On the Plurality of Disciplines

(T'AI Chi) Yin and yang. (Image sourced from Google.)A week or so ago, I found an online coupon beng sold for a series of weekly t’ai chi classes that were to be held—auspiciously enough—at a location reasonably close to home. After two days’ worth of hesitation, I purchased the maximum number of classes obtainable with the coupon and consigned myself to nearly four months’ worth of weekly t’ai chi.

My interest in t’ai chi has a lot to do with the increasing respect for mind and body activities engendered by my thoroughgoing passion for yoga. In the same way that the independent study of other religious traditions deepened my understanding of my native Catholic faith, I reasoned that exposing myself to another mind and body discipline would deepen my own appreciation of yoga. (This is what it means to be human: finding home always involves the circular movement of departure and return. We always find ourselves where we started—but then again, we can only find our beginnings at the very end.)

Why I hesitated in purchasing the classes though is—increasing appreciation for mind and body activities notwithstanding—I still prefer the vigorous to the sedate (which is why my preferred form of yoga is ashtanga). My only encounters with t’ai chi had involved the t’ai chi qigong shibashi form, and I remembered it as being . . . sedate in the extreme. In the end, however, curiosity overcame dread, I bought a 15 class pass, and earlier this evening, found myself with nearly a dozen other people in a dimly lit hall.

Admittedly, the first 45 minutes of the class felt agonizingly slow. We covered just three poses, and it took a supreme effort of mindfulness to continuously suspend judgment. Then the moment came when we were asked to link all three poses together while paying attention to our posture and our breath, and THAT was when the power (grace? serenity?) of t’ai chi hit me.

It was a LOT harder than it looked. In the same way that the surya namaskara postures of yoga can look ridiculously simple (the almost banal lifting of the hands, bending forward at the waist, stepping back of the feet . . . ), the several minute details involved (the external rotation of the shoulders, the lengthening of the spine, the synchronicity with the breath . . . ) can easily command (even overwhelm) all of one’s attention.

It’s the beginner’s inability to appreciate these details that can often lead to a lot of initial boredom. Exposure to yoga had made me sensitive to a certain level of detail, and when I looked closely, t’ai chi had a LOT of detail.

When the class ended, I couldn’t quite say that I was hooked, but I was sufficiently interested. After all, it’s hard to resist a discipline that labels its poses with a literal-ness that’s really quite charming. So, if anyone else is keen on “pushing the boat into the water”—you know what to try now.


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