Tag Archives: strength

Lessons From Tai Chi: Meditations on Moving

After years of interest, last autumn I finally found a Tai Chi teacher. I approached learning Tai Chi with hopes and expectations about the benefits it could provide, but I was unprepared for the depth and complexity of the power of the practice and how important it would become in my life.

Photo by Mark So on Unsplash

Tai Chi is a form of Chinese martial art intended to teach defense and support health. It’s a multilayered practice, elegantly complex. Learning the gross motor movements is only the first baby step. One layer is connected to and leads to the next. Tai Chi is not a linear activity to learn from beginner to mastery, but a dynamic, fluid practice best approached with humility every time. It’s constantly challenging in new ways, depending on what my state of mind and spirit is on any given day.

The Tai Chi I practice is called 24 forms, all of which gradually blend into one smooth, flowing whole with practice. The forms have delightful, poetic names like The Crane, Windmills and Clouds.

Tai Chi is about finding one’s center, physically and emotionally (layers) and building the strength and balance residing there. In order to facilitate this, one crouches slightly with bent knees throughout the whole routine. This is obviously quite challenging, and for some people impossible. However, with proper foot position, body dynamics and a crouched stance, we can immediately feel the solid, stable center that is the core of every Tai Chi form. Crouching for long periods of time immediately informs us about the strength of our ankles, knees, hips, hamstrings and quadriceps, information we might not otherwise receive as we move upright through the world.

Crouching assists with balance because it lowers the center of gravity. Many people take up Tai Chi to support balance issues, in fact. Several forms require balancing on one foot or another with the supporting knee bent. This, too, can be unexpectedly challenging. Once again, our body has a story to tell that we might not otherwise hear as we move normally. I’ve always been aware that I have sloppy posture, but I’ve been habitually lazy about doing much about it. Tai Chi demands that I stack my bones on top of one another and tuck in my tailbone. If I don’t do that, I can’t balance. I notice that I now move through the rest of my life standing tall, with more grace and confidence and better posture. I don’t slump, crowding my lungs and abdominal organs. I don’t tilt or lean. I know where my pelvis is and I stay over it. My back is happier. I feel better.

Every movement counts in this practice. Each foot is placed just so in order to support a fully centered crouched stance. Shoulders, wrists and elbows stay in line with several of the forms, which necessitates holding arms straight out from the shoulder. My arms ached for months as I built strength, and I’m a strong swimmer who works out in the pool once a week. One form requires placing toes down and heel up, and another the heel down. At times we turn on our heel, and at other times our toe. In one form we turn one foot on the heel and the other on the toe at the same  time. Everything about Tai Chi leads me inward on a spiraling journey of deeper focus and mindfulness.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

It’s amazing to practice over time and begin to feel the forms smoothing out into a cohesive routine with some kind of elegance and grace. Such fun and so rewarding. Then, however, the instructor started to talk to us about our eyes. It turns out every form requires a very specific eye gaze, often on our hand movements. I was doing well with balance, but when I took my gaze off the middle distance and looked at my hand in front of my face, I lost my balance. This was advanced balance. I added in the appropriate eye gaze and started all over again with balance.

Then, the teacher began to talk about breathing. Crap. I hadn’t even thought about my breathing! Breathing is connected to energy, and Tai Chi was originally a practice for working with energy as well as defense. All the forms have to do with pushing, pulling, deflecting or defending. Now that we had some mastery of the physical challenges, we began to work on feeling our field of energy and moving it with our bodies and breath. A push is an exhalation. A pull is an inhalation.

Breathing then leads to pace and rhythm. We practice Tai Chi to meditation music — very slow. Balancing on one leg is not so hard when you do it for two or three seconds. Balancing for sustained periods of time, especially with a bent knee, requires a lot more strength and, well, balance! Every movement takes far more concentration when slowed down. This is one of the few activities I’ve ever done where the goal is to slow down. We seem to be running faster all the time, overstimulated, overscheduled, multitasking, trying to earn more money, perpetually on call via technology. We’re all in pursuit of … something. What? Does anyone ever find it? Is it worth the cost of the chase?

Photo by Chris Ensey on Unsplash

Tai Chi demands we slow down. In that slowness we discover our fatigue, our aches and pains, our half-healed injuries, our distractions and our distress and unmanaged feelings. We remember our center. We recover our balance. We make time to breathe.

