Teaching the Tai Chi Way
by Judith Sornberger
Driving to class, be grateful for a body to practice Tai Chi with, for people who will show up full of curiosity, full of hope that Tai Chi will help them with their balance, arthritis, stiff shoulders, and tension. Open your heart. Pray to be filled with the life force that is Chi. Ask for Chi to stream from you like the spring morning sunshine pouring through your windshield. Wonder if Chi is related to grace.
Breathe slowly and evenly. Ask for the healing that Tai Chi can bring to your students and yourself. Remember to drop your shoulders as you turn into the parking lot. Feel the crown of your head lift toward the car’s roof.
When you enter the parish hall early, revel in the moments alone, the silence. You’ve only been here when it’s full of sounds—people visiting during coffee hour, laughter and music at a wedding reception, friends’ whispered condolences after your husband’s memorial service.
Sunlight sweeps the polished floor as you set up your posters. One shows the eighteen movements of Tai Chi Qigong. One reads, “Tension is who I think I am. Relaxation is who I am.” As you place them around the room, walk slowly, with what your teacher calls “sticky feet”—as though you are moving through water, the Tai Chi way.
When people start walking in the door—a few friends, some folks from church, and some strangers—feel excitement welling in your chest, the way you did as a girl when friends showed up for your birthday party, brightly wrapped presents in hand, and you were almost too thrilled to eat the spice cake your mother had baked. Feel like the host of a party celebrating the original trinity: Body, Mind, and Spirit. Do not say this aloud.
You’re liable to freak people out, especially the ones who might be nervous about this Chinese stuff that smacks a bit of a rival religion. When your friend Karen, an artist and who recently joined your church, says that, in the twenty-five years she’s known you, she’s never seen your aura glowing so brightly, believe your prayer has been answered.
As you face your first fifteen students, feel joy swirling round your spine, down your legs and arms, tingling through your fingers and toes. Feel hopeful and a little scared. Offer a short silent prayer for steady breath and a calm heart. Demonstrate the Tai Chi courtesy bow: right hand in a soft fist (representing strength), fingers straight on left hand (representing friendship), thumb tucked in (representing humility). The left hand covers the right fist: friendship over strength. Greet one another with small bows.
Show them how to hold an invisible ball in front of their torsos—a ball of energy they may be able to feel between their palms. Pray they don’t think you’re too weird. Demonstrate moving the ball to one side, then the next, following it with your eyes for a gentle neck stretch. Show them how to give the ball away. Then how to breathe the ball from cantaloupe to watermelon size before their chests as they open from within. Repeat your teacher’s words: “All you have to do is think it and you’ll do it.”
Feel yourself open from within—your chest expanding in what feels like big love—an expansion of your heart as you watch their serious expressions, their discovery of opening.
Urge them to move as slowly as they possibly can, slower than they think they can. Tell them if Tai Chi were an Olympic Sport, the winner would finish last. Smile so they know it’s okay to laugh.
Model moderation as they “paint the rainbow”—arms held overhead, but not as high as they can reach—as they bend slightly to one side, bringing that arm slowly down a bit, then straightening again. Explain that, in Tai Chi, we do only 80% of what we can do. Remember when you thought that made Tai Chi the perfect exercise for slackers (though there is no perfection in Tai Chi).
Tell them it’s a wonderful practice for Type A personalities. Tell them you’re a Type A working hard—that is, learning—to become a Type Chi. Smile again, and hear a few chuckles.
Correct no one, unless someone could hurt themselves. Then remind everyone how to do the movement without injury.
Demonstrate how to transform their hands into clouds—palms facing outward, one at chest height, the other in front of the belly, turning at the waist to first one side and then the other, switching hands with each turn. If you weren’t afraid of scaring them away, you’d say that, for you, Tai Chi feels like prayer in motion.
Watch them waving like wildflowers in a field. Feel the breeze easing through them as it encircles you. Become their mirror. Tell them how lovely they look. Watch mouths part into small smiles, like petals opening.
You’ll be tempted to accelerate your moves, trying to get through all you’ve planned to teach today. Slow down. Slow down some more. Repeat your teacher’s words: “Life is short. Tai Chi is eternal.”
At the end invite them to stand like a tree. Any tree they choose. But first lead them back into comfortable alignment once more. Knees soft. Shoulders dropped. The crown of the head lifted like the leader on a pine tree. “Sink roots from the soles of your feet through the floor and deep into the earth. Enter the inner stillness of your tree. And breathe.” After a few slow breaths, sneak a peek. Try to tell if they’re still trees or if they’ve returned to being humans.
Straight hand over soft fist. And bow.
Class ends, but Tai Chi continues. The room shimmers with Chi—with laughter, conversation, and thanks—as though the Holy Spirit is lifting you all skyward and you are becoming, again, the “wild dove spreading its wings.”
When everyone has gone, take a breath. Feel your solitude as a sacred state.
Driving home, watch the trees you pass—the oaks, maples, and beeches—how they sway and bow and how the light sparkles on each leaf, how everything on earth looks like it’s praying.
Judith Sornberger is the author of ten poetry collections, most recently the chapbook The Book of Muses (Finishing Line Press). Her full-length poetry collections are: Angel Chimes: Poems of Advent and Christmas (Shanti Arts), I Call to You from Time (Wipf & Stock), Practicing the World (CavanKerry), and Open Heart (Calyx Books)—and six chapbooks. Her prose memoir The Accidental Pilgrim: Finding God and His Mother in Tuscany is from Shanti Arts. She is a professor emerita of Mansfield University of Pennsylvania where she taught in the English Department and founded the Women’s Studies Program. She lives on the side of a mountain outside Wellsboro Pennsylvania, among bobcats, bears, and deer. Her website address is: http://www.judithsornberger.net.