Yesterday was Wednesday, meaning it was time for my Tai Chi class at 5:30PM.
It didn’t go that great.
Not as bad as the Knicks (I once was a rabid NY MSG fan, since the days of Reed and Debusschere) draft lottery disaster earlier this week, when #1 pick Zion Williamson was allotted to a Bayou gris gris team (formerly the Charlotte Hornets, now known as the N.O. uh Pelicans).
I was having the usual footwork difficulties, as well as trouble remembering where and how to constantly move my hands in that graceful way you have to in Tai Chi.
I seem to be making far more progress, and deriving more physical benefits thus far, from my yoga classes.
In yoga (excepting for the dreaded Vinyasa variety), poses are well defined, and largely static. You hold them for a while, make sure you hit all the right angles and blocks, and you can readily feel all the stretching around rendering your body more flexible in real time.
Tai Chi by comparison has been for me so far a confusing mess.
So many movements strung together that you have to worry about.
So many simultaneous moving parts to each movement.
If I step forward, with my left leg, what is the exact angle of my step?
Do I drag the other foot behind me? Or does the other foot take a little half step, following the first big one? What about the awkwardness and loss of balance that happens when you then taking a step to the right from this position to hold another form?
More basically, how big is a step? Tai Chi steps are what a basketball player would consider a mini step. Trailing Tai Chi “half steps” are more like micro steps; and this is not how you move around if you are trying to do something athletic to improve your conditioning.
And while all this is going on, what do my hands do? What about your arms? Position of the head?
What should you be looking at?
The teacher? A lot of the time you have to do in reverse what she or he is doing, since the teacher will be facing you. If the teacher is standing with his or her back to you, you might not be able to discern the elaborate and constant hand movements being performed.
Often you will look at other classmates. to try to follow the class, particularly if the teacher is far away. Most likely — unless they are highly experienced — they will be executing a form incorrectly.
So should you look at yourself in the mirror instead?
You could do that, but how do you know what to do, unless you are constantly peeking from the corner of your eye? Plus often you will swing around 90 degrees, and unless you turn your head, you will no longer be able to self-correct your posture in the mirror — but your form will inherently be wrong.
Tai Chi were that began as a martial art. However, it is generally agreed that Tai Chi is ineffective in modern combat against, say, MMA.
Since there is no opponent in front of you, should you be imagining one, as in shadow boxing?
The closed fists, fake sword jabbing, and pushing of hands that Tai Chi combines with an overall soft stance might seem schizophrenic — is it about defending yourself or health? — even though there is never any actual sparring involved. which is kind of necessary if you are actually training to learn how to use a few ounces to take down a lot of pounds.
Yoga feels inherently more peaceful and far likelier to lower your blood pressure and imbue your being with a sense of calm, as it does not involve simulating a prelude to a physical altercation. or dealing with the mental pressure of trying to remember a 72 Form progression. If I’d wanted homework, I would have signed up for a Continuing Ed class.
Why does it all have to be in such super slow motion, which puts a lot of stress on your knee joints, particularly if you are constantly doing all this in the 3/4-crouch stance that typifies Tai Chi?
I was mulling over these matters during my Tai Chi class yesterday, when there is usually not enough time for answering detailed questions that a beginner like me might have. That is what private lessons are for.
But for the first time, I was doing a routine in front of an exercise mirror.
I had not till that moment realized that the expression on my face while doing Tai Chi was one of frustration; I would have to practice adopting a confident, unperturbed “Tai Chi face.”
I also did not realize my hands and arms were all over the place, like the straw man in the Wizard of Oz: and my shoulders were never aligned — the whole thing was a disaster.
The others in class were mostly older women. Some in their 70s, one in her 80s. They did not look particularly graceful doing the Sun Style 24 form, but they at least they knew it and remembered the basic sequence of the movements.
A light bulb went on over my head.
I am tall, almost 6’3″.
Most of the ladies in the class were a foot shorter than I. My instructor, too, is not tall.
Nor would anyone confuse the Chinese-looking guys, doing Tai Chi demos on YouTube, with Yao Ming.
Is Tai Chi ideal only for short people?
If you are tall, it’s quite stressful on the thighs, especially if you are older — at my age and height, to often be crouching is a bit of a slog. So there’s that, too.
Another major hurdle is the placement of your feet.
As a former basketball player, I would rarely take a step forward with my left leg, then bring the other (right leg up behind it).
Think about it.