Some people call Tai Chi a moving meditation, and I now understand why. When I’m practicing Tai Chi, I’m not doing anything else. When I’m walking or swimming my mind goes right on with whatever it’s busy with. Those activities are good for creative inspiration, prayer and processing feelings. Tai Chi, though, takes me to a deep, restful, quiet place of no thought, focus and present mindfulness, so rich and so empty. It opens the door for awareness, too, of the degree to which I’m captive to distraction. The instant I’m distracted by a sound or a stray thought, I lose my balance and center, I lose my breath, I lose the flow and I don’t know where I am in the forms. I think of myself as fairly focused, but I’m just as susceptible to distraction as anyone else, and I don’t want my life to become an uncontrolled blur of noise and stimulation in which I forget there’s anything but distraction. Tai Chi brings a precious and necessary balance into my days.

All these layers have brought health and healing into my life, but the greatest grace Tai Chi brings me is the opportunity to be in the body. I’m saddened by the ever-more strident body politics in our culture. I don’t remember a time in my life when it seemed so many people were locked in self-hatred and hatred of others based on some kind of physical characteristic. It reflects in our suicide and addiction rates, and it touches each one of us. We no longer honor the sacred feminine and masculine, we have few invitations to fully inhabit ourselves physically, and no one encourages us to honor and respect our physical form as it is.

Just like dance, Tai Chi calls us home to ourselves. My home is not nipped, tucked, plucked, lipo-suctioned, dyed, shaved, made-up, compressed, surgically reconstructed or uplifted. My home is my oldest friend, my most loyal companion, the loyal record keeper and diary of childbirth, breast-feeding, menopause, a lifetime of Colorado sun, slipped kitchen knives and barbed wire fence. My home is lines and wrinkles, lumpy thighs, softened breasts, grey hairs and thinning skin. This amazing, adaptable, resilient, hard-working body is the shelter and haven for my spirit.

I often move a chair aside, open the windows, take up the sheepskin rugs lying on the wide plank floor in my attic space, shut the door at the bottom of the stairs, turn on music and take off my clothes to practice Tai Chi. I like to look down at my bare toes and toe ring on the sloping grey-painted floorboards. I like to glance at my strong knees and make sure they’re in line with my heavy ankles. I like the gentle slope of my belly, cross-hatched with silver stretch marks, under which two children grew into life. I like to stack my bones carefully, tuck in my tailbone and feel the subtle realignment that opens up my center and my balance. I like the clench, pull, stretch and relaxation of my muscles. I like the combination of strength and loosening skin and flesh as I move my arms. I’m grateful for the ability to breath deeply, and the ability to sweat. I relish the air coming in the windows and touching my bared breasts.

We started with a large Tai Chi class, and over the weeks and months people dropped out, one by one. I suppose for some it wasn’t a good fit. For others it wasn’t a priority. Still others were discouraged by their physical limitations, in spite of the fact that the instructor was and is eager to modify the practice to accommodate anyone. One lady had trouble with balance but was unwilling to stand next to a chair for safety and support. Others were ashamed of their weight, their muscle weakness and/or learning a new thing in public. It made me sad. I think many would have benefitted if they could have moved past their shame and self-consciousness, and if they’d been willing to work with their physical reality instead of resenting and arguing with it.

Our Tai Chi group is small now, but we’re good friends. We laugh a lot. We learn from one another. We greet and part with hugs and affection. We enjoy the music; share our distractions, worries, aches and pains and support one another in centering, grounding, calming and mindfulness.

I’m entirely grateful.

My daily crime.

Photo by Biel Morro on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Yule: The Fool’s Journey

Yule, the winter solstice, is upon us once again. This year, here in the deeps of darkness, I’m thinking about The Fool’s journey.

The Fool, by Emily Balivet
https://www.etsy.com/listing/243456714/the-fool-tarot-art-original-acrylic

The Fool is an archetype, a recurrent symbol in mythology, folklore and story. Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk is a Fool. The Fool shows up as a simpleton, an innocent, one who is ignorant, inexperienced and silly. Archetypes have two sides, shadow and light. In modern culture The Fool has been reduced to its shadow, its most negative attributes, an insult, a curse and a contemptuous label.

But the old tales hint at a deeper, older meaning of the archetype. In fairy tales, The Fool is often the youngest sibling, the least able and powerful character, who nevertheless becomes the only one to successfully complete the task or quest. Often, The Fool has a good heart, or some extraordinary purity of character that allows him/her to be successful. The Fool has faith in magic, in talking birds and beasts, in the advice of old women, in objects given by peddlers at crossroads. To be a fool is to be held in a circle containing everything and nothing, to be without judgement, rules, expectations, cynicism or fear. The Fool is an archetype of youthful energy, bright, glowing and optimistic, filled with hopes and dreams.

