Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 241 Tai Chi

Breath deep, in through the nose, feel the abdomen contract and rib cage expand. Then the shoulders draw back and settle just a bit. Hold the breath for a few moments - and exhale. Feel the ground under foot. The center of the body comes alive. The arms are extended to form a ball or circle, the  fingers on one hand point to the fingers on the other hand. The shoulders are loose. All of these thoughts go through my mind as I start my daily ritual of Tai Chi. 

This is Retirement Talk. I'm Del Lowery.

In a recent email to Retirement Talk, John from McLean, Virginia wondered if I could talk a bit about Tai Chi. He exercises regularly, is close to retirement age and feel a bit tense at his work. He wanted to know if I thought Tai Chi might be worked into a routine that might help him.

I am not an expert in the way of Tai Chi but I do it every day; and I mean every day. I guess that tells you that I think very highly of it. My knowledge or opinions concerning this martial art has come from two teachers and personal experience. I studied with one teacher for perhaps 30 to 40 hours and the second for perhaps 15 to 20. Most of my knowledge of Tai Chi has been gained from daily practice.

The routine last for about twenty minutes and is performed within 5 minutes of when my feet hit the ground every morning. I follow a pattern of movements that I have found beneficial each day. They rarely change but they are never the same. The routine takes place in my yard, or my kitchen, my living room or my dinning room. It doesn't require a gym or elegant natural surroundings. Tai Chi takes place in your mind. A beautiful or serene setting is not necessary.

From the outside it would appear that the movements are identical day after day but that would be a mistake. On the inside they are different each and everyday. And that is where Tai Chi is done; on the inside. It is in the body and mind working as one. They sense each other, they are alert, they are intentional and united in their effort for these twenty minutes. Focus is what it is all about. When the arms raise and the knees bend into the first movement the level of consciousness zooms. There is only one thing going on in the world and that is contained in this little bit of personal space. The body and mind blend in total unity. It's a good feeling.

I am reminded of a friend of mine who conducted a little study group entitled the "Indescribable Experience." How do you talk about something that is indescribable? Tai Chi is like that. I search for expression knowing that I will fall short. But...

My first 10 minutes are spend in flexing, stretching and balancing exercises that I do with a sense of Tai Chi: slow, steady and focused. I have chosen them because they seem to fit my own personal needs. They work.

Then I go through 24 forms or movements. I learned perhaps seven of them 15 to 20 years ago and I added the others five or six years ago. I also analyzed and imitated one particularly good video I found on YouTube:

I would repeatedly watch just one movement each day for perhaps two or three weeks until I had the form internalized.

 My first encounter with Tai Chi came through injuring my back. The doctors had done everything but surgery and I didn't want to go there. I heard of a guy who used Tai Chi in his business "Revive-A-Back." I hesitated but thought I would give it a try: one session and if no positive results I would not go back. I have done Tai Chi every day since that first session.

He believed in mirrors. I now have two in my house. Full length mirrors. For much of the sessions we would stand in front of a mirror and see what we were doing. We would feel certain movements and see what our body looked like at it changed with our willed effort. Small changes were made daily and the body started to come alive. I found muscles that I never knew existed. He would coach me with "pull that in", or "lift that up", or "look at what your doing with your body". One of his favorite lines was, "We need to put a body under that head." My posture was terrible.

Today the mirror takes just a few seconds of my time. But it is checked daily. I look for the line. I check posture. I almost want to say that posture is what it is all about. You want to be centered in a body that is aligned and balanced. I check this before and after each session. It serves as a visual reminder. Sometimes I am amazed at how I have been doing something for years and then recognize that it is wrong. It needs to move just a bit more this way or that.

I move through the twenty four forms slowly. I have to constantly remind myself to go even slower. Just today the thought cruised through my mind that I had to bend the knees a little bit more and move just a bit more smoothly. Different muscles were called into play. The change felt so good.

I never consider discovering my Chi: whatever that is. I just go through the motions and try to bring mind and body together. It happens and it really feels good.

You are the one in charge of discovering and developing your own Tai Chi. If you just learn a few basic things and stay disciplined you will discover your own way. All that is taught about Tai Chi came from people just like us who were trying to create a better way of life. You can learn to sense your body, discover what triggers to pull to enhance the experience, gain confidence with practice and time, and know what works for you.

It takes time. Of course, we all have the time. It is just a matter of prioritizing. For me, Tai Chi is at the top of the list. That's why I do it first thing in the morning.  I've missed work, I've missed lunch and I've even missed a few nights of sleep, but I've never missed Tai Chi.

This is Retirement Talk.


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