You are dribbling a basketball. Your opponent is in front of you. You take a 30 degree angle step forward while dribbling. Ball gone. Your opponent has picked your pocket, and scores an uncontested layup.
In basketball, I was trained to take a crossover step forward, across my opponent’s body, thus protecting the ball at all times.
Moreover, the step would always be an explosive, big one: you want to get past him in one lightning-fast move.
These dainty Tai Chi half steps and empty steps (where you raise our foot in the air but do not put it down) are not at all what I was used to doing.
Playing hoops, even if I took a left step forward (without dribbling) facing my opponent, I would always keep my right leg planted.
If you move what is called your pivot foot in basketball, you will be called for steps or travelling. Instead, you have to plant the right or left foot, take one lightning fast step forward with the other foot, then come back immediately (without moving your pivot foot), maybe do a head fake, then go up for the basket. Yes!
That sequence of movements is absolutely burned into my muscle memory. But if I am to be as successful in Tai Chi as I have been in yoga, I have to essentially unlearn basketball.
This can be a good thing.
Learning new ways to do things at my age forces the brain to create new neural pathways. In effect, you are rewiring your brain, and this is no doubt (I am not a doctor, so I’m just guessing here) good for the prevention (or at least delay) of the dreaded senility of old age.*
Going slowly in Tai Chi forces you to strengthen your leg muscles.
Tai Chi is all about working leg muscles though a form of fluid, sedate planking.
Unfortunately, there is almost no pressure whatsoever being put on the arms or chest or abs — which is why I usually hit the gym after my Tai Chi class.
Tai Chi’s signature crouch position affects your thigh muscles, strengthening them, but I wonder if over time it ultimately affects your gait in a negative way. You don’t want to end up walking around in a humpback gait; rather, you want to always be nice and straight, walking with big confident steps, and head held high.
Don’t get me wrong, however.
Working the thighs is a good thing, as it improves balance — one of the real benefits of Tai Chi, and the reason so many older people are attracted to it, as well as folks suffering from Parkinson.
Bottom line with all this stuff: I am going to switch from Sun Style to Yang Style Tai Chi.
To quote Dr. Paul Lam, a renowned Tai Chi authority, “Sun style is typified by one foot following the other when stepping forward,” while ” in Yang Style, you step forward with the left foot but the right foot stays put.” (See here for the full discussion.)
As a former basketball player, Yang Style will probably suit me more.
I understand the martial arts reasons why these half steps are taken in Sun style, but I am not interested in martial arts (which is why I do not hold a sword prop when doing the sword moves portion of the class: it is part of my commitment to non-violence as a way of life) at this stage in my life. In the 80s, when I was in my early 30s, I most definitely would have been extremely interested in what this guy has to say about the credibility of Tai Chi in self defense.
Instead, my reasons for learning Tai Chi today are far more modest: improve my memory, increase my bone density, lower my blood pressure, help my knee osteoarthritis, have a better sense of balance on one leg, those are the main things.
So, I need to find a way to unlearn my basketball muscle memory, and start advancing in my ability to become more proficient at Tai Chi.
The Yang Style 24 form video shown above is a good start.
There are also more detailed explanations of the named moves here.
I intend to practice the Yang 24-form a lot between now and next Wednesday; by that time, I should have achieved more competence than I have now, which is, alas, pretty much zilch — despite having already been to three classes. A big reason I will be doing this is that, in my particular, I have balance issues. If Tai Chi can help me with that, then it will have been worth it.
So let’s recap.
Tai Chi requires an enormous amount of work to master, many many hours of learning how to execute excruciatingly slow, elaborate dance like movements.
It is not taxing physically, but does put a strain on an older brain to remember all of these numerous positions that flow into one another.
If you have never been a particularly good dancer, when young, you will probably find it harder to do than, say, yoga. I always sucked at dancing, and when I was twelve, I attended Jiu Jitsu, but dropped out because I wasn’t interested in focusing enough to learn all that discipline’s elaborate warmup moves. So I turned to basketball, and found that was the sport for me.
So the real question, for a guy who is tall and over 60, is as follows: assuming one has the resources (both money and especially time) to dedicate to learning a particular Tai Chi style, is the eventual payoff worth the effort?
Or does, say, Iyengar yoga + weight training at gym + long distance bicycle riding, constitute a far more efficient program toward achieving one’s fitness goals?
So far, the answer for me has been inconclusive.
But I am willing to put in the work this summer to find out for sure.
*To read what the federal government’s National Institute of Health (NIH) says about of Tai Chi, follow this link.