Characters of this archetype set out, sometimes exiled or driven from their home, sometimes volunteering to go, with nothing but their shining confidence, intuition and willingness to do a task or find a solution. They rarely have external resource, but carry a great wealth of internal assets, including, interestingly, a kind of innocent cleverness that arises from authenticity and the simplicity of great integrity. The Fool has everything she or he needs in the form of untapped, chaotic potential.

It seems to me we’ve lost sight of the sacred role of The Fool. We kill foolish behavior with punishment, restriction, control, mocking and tribal shaming. We teach our children to avoid playing The Fool by making “good” choices. We avoid looking or feeling like fools. Foolishness is equated with immaturity, irresponsibility and naiveté. We resist being wrong or admitting we made a mistake. Playfulness is no longer a priority.

I see The Fool as an essential first step in The Hero’s journey. It’s where we all start as we undertake any new experience or endeavor. All Heroes start out as Fools, and perhaps all Fools are also Heroes. The Fool archetype creates space in which we learn resilience, strength, courage and creative problem solving. In the gap between The Fool’s happy hopes and dreams and reality is the place where Self is shaped, and the more fully we embrace this archetype, the more of our own potential we realize.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

That’s what I believe, when I think carefully about it, but that’s not how I show up in the world.

I hate to feel like a fool. Humiliation is one of the most uncomfortable emotions I experience. I dread appearing irresponsible or naïve. I’ve bought into the cultural definition of foolishness equaling stupidity, and I don’t want to be perceived as stupid. I’ve been warned at the beginning of every Fool’s journey I’ve embarked upon with head shaking, patronizing smiles and dire, ominous warnings: “You have no idea how hard marriage is.” “Boy, is your life going to change!” “You’re going to hate it!” “You’ll find out I was right!” “It won’t last.” “Nothing will ever be the same.”

As a parent, I shook my own head, smiled patronizingly and issued warnings. I wanted to protect my sons from “bad” choices, from danger, from illness and injury and from the pain of disillusionment and disappointment, the very things that help us figure out who we are.

The Fool is an archetype precisely because it’s so persistent and present in our lives, because it’s our nature to go into the world and explore, seek, complete tasks and engage in quests. I wonder what it would be like if we all framed The Fool’s journey as sacred space, as a necessary and beautiful rite of passage, filled with potential and promise. In that case, revisiting this archetype throughout our lives at any age could be viewed as a chance to refresh our willingness, consent and curiosity about ourselves and what might be possible, a chance to apply the skills we’ve learned in our previous cycles as The Fool rather than stay frozen in bitterness, shame, regret and fear.

It’s true that every new journey is a risk. None of us could have imagined what it would be like to be an adult, to fall in love, to get married, to have children, to move across the country, to get the perfect job, to battle illness or injury, to age. Dire warnings and ominous predictions are pointless and useless as we navigate in our lives. Sincere and simple congratulations from others; faith in our own intuition, intelligence and strength and the experience of unconditional love and belief in our abilities from friends and family is what we need as we push forward in search of new horizons.

Yule signals the return of the light and new beginnings. We all embark on a new cycle, and none of us knows what it will bring. The Fool is tying together a bundle of food and setting out, following a new road into an unknown place, exploring, perhaps searching for something. Interested, curious, fearless and confident, The Fool begins to walk into the future as the light strengthens once more.

Photo by yatharth roy vibhakar on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Anxious Outcomes

I recently had a conversation in which I learned about the degree to which my anxiety affected at least one of my adult children.

Parenting is an ironic business. Having been a chronically anxious child myself, always feeling unsafe and afraid, I strove mightily to protect my own children from any sort of fear or insecurity. Of course, I did this by assuring them all was well, all the while fearing all was not and never would be well. Being no less intelligent than I am, they heard the words but knew the truth of my feelings, and thus their trust in me was damaged, an exact replay of what happened between me and my own mother. You know, that thing I was never going to do when I was a parent!

Well, I’m humbled. I’m also sad, because I didn’t want either of my kids to battle with the burden of anxiety. It’s a hard way to live.

