Studying Tai Chi: The Students, The Landscapes

I attended a music camp back in high school. We rehearsed with this involved, focused presence, only a few days to master our music for a performance at week’s end. These rehearsals were different than regular band class during the school year. There, we were more likely to clock-watch and wish for the hour to end so we could get away. Once that bell rang, “whew!, finally.” I think we were mostly glad because rather than having to put forth our attention and energy into the music, we could drift off into the lazy daze of horse play and daydream.

The difference between that exciting, intense camp and the boring, drawn-out school year is a degree of time. Knowing that we had just a few days at camp made us present and allowed us to wring every moment out of each hour. The school year, by contract was, well, a year! So it seems the tidbits of time, the portions that are allotted, are often better used. Think about how focused and present you get when you go to a retreat, camp, or seminar.

But what then of the prospect of an open-ended amount of time, like say, the prospect of our life?! Well, shoot. Who hasn’t idled away an afternoon (or longer) awaiting the evening, weekend, or upcoming vacation? Who hasn’t measured their schedule in weeks and months and forgotten about the imminent hours? So in the spirit of wringing life out of each moment, I shook off my initial hesitation and got started with the tai chi training here on a mountaintop in Hubei province. My trainer led me outside:

This cement slab across the street was where much of the training took place.

And this is what I worked on again and again….and again:

If you watch, tai chi mimics actual fighting moves that are slowed way down. It’s a meditative challenge, and it’s said to be healthy. Here’s a link to the Wikipedia page if you’re intrigued:

After my solo lesson, it was group time. Here were some other students and teachers at my school:

Let me also introduce you to the scenery that added to the ambiance in ways only thought possible in movies or imagination:

This was the actual view doing tai chi from this spot.

I was amazed at the how “kinetic” they were. So with it…so conscious of their movement. We in the West exercise, but we like to do it with headphones and even conversation. These guys seemed to truly be one with their body.

Here’s me giving it a whirl:

This was one of our trainers

And here’s where we were on the map:

This was the environment.

Here were some interactions:

It turns out, that cement slab we practiced upon was actually the roof of a mountainside shelter for other trainers and students. One time I heard some commotion over the edge below:

Tai chi landscaping

I hadn’t shoveled dirt in a while and found a spare shovel so dug in. No biggie. But the trainer down there (the sword guy from the picture above) interrupted my work to show me how its done. He took the shovel and blurted, “Ha!”, the shovel prepared for battle, “hoo!”, it was thrust into the pile, and “hwa!” it removed with a load of Earth.

On one hand, seeing this devotion to their practice wasn’t all that surprising—-I mean, it was a tai chi school. Just the same, it provided this striking example of taking this ordinary chore and perfecting it. He didn’t think about how to get it done faster or easier, but how to get it done better. Me? I started shoveling and daydreaming. Heck, if I had a relevant thought, it was “where’s the backhoe?” It seemed to be an illustration of a stereotyped, but nonetheless evident difference between classic East and West thought and action.

I took a walk into the valley forest with five others one afternoon to gather firewood and kindling. Bagging twigs and pine needles was a problem for one young woman because they cut her hands. She remedied the issue by taking two five-foot sticks and using them as giant chopsticks to pinch and lift the pile.

She wasn’t getting too far just as I don’t eating rice with chopsticks. But my fork-using, Western mind saw two rakes and used them to bundle together the pile like salad tongs. It was much quicker and they referred to me as being “so clever”. Well, I just eat different, I thought.

Then as we bundled the wood, we needed a tight packing to hold them together up the narrow and hilly path. Out-jutting branches had to be snapped, and one was proving to be difficult despite the kung-fu trained kicking the men were attacking it with. I saw a large rock and wedged it under the branch. Like a lever, the force of my undisciplined, less-effective kick was enough to snap it. They were grateful for my cleverness once again. I was elated that I could actually be helpful and contribute something. 🙂

It seemed they thought how to better use their body while I looked for alternatives to my body. These are generalizations, of course, but in the general we see trends, and in the individual people and individual examples, we see illustrations. I couldn’t help but wonder about the connections they played in the development of the East and the West. And best of all, it quaintly displayed the benefits in store when strengths are offered from different cultures. If even just gathering wood.

After work, we took a break:

Two young boys, the only ones at the school, were always together.

Meanwhile, the sword-shovel trainer stayed relentless:

You may wonder why his shirt is so dirty.

Here’s why:

He had another student stepping on his lower back, forcing those hips into the ground.

I’d regularly see him do handstands against a building with fists against the concrete. He was pretty intense.

In evenings, we’d go for a walk and take it easy. Less a participant than an observer, I watched the students and trainers socialize and sing while the head master entertained with music:

…well, tried to sing 🙂

From teamwork to culture to martial arts, these two days—though full of monotonous tai chi—were incredibly rich with lessons.

With all your heart, mind, and body, enjoy the moments you are living.




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