A tai chi lesson becomes a lesson about learning styles – both in physical activities and in life.
Drop your shoulders.
I look around. You talkin’ to me? I don’t use my outside voice, but the thought likely shows on my face.
It’s the mid-1990s and red-haired buddy from Nova Scotia is leading this Edmonton tai chi class: a class of disparate abilities. Some of our thirty-or-so members are grace embodied. They look relaxed. Some are pretty much hopeless. They look desperate. As one of the great gaggle in the middle, struggling to keep up and struggling not to let the struggle show, I don’t know how I look from the outside. From the inside, I look, umm, focused.
I have learned that I have to stay focused when doing tai chi: this is not my strong suit. I have little overall coordination: memories of the pre-school me trying to skip still bring my parents to tears of laughter. I have little sense of rhythm: memories of attempting double-dutch skipping at recess in elementary school still make me shake my head. I have little natural grace: memories of dance classes in high school still make me wince.
But as an adult I have also learned that if I come to class twice a week, even this slow learner can make progress. Anything less frequent than that and I start to lose track of what comes next in this sequence of 108 moves with seemingly endless intermediate positions.
Tonight, as we complete one move in that sequence, buddy tells us to stop and hold position. We’re leaning slightly forward, right arm swept back and down, left arm straight ahead, palm in the “Stop! In the name of love” position. He looks around the room and says, mildly, Drop your shoulders.
Given my general kinesthetic quotient, I decide that he might be talkin’ to me, so I check my position. I had neither intended to raise my shoulders nor been aware of doing so but now that he mentions it, there they are, trying to touch my ears. I relax them to a more natural posture and see a ripple of similar movements along the rows. I fully expect that we will continue now that everyone has it right.
But no, buddy is on the move. He stops in front of a guy two rows over and looks him in the eye.
Drop your shoulders.
The guy looks a bit startled but adjusts his position and buddy moves on. This time, he stops in front of one of our hopeless members. He looks at her for a moment.
I’m going to touch you, he says.
Now everyone looks a bit startled, although no one speaks.
He pushes her shoulders down. Like that, he says, and the class continues.
At the break, he tells a few of us about his instructor training from the tai chi institute. There are three kinds of students, he learned: those who self-correct from a general instruction, those who can correct their position when spoken to directly, and those who need to be put into the right position to get it.
Wow. For the first time in matters kinesthetic, I am not the most oblivious kind of student. It’s a great feeling.
Of course, like most feelings, it doesn’t last, any more than the shoulders last in their proper dropped position. It turns out it wasn’t a one-time correction: tai chi classes still see me standing with my shoulders hunched up.
Almost twenty years further along, I no longer do tai chi but I do still hunch my shoulders as I go through my day. Sometimes I hear buddy’s voice — Drop your shoulders — and catch myself. And sometimes not.
As for matters non-kinesthetic, I have learned that they offer me the same possibilities. Sometimes life pushes me into the right position, like it or not. Sometimes someone is willing to put themselves on the line to tell me something to my face. Sometimes I hear the general life instruction …
Think before speaking.
Listen more than you speak.
Be more patient.
… and actually think to check — and correct — my position.
And sometimes not.
But whatever the learning, in life as in tai chi, it’s never a one-time correction.
Drop your shoulders.
Yeah, he might be talkin’ to me. Still, dagnab it.
Totally entertaining article. I believe this is why most of us drink beer for sport. You don’t have to think before speaking, nor listen more, nor be patient nor worry about your shoulders.
Gary – Ha! Here’s another guy who found his metier in drinking beer.
I’ve never done tai chi, but I did yoga for a couple of years. Normally, I think of myself as belonging among the graceful ones — I may never hit the basket, but I look relatively proficient shooting the basketball — but at yoga I was, as you put it “non-kinesthetic”! I remember the sense of shock the day the instructor amended my downward dog by grabbing the bum of my slacks with one hand, putting the other hand on my head, and hoisting with one while pushing down with the other….
Jim – I guess we shouldn’t be surprised when a physical activity might require physical teaching. We learn many things only by doing – by going beyond an intellectual understanding to actually appreciate what’s involved. One thing to understand the principles of double-entry bookkeeping; another to sort through a jumble of transactions and record them correctly. One thing to be able to repeat the four Ps of marketing; another entirely to put together an effective marketing campaign. So when the thing to be learned is physical, sometimes words just aren’t enough to get the person to the correct place of “doing”.
“Drop your shoulders” is good advice in a lot of situations. I’m thinking of driving. I often see other drivers with shoulders approaching their ears – as though the steering wheel was a bag of snakes trying to escape their grip.
Marion – A lovely image: steering wheel as a bag of snakes. I sometimes feel that way about my computer. But it’s amazing how lowering the shoulders can lower the intensity – intensity you didn’t even know you were feeling.
Someone told me: “Your teeth are clenched and your tongue is pressed against the roof of your mouth. Relax the tongue.” The tongue? It was true. It’s a similar fact about intensity and a simple way to put myself into listening mode.
Laurna: Yikes – I’d forgotten about the mouth! You’re absolutely right – relaxing it does make it easier to listen.
We can all learn SO much through relating to your stories. I’ve tried Tai Chi -and felt much like you (and believe me, you were much more athletic as a child than I was!) – I take Yoga, and am thankful there are no mirrors in the room – and although I’m currently contemplating “Zumba” class – I can only imagine how painful I might make that look. As far as the shoulders – it’s my weak spot, the more stressed I am – the higher they rise! I presume it’s not a good thing when my massage therapist tells me I would get a prize for “The tightest shoulder muscles she’s ever seen”?? The whole article made me chuckle (and relax?) Thanks
Alison – No, you probably don’t want to get any tightness prizes from your massage therapist. One thing that surprised me was how hard it can be to feel your own level of tightness. When I had weeks of physiotherapy for back problems one year, after a few weeks I mentioned (complained) that I wasn’t getting any better: the massaging hurt just as much as before. The physio just laughed and told me that that might be true, but she was working the muscles way harder. When she’d started, she’d hardly been able to touch my lower back because things were so sensitive. A good reminder that we might feel the same level of pain without realizing that we are, in fact, getting less inflamed and better and stronger all round. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same applied to psychic pain.