Chi and Me
– Nonfiction by Scott D Vander Ploeg –
I’m standing in line. The floor is hard, concrete, maybe harder than concrete. In a few short minutes my feet will ache, pain will radiate upwards into calves and knees and thighs.
I shift my left foot over so now my feet are shoulder-width apart. I line them up in parallel, and bend my knees slightly, sinking into the ma-pa (horse) stance. My breath deepens down into the tantian, a bellows in the lower abdomen. I relax and clear my mind. I can remain like this till the customer at the register finishes counting the pennies to pay for his groceries.
Learning Tai Chi: We met twice a week on a hill outside the Armory Building on campus for two hours each session. We started with instructions for the newcomers. At the hour break we shifted to repeated practice of the whole routine. Chen Wong was pleased with us. He demonstrated push-hands. The group of twenty students walked away lighter and happier than when they came. This lasted two semesters, roughly nine months. It was 1983/84.
It has been thirty-eight years since I learned this Yang-family Tai-Chi form. It is a short form of around thirty-eight postures, requiring at least eight minutes to complete, better if twelve, outstanding at fifteen. When I am happy and not subject to life’s stressors (work, arduous travel, family obligation) I practice every day. If there are time constraints, I might just do a few isolated exercises collectively called qi-gong, or energy work.
My parents feared I would develop a heart condition. My father had his first heart attack at age thirty. He died just shy of sixty, waiting for a transplant, throwing a blood clot from the heart-catheterization and too much blood-thinning Coumadin. My grandfather died of a heart attack when my father was three years old. Like original sin, I was born with a strike against me—a history of heart disease. As I write this I begin to feel angst, and so take a deep breath, a tai-chi breath, and my blood pressure drops. When they ask to take my blood pressure I reply: “what numbers do you want me to have today?” My friend and protégé Peyton has proved that he can cause his blood-sugar level to drop by doing our form. Larry likes the meditative effects.
The junior-year AP English students had risen early and hauled themselves to the test site. If they passed the three-hour battery of questions and essay writing, they could get three hours of college credit and dodge having one more course to complete. They were tense. One of them started doing the chi-gong I taught them, an easy series of movements that include tai-chi breathing. Others joined in. When it became time to begin answering, they were no smarter, but they also were no longer tense.
My favorite positions have blurred so that I no longer can claim one over another, and even some of the transitions are as appealing as the named positions. I’ve turned the Wave-Hands-Like-Clouds series into a chi-gong exercise, leading a room full of three-hundred educators in an energizing rest break between grading stacks of exams. I love the deep sweeping arms in Repulse Monkey, the horizon raking arm in Stork Cools Its Wing, the quiet power in Apparent Close-up.
The postures in the form have a martial application, lots of blocking moves, a few strikes or punches. Some favor studying Tai Chi for the benefits in fighting. Others find it helpful for overall health—physical and mental. Once the form is learned, it becomes muscle-memory, and we don’t have to concentrate on it. Instead, we can free up the consciousness and put it on hold, not quite ignoring distraction (squirrel!), but not allowing such to control our thoughts. It is a zone/flow effect and is amazingly therapeutic.
Jeff told me that when he first plunged forward in the dive that began his regional swim competition finals, he fumbled a little. In his mind he imagined the tai-chi movements and recovered his equilibrium. It did not matter about the competition; his competition was with himself. He loved to swim and he did so with maximum efficiency, of course winning that regional competition. I was the “dry coach,” teaching the team Tai Chi to improve their swimming.
In China, the administrative leaders created a 24-position form, arranging it for competition. This is a contradiction of what the form is about. They wanted to encourage the exercise, but discourage the heart of the practice—inner strength, meditation, personal resilience. Old religions are not encouraged. I mention this because there are at least five different family styles, a lot of variety in practice.
At age sixty-four I am ridiculously healthy, a bit overweight, but have outlived my dad’s age—he did not make it to sixty—and his father who died young. I take a small dose of anti-cholesterol medication, and vitamins. Tai Chi be good for me.
It’s around 3 pm that most people feel a kind of enervation effect, the day’s accumulated efforts having zapped the strength and fatigued the mind. Now is the time to do some Tai-Chi, perhaps beginning with a qi-gong warm up of the eight-piece brocade, perhaps with a Tai-Chi-ball routine. In a few minutes, the fatigue is gone, the mind is sharp, all the lights are on and I’m ready to take on the remaining afternoon and evening.
Why ‘play’ Tai-Chi? It is not for any of the above effects, or rather it is for all of them and the fact that it is simply joyous to be able to move around and control the body and cycle the energies that are bundled together in “Chi”—breath, spirit, energy.
About the Author – Scott D Vander Ploeg
Scott D Vander Ploeg, Ph. D., is an early-retired professor of English/Humanities, named Kentucky College Teacher-Of-The-Year in 2009. He recorded essays for a regional NPR affiliate for a decade, and later wrote a column about the arts and letters for a small-town newspaper. He was the Executive Director of the Kentucky Philological Association. In his spare-time he is an amateur thespian, a jazz drummer, and a Sifu in Tai Chi. Find him online at: https://www.greatscottwriter.com
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