more time on breathing, balance, and moving chi. We’re beginning the practice of inner tai chi. I don’t have a clue.

Today: Progress on inner tai chi is imperceptible to me. Probably because my moves have not reached automatic pilot stage. I try to remember three things. Moving my balance from ball of foot to heel to ball of opposing foot to heel and repeat. Reverse breathing. Bring your gut in when you breathe in, expand your belly when you breathe out. And thirdly, moving chi as you go along. Now put all three together and in harmony. Every step.

I forget the order of the moves. Or, I do the moves, forget to move chi, or forget to shift my balance, or forget reverse breathing. But there was one victory this year. The first time I felt chi move. I felt the heat in the palm of my right hand, in a circle the size of a silver dollar. Incredible.

From 2006: In terms of physical health and well being, after a considerable investment of time and energy, I can say I feel better. 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 physical improvements.

Today: That continues to be true. tai chi is a slow gentle climb, but every few months I’ll do something, walk up a hill, and realize I couldn’t do that as easily two years ago. It’s subtle, but it’s real.

2007: Turns out the world of tai chi is like the other worlds humans create. I have listened to stories about 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 Chaun doesn’t make you a good person, or more precisely, for some it does, for some it doesn’t.

Today: Of course.

The story line above, unlikely candidate takes on tai chi and transforms into something new, are words, black dots on paper. Out here, it’s real life. I have no idea what’s going to happen next.

Although I will make class on Friday.

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I like reading about something I would never have the commitment to attempt. Vicarious virtue?

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