This was written by my good friend Amanda, a Portlander and all-around studmuffiness.
I moved to Taiwan six months ago, and whenever I would meet someone new they would always ask me, “What do you want to do in Taiwan?” My response was always, “I want to learn Chinese, and I want to learn Tai Chi.”
Tai Chi, how quintessentially Asian, right? Don’t the mere words bring an image to mind of peaceful people, moving softly in unison, on a mountaintop at dawn, birds chirping, dragonflies dancing? Isn’t it one of those ancient Chinese secrets to health and longevity that everyone practices, starting probably from the age of about three, or four?
Well, in fact it’s not. Most people looked confused when I told them of my desire. “Why?” they would ask, adding gently, “That’s not something that most people do here.”
“For my health,” I would say. And at that people would nod, because everyone understands the wish to be healthy. Ironically enough, it was at a wine tasting party that I found my teacher. Each month a local wine club would hold a meeting, and each of the members would try to outdo the others by bringing an impressive, expensive, bottle of wine. I was invited to come along to one of these events, and by the time the fourth or fifth bottle was opened, people’s inhibitions were sufficiently lowered that they felt ready to practice their English with me. When my ubiquitous response to the ubiquitous question was delivered, one of the partygoers cried out, “Ken! Ken knows Tai Chi! He is very good!”
So that is how I ended up in the lobby of my apartment building, every Wednesday afternoon for the last four months, learning Tai Chi from teacher Ken.
Tai Chi, or Tai Chi Ch’uan, is a type of Chinese martial art, translated as “Supreme Ultimate Fist.” Ken explained that you can study it to use for fighting, or you can study it to use for health. There are five main styles, each one named after the family who originated it, the oldest dating back to 1580. I am learning Yang style Tai Chi, considered the most popular style, as it has the most practitioners world-wide. It is a set of forms, practiced slowly and precisely, in which each movement coordinates with the breath. We spent a whole day on the Tai Chi stance, knees bent, body relaxed, pelvis tilted with the back straight so that if you were pressed up against a wall there would be no space between the wall and your spine. I had to learn about the concepts of “chi,” “yin” and “yang.”
Chi is like your life force, or life energy, similar to the concept of “prana” in yoga and Ayurveda. It is vital, and needs to move freely throughout the body, blockages and obstructions to that free flow will cause injury and disease. In the practice we are constantly holding it, like a circular ball of energy in front of our abdomen, and moving it around.
Yin and yang are more than just that cool looking black and white symbol I had on a necklace pendant in high school. Translated as shadow and light, they represent the concept of natural dualities, things that might seem to be opposites, but are actually interconnected, each giving rise to the other in turn. In Tai Chi you are constantly shifting your weight completely from one leg to the other, the leg that is supporting you is “full” and the other leg is “empty.” This helps to move the energy, and is actually incredibly hard to do!
“Turn your body.”
“Close the door with your back foot.”
“This is like you are picking up a beautiful flower.”
“This is like riding a horse.”
“Relax your arms.”
“Shift your weight.”
“You have to turn your body, really turn your body.”
“This is the Bear.”
“This is the Bird.”
Tai Chi makes me angry sometimes. It looks so easy and beautiful when he does it, but I feel like a stiff, sweaty piece of wood. His crane is graceful, dipping its toe into the rushing river, mine is a giraffe pretending to be a crane, splashing in a puddle wearing rubber boots.
But other times I can feel it. I feel when I am doing it right, because I am peaceful, and my body moves without my mind telling it to. I have learned a long and complicated sequence of movements (almost) by heart, and stuck with it, despite the fact that at times I feel like going slow will drive me crazy. Moving slowly, with your breath, is healthy. It forces you to relax and quiet your mind, a state quite unlike the one in which we spend most of our time.
And I have made a friend. I am teacher Ken’s first student, and we spend our Wednesday afternoons together. He is patient, encouraging me to repeat the movements again and again, and he never gets frustrated or angry when I forget, again and again, what comes next. We are approaching the end of the form, last week we learned the complicated “Angels Weaving.” Soon we will be done and I will be sent out into the world to practice by myself. I like to think I have accomplished something, something small and also big, something I can bring home with me, and hopefully something I can keep for the rest of my life.