However, I understand that parenting, at best, is an imperfect process, and I try to hold my mother and myself with gentle arms regarding our choices as mothers. Parenting less than perfectly does not imply a lack of love. I know we both did the best we could with what we had at any particular point in time. No parent can do more.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

Still, this kind of revelation is a far cry from my hopes, dreams and intentions when I held my newborns. On the other hand, it speaks to the strength of my relationship with my adult children that they can tell me the truth about their experience and I can hear it.

After our conversation, I’ve thought a lot about fear and anxiety. I can’t go back and reparent, but I wonder if I might, even at this late stage, find a way to extricate myself from the insidious tentacles of anxiety. I’ve been thinking about my life and trying to understand exactly what the roots of my anxiety are.

According to an internet search, fear is “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” Fear is considered real, in that it’s right there in front of us, and elicits an immediate response.

Anxiety is an “emotion characterized by an unpleasant state of turmoil; a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically regarding an imminent event or something with uncertain outcome; a nervous disorder.” Anxiety is differentiated from fear by being more diffuse and generalized and focusing on imaginary outcomes and possibilities. Physiologically, it elicits the same response, and therein lies part of the problem.

Both are unpleasant emotions or feelings that affect us physically, intellectually and emotionally. We evolved to respond to fear in certain specific physiological ways, returning to baseline as the fear passes. Fear is a valuable feeling, helping us discern and avoid danger. I certainly don’t want to disable mine. I know the feeling of fear, but it’s not a frequent experience.

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a chronic state for me. I can’t remember ever being free of it. I’ve developed a lot of coping mechanisms over the years, some more effective and appropriate than others, but I can’t imagine what life would be like without it. As far as I can tell, the feeling of anxiety provides no benefits whatsoever to me or anyone around me. It’s highly contagious and negatively impacts others in my life, to say nothing of the damage it does to me. We are not constructed to tolerate the chronic level of physiological arousal produced by anxiety.

I never before actually looked up these words, and I’ve never had the above distinctions between fear and anxiety until this week. I conclude that I have no problem with my relationship to fear, but I’m a slave to anxiety.

I find a kind of mordant humor in having a chronic unpleasant feeling regarding uncertain outcomes. Excuse me? All outcomes are uncertain for everyone until they happen! Most of us operate most of the time as though we know exactly what will happen next, but we don’t. I’ve lived long enough to know that’s all an illusion. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next on any level. For some reason, I’ve given that fact the power to make me miserable.

I have a powerful imagination, which makes me a good writer and creator. However, it also occasionally makes me captive to my own stories. I forget that my stories are just that–stories. I make them up, tell them to myself over and over, and behave as though they’re true, never really noticing when they diverge from reality. In my head, it’s all so real. I do know the difference between a story and what’s real, but I have to remind myself to keep the two separated.

Some stories are so old and deeply ingrained it takes a cataclysm to make us realize they’re not true, and then we have to deal with being wrong and all the consequences that follow, an uncomfortable, humbling and messy process.

If my anxiety is rooted in uncertain and imaginary outcomes and possibilities, it seems obvious that I can disable it with a little discipline, a dash of surrender to uncertainty, a lot of presence and the will to change. I’m chagrined by the possibility my anxiety is a lifelong bad habit as much as anything else. Could that be true? Yikes.

I wish with all my heart I’d been a better equipped and less distressed parent, but I remind myself I can’t go back. I can’t begin parenting again from ground zero. I can’t go back to the young woman I was and explain all this and give her the support and safety to actively choose to turn away from anxiety before starting a family. There’s only today, so many years later, as I sit with my laptop in my lap and the sun coming in the windows, glancing at my notes, thinking and writing.

I know all I’ve ever wanted for my own mother is health and happiness. I want the same for my kids. I suspect Mom and my sons also want that for me. Perhaps it’s time for me to shape an anxiety-free life now, not only for my own sake, but for those closest to me as well.

We build our lives on outcomes, one after another, more than we ever notice. We remember the spectacularly good and spectacularly bad outcomes, but what about the countless others? Outcomes are complex, not black and white. Outcomes can create visible and invisible ripples that last a lifetime. I can hardly think of a more fruitless endeavor than worrying about or trying to control outcomes. I’ve survived every outcome to date. What makes me think I won’t continue to do so–until I don’t, of course? But the outcome of death is largely out of my control, too. Why worry?

There are so many things I’d rather do than struggle with anxiety!

There are so many stories to imagine, share and write, rather than keep in my head and hurt myself with!

Anxiety is too expensive. I’m not interested in maintaining it anymore.

Better late than never.

Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted