Many thanks to Leonard Tuchyner for this wonderful article about his journey with T’ai Chi and Master Hiromi.
So there I was, seventy years old with no clue as to how I got to be a septuagenarian. What I did know was that my body must have been driven by a maniac. Miraculously, I was still standing and functioning, despite the fact that my medics wanted to replace my knees because I’d worn out all the cartilage.
I had survived life, but I didn’t do it without a lot of bumps in the road. I was legally blind, had a back that had been broken twice and a leg three times. I also earned a torn rotator cuff on the left side, a shoulder surgery on the other, and arthritis had found a welcoming home in my well-broken-in body.
Why am I going into this long laundry list of woe-is-meisms? It’s to show you how T’ai Chi has helped keep me healthy and fit despite this baggage of aches and complaints. It’s a highly adaptive physical and mental health resource that can work with and through almost any list of age-related groans that we have earned through the years. In fact, you can do variations of T’ai Chi on crutches or in a wheelchair.
T’ai Chi had interested me because I have been involved in martial arts for most of my life, with an avid interest in sparring. But, for obvious reasons, I had to give sparring up at the age of sixty-eight. When I made it to seventy, my wife had taken some group T’ai Chi lessons with Master Hiromi Johnson of the Charlottesville T’ai Chi Center, and I thought I would give it a try. I knew my fighting days were over, but that didn’t mean my martial arts days were over. Learning a moving meditation was my primary purpose. I was concerned that because I am legally blind, I would not be able to learn in a group where the prime learning mode is visual. A talk with Hiromi informed me that I could take private lessons. We settled on a schedule of one lesson every two weeks. A senior citizen discount helped the pocketbook. It takes about two weeks of home practice before I feel ready for another lesson, so the two week interval works well. I’m still on that schedule five years later.
With the help of my teacher, I experienced how the different positions and movements enhance the flow of energy which is called “chi” and how body mechanics work in enhancing strength, balance, mobility and energy efficiency. It never ceases to amaze me how subtle differences in movement and posture enhance these qualities.
Getting back to the concept of moving meditation, I am using meditation here to mean maintaining a relaxed, focused awareness. Although I’ve practiced meditation in one form or another for most of my life, I never thought I was any good at it. But when moving through the T’ai Chi forms, I find there is an immediate feedback as to whether I am in a meditative state, because the moment my mind wanders, I mess up. I also find that the capacity to relax through the routines is one of the skills that is developed. So it is obviously a mindfulness form of meditation. As I get older, it is clear to me that my brain is not as frisky as it used to be. But T’ai Chi helps me to stay sharp, even though I’m not as glib as once I was. Some of my friends think that’s a blessing. The T’ai Chi routines are, in my opinion, a brain massager. The combination of constant movement and concentration is ideal for neural health.
T’ai Chi practice is also a wonderful way to have non-verbal social support that mixes people in many different life stages. I would wager that most folks, when they think about T’ai Chi, have a mental image of senior citizens moving very slowly in unison through graceful routines.
In our school, you would see the young and not-as-young engaging together in this endeavor. In other situations, you would see only the young or senior citizens. It might surprise you to know that children are doing T’ai Chi. They especially like the part that uses weapons, like swords. I like it, too. But don’t worry. They only let me use a fragile wooden sword. If I accidently poked someone with it, it would break.
The slowness of T’ai Chi is one of the qualities I’ve found most effective for my own growth and healing. This unhurriedness is one of the reasons that T’ai Chi is famous for improving balance and posture. Slow motion allows for noticing every nuance of how the mind and body work together. This heightened awareness is a path to improved physical and emotional health.
This awareness has proven to be a key for dealing with some of my health issues. My knees are one example. In the slow, gentle movements transitioning from one position and state of balance to another, I can feel minor stresses in bone and muscle, probably better than younger practitioners because my threshold of discomfort is lower. I know when the knees are approaching the ‘don’t-go-any-further’ zone. I can decide how far to push the limits. The result is that the ligaments, tendons and muscles are flexible and fit. I may reach that point in the future when I think it is time to buy bionic knees, but not today. The orthopedic doctors and surgeons I consult have told me they are surprised I’m walking. I walk over a mile per day, every day, and I’m not gritting my teeth or using any walking aids.
The close connection between consciousness and body dynamics that is developed and fostered by T’ai Chi keeps me attuned to balance. I like to walk through slightly uneven terrain, like roadsides. The body self-adjusts to surprises like mole tunnels and divots in the road. The fact that in a T’ai Chi session I’m standing on my feet for about an hour means my bones stay hard. Falls are not going to break me.
Most of my life I’ve had poor posture. T’ai Chi is all about posture. Every move requires the balanced carriage that achieves the movement with the least amount of stress. After five years of T’ai Chi, I probably have the best posture I’ve ever had in my life. That means the stress on all my body parts is evenly distributed.
I’m not getting any younger, so I won’t deny that the old machinery is wearing down. But I’m in a lot better shape than my younger sibling or my father when he was my age.
Both my shoulders have been seriously damaged, but the left one was never repaired. It has a humdinger of a torn rotator cuff. Most people never notice unless I tell them. I have about ninety percent of my original mobility in that shoulder. T’ai Chi requires hand, arm and shoulder movements done in coordination with all of the other body activities. But none of these movements involve hyperextension or lots of muscles. On the rare occasion when I can’t totally manipulate my left arm to the full extent required by the classic form, Master Hiromi helps me to find a way to work around any limitations. T’ai Chi is about working with what you have, not damaging what you have.
Did I mention that I’ve got arthritis? It’s all over my body. I have always been very physically active, pushing myself with sheer determination. But as I got older, the way I pushed was creating an imbalanced use of my muscles, so that one part of a muscle would be tight while another area was undeveloped. One result was that the arthritis was exacerbated and my muscles were losing stamina. T’ai Chi, with its slow, smooth, balanced movements, gradually smoothed out these muscles, restoring stamina and flexibility.
What I’m describing here is not anything I was told would happen. I’ve experienced these changes personally. The explanations I give are my own interpretations.
Even though I’m not doing any strength exercises, such as pumping iron, I remain physically strong. It’s amazing to me how the gentle T’ai Chi workout develops and maintains physical strength. The same is true for stamina. I can’t jog on my knees anymore, but there are some ferocious long hills that I walk briskly daily without strain or heavy breathing.
I am one of those people who you might see in a group doing T’ai Chi in the Courthouse park every Saturday morning. I didn’t have the courage to do that until I had learned the entire form, because I could not have mimicked others in the group with my poor eyesight. Even then, I was afraid I wouldn’t see enough to stay in pace with the others. “Unison” is the word here. So Master Hiromi put me smack dab in the middle so I would always be facing a nearby colleague. I can get enough visual cues that way, most of the time.
How does my teacher teach this art to a blind guy like me? During the lesson, my teacher uses words, hands-on guidance when necessary, and demonstration. Somehow, communication and learning happens. Master Hiromi is a master of patience.
That decision to place a visually challenged person in the middle of the pack in order to compensate for a handicap is an example of how my teacher approaches working with the rehabilitative qualities of T’ai Chi.
If you want to see what mastery looks like, attend one of the Charlottesville T’ai Chi Center’s workshop or open house demonstrations where Hiromi usually performs. Watch her, and you will understand how beautiful T’ai Chi can be.
I would like to reiterate the theme I started with. It doesn’t matter how old, talented, experienced or disabled you might be, T’ai Chi can work for you. It is an extremely powerful growth and healing resource.
Well, got to go now. My body tells me I should be moving my old bones.