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My first year with Taichitoday

... an amusing, heartfelt account of one person's experiences starting taichi practice ...


It was near the end of my first taichi class, and, after introductions, a discussion of taichi’s health benefits, and warm-up exercises, the teacher announced that it was time to do “the whole form.” Students started assembling in rows, in columns, looking happy, excited. This was evidently “the big event.” I didn’t know what a “form” was, and I didn’t know anyone there, so I moved to the back where I could be inconspicuous and just observe what the others did. But the teacher saw me and called out, “Please come to the center of the group. That way you can follow everyone around you.” I wanted to protest, but I could see that she was serious. So I feigned confidence and made my way to the middle of the pack. All eyes were on me.


The music started. It was slow and pretty, and I was just beginning to enjoy it, when everyone around me started moving. I managed okay at first: a lift of the foot, a step to the left, a raising and lowering of the arms, a shift of weight. I can do this, I thought. But then things got complicated. Hands forming balls, arms slicing through the air, feet rocking back and forth, walking backward, kicking, pivoting, we’re turned to the front, wait—now to the right, and, oh no—now we’re facing left, constantly rotating, moving continuously, everyone in sync, everyone in time to the music. Everyone … except me. I tried, I did, but by the time I grasped what my classmates were doing and got my body into position, they’d moved on and were doing something else. My legs were like lead pipes, my arms felt too long, I was off-balance—nothing about me was right.


I admit I thought about quitting. But I wasn’t just doing taichi on a lark. It was for my health. I’d recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and my doctor told me that practicing taichi was important for preserving and improving balance, just like medication. I would have to find a way to do it.


Over the next few weeks, I began to learn a little. I wasn’t practicing on my own yet, but just being there every week, standing in the center of the group as we did “the whole form,” watching everyone around me, I started to absorb some of it. I got down the initial “holding the ball,” the “playing the lute,” and the “full body push.” I became familiar with the music and how the movements synched up with it. I learned the proper posture, how to do the taichi walk, and how to never let my feet stand on the same line.


And I began to meet people. First were the teacher’s helpers. These were advanced students participating in the class who were quick to notice and step in to offer suggestions and corrections when beginners looked like they needed extra help. But I didn’t know this at first. The first time one approached me and began to critique me (before we had ever been introduced), I was taken aback. Who was this person? By whose authority did he have the right to critique me? Did he even know what he was talking about? But I soon became accustomed to this practice and discovered that I learned a great deal from these one-on-one interactions. I developed respect for these helpers and began watching them carefully each class to improve.


I also met people who, like me, were practicing taichi for their health. There was the woman who’d had a stroke, the gentleman with cancer, the lady with osteoporosis. We talked about our health issues openly—the first time I’d done so with anyone outside of my family. Everyone was compassionate and encouraging, and I heard several stories about how taichi helps the body and the mind.


My teacher was a lovely person, both inside and out. And so graceful. I would compare my clumsiness to her grace and would question if I could ever be good at this. I doubted it, but just in case, I started paying extra close attention to her movements, hoping that some of her elegance would soak in just by observation.


Over the first year, I noticed several changes. My balance, though not perfect, got better. When I started taichi, I could barely stand on my right leg without it shaking, and I would have to set down my left foot after just a few seconds. But I got stronger, and if I was having a good day, I could eventually hold onto my kicks as long as we were supposed to. I became more self-confident around others, as well. When I started taichi, I would wait in my car until just before class started and leave immediately after it had ended—I was too shy to talk to people I didn’t know. By the end of the year, I’d made several acquaintances and saw the potential for deeper friendships in the group. I also felt more “in tune” with my body than before. It felt good to move my body the way you do in taichi, as though this practice were perfectly designed for the human physique. Overall, I was a happier person, and the joy I felt in taichi class carried over to all other areas of my life. 


The last day of class started off like all the others, but when it came time to perform the “whole form,” my teacher’s husband, himself a highly skilled taichi practitioner, whipped out a video camera. What? They’re going to video us? I was nowhere near ready to appear on an official class video! But I had no choice, so I did my best: definitely not great, but better than day one.


And that is a good way to summarize my experience that first year. I was still awkward, still confused, but things were beginning to look up in my taichi journey. On to year two...


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