Reluctant Martial ArtistI never thought I would be learning a martial art. Although the physical training and mental discipline of karate, tae kwon do, and other martial arts appeal to me (I would like to develop my concentration and focus my physical and mental energies into one), I have a hard time buying into the adversarial nature of these types of exercise.
Basically I am a peaceful person. Unlike some people I've met, I don't spend time fantasizing how I would handle myself in a fight with a violent stranger. I don't want a more powerful punch or wonder what it would be like to flip someone with a judo move. As I kid, I didn't practice karate chops or tae kwon do kicks. I've never even aspired to break a board with my foot.
Yet there I am at the local dance studio every Tuesday and Thursday night, learning tai chi. The studio is dim when I arrive, with a single light shining at one end. The rest of the room stretches away to distant, shadowy corners. Sal, one of the advanced students, reaches for the lamp to dim the room even more. His eyes are slits beneath his heavy brow and curly dark hair, as if he were a bat who didn't really need sight to find his way around this, our cave. We both take our places facing the mirror that runs along one wall and stand there, eyes closed, hands hanging simply from our sides. I weave slightly back and forth, listening. I listen for my breath, I listen for my heartbeat, I listen for the secrets I might learn from myself in the dark, if I'm lucky.
Instead I hear the door click open and feet pad across the room as other students arrive and position themselves. Soon we begin my favorite part of the tai chi warm-up: turning the waist and shoulder to the right, to the left, and back again, in rhythm. Our arms follow along behind, slapping absently against the body, as loose as rag dolls. Flap, flap. Flop, flop. Nothing to think about as my hands give up all pretense of doing anything but swinging in the dark at the ends of my arms.
At first I didn't realize that tai chi is a martial art. "A gentle form of exercise," is how people described it. "Improves flexibility, balance, strength, and concentration." It sounded just right for someone, like me, recovering from a long illness. Slow, listless, and dull, I wanted to start moving again. I wanted to get my blood and lymph pumping, strengthen my tendons and ligaments, and awaken muscles that had been hibernating for years.
Right away I was taken by the calm, precision, and elegance of the tai chi moves. I liked how carefully my classmates and I placed our feet, how we formed an imaginary ball of chi with our hands and kept it safe as we shifted position, until it was time to separate our hands and let the ball of chi float away like a giant soap bubble.
The names of the tai chi moves charmed me, too -- names such as Stork Flaps Its Wing, and Play the Fiddle. I particularly liked Grasp Bird's Tail, where the fingers reach out as if to gently pluck the tail feathers of an invisible peacock. And I liked learning to extend my arm and bow gracefully, head upright, in a move called Plucking Needle from Sea Bottom. To me, the way my classmates and I shifted our weight, raised our hands, and turned our heads in unison felt like a mysterious, slow-motion dance, perhaps underwater.
But it was a dance with menace, too, for I learned blocks and punches and protective stances, slow and stylized as they were. I was surprised when my teacher showed me how a particularly striking pose, Fan Through the Back, could be used to lock someone's elbow, disabling them and perhaps breaking their arm. Before then I hadn't taken the violent applications of tai chi very seriously. I have to admit, though, that at times during the exercise we must look formidable -- a phalanx of fighters crouched low, advancing as one with deliberate steps, fists poised to strike.
Every night at tai chi I am too slow on a particular move, so I see the fierce face of Joyce, the student next to me, as she turns toward the front of the room. One arm is raised to protect her throat, while the fingers of her other hand spread wide in front of her face to ward off an attacker. Her dark eyes shine fearfully beneath a fringe of gray hair. Who is she fighting, I wonder. Who are we all fighting?
Some, like me, are fighting ill health and the unwanted turns our lives have taken. Others, no doubt, are fighting memories and fears: people long dead and the people we know we are inside. Even though no one comes to class with bruises and scrapes from physical altercations, we all assume the fighting stance quickly and comfortably. The feints and parries, stylized punches and blocks come easily to us. Finally we can give outward, physical expression to the demons we fight within.
The moves I like best in tai chi are the ones that come immediately after the aggressive ones: when the hand braced down low against an attack turns and floats upward, ready to pull a bunch of grapes off the vine; when the fist unclenches and slips gently back to the hip, so weak that it needs to be supported by my other hand.
I like the promise of these moves -- how their violence melts into softness, openness, and generosity. It reminds me that it is possible to make other choices in our lives. We can, in fact, turn aggression into compassion, if only we have the will to let go, to release, to give up on the idea of controlling others and dictating how our life will unfold.
So I keep learning my martial art. I practice bowing and plucking, blocking and warding off, punching and advancing. But what I really hope to learn is how to unclench my fist and dance.
Content © Ann Sihler