Over the last 5 or 6 years I’ve participated in the occasional introductory tai chi class when teachers from the School of Tai Chi Chuan in Spokane have volunteered to support our LIVESTRONG at the YMCA Cancer Survivor Wellness Program. Their offerings have been well received by our program participants and I’ve continually been surprised by the impact that individuals have experienced even in a single session. While I enjoyed the classes, I never really “got it”.
What I now understand – much to my surprise – is that I wasn’t in my body enough to “get it” in all of those previous experiences. I say “much to my surprise” because I have prided myself in having a high level of body awareness. I have a Masters of Fine Arts in Dance, did graduate study in kinesiology and biomechanics and have taught movement (dance classes, group exercise and personal training) for decades. I have also been in and out of physical therapy for the past 30 years rehabilitating many injuries, multiple knee and shoulder surgeries and back pain. Maybe that last should be a clue that my intellectual understanding of the way the body works didn’t translate to my personal embodiment.
I participated in a special TCF qigong tuning and the daily commitment to that independent practice inspired me to want to take at least one class per week that the Tai Chi Foundation was generously offering on Zoom. In addition to the two classes that were offered with the tuning, I have taken, at the time of writing this, 4 or 5 of the Thursday morning classes and two Sunday classes,
As a dancer/dance instructor/personal trainer, I am used to much of the learning transfer happening through a physical and energetic experience of being in the same room, with a relatively small group where the student or artist could see the teacher or choreographer from multiple angles, ask questions, and be seen and ‘coached’ in real time. That learning transfer also very often included kinesthetic, tactile, hands-on cueing and adjustments of alignment, etc. I was really skeptical of what I could gain from a two-dimensional, small (iPad) screen in a context in which that kinesthetic/tactile teaching was impossible. I questioned whether an energetic transfer could occur. My tech and space set-up was such that even if I were to have my camera on and even if the group of students was small enough and the teaching context appropriate, I wouldn’t be able to be seen in a way that I could be individually coached. I didn’t have high hopes for the zoom experience to offer much in the way of my own learning or meaningful discovery but I committed to the exploration and assumed that I would gain at least more ‘intellectual’ understanding of the practice.
What I have discovered in my body, has been completely unexpected. What I realized after 6 weeks of practice is that when I had tried Tai Chi before I was totally in my head. I was learning the movements – much like learning dance steps – but I was definitely not feeling the energy or embodying the essence. Even though the specific movement vocabulary of each class has been relatively the same, I have heard something differently each week that has, over time, changed the sense of the “doing” into more a sense of “being.” The shift in my approach to the process — as a result of the little bits of embodied wisdom that I have heard from TCF teachers — has actually changed my body.
These classes have completely changed how I stand and move through space. Something happened in week 4, as Greg was teaching that allowed me to feel, for the first time, how much muscular “holding” was occurring in my quads and calves. I felt what it meant to actually let that go and let my skeleton do the work to hold me up, and suddenly I had length in my low back. That awareness has continued to deepen wherein I have felt (both standing and in movement) all of the places that I’ve had musculature in overdrive (for years)! As I slowly figure out how to let go of all of that unnecessary effort, I’m also discovering musculature that has been on long term vacation. That shifting relationship has created some fatigue and discomfort in the unused muscles (which is lessening by the day) but also an incredible new sense of freedom and range of motion that hasn’t been possible with the restriction caused by all of that tension.
The thing I’m most grateful for is that this shift in my physical body is changing my sense of whole person wellness. That physical loosening, lengthening, easy-ness is not only making movement more joyful and less taxing but it seems to be affecting me mentally. I am experiencing more creativity and openness to the ‘pivot and adapt’ dance that the pandemic is requiring of me at work and also spiritually. I feel more resilient, more collaborative, more confident and comfortable in my own skin, more grounded and generally more peaceful. I feel less need to control which is so important right now when there is so much outside my control.
I suspect that there isn’t a single factor that made things different this time but rather a collection of factors: the daily commitment, the pandemic-induced slower pace of my life and my increased anxiety have all made this opportunity seem more important. I do know that without the Zoom classes being offered, I wouldn’t have made these subtle weekly discoveries that are having such great impact. The classes have provided an opportunity for a deepening into the work that has changed how I am not just how I do. And I really like how I am right now.
Thank you! I know the online classes have been a new way of sharing tai chi for the Tai Chi Foundation. It may not feel as “good” as teaching in person. But I want you to know that it is still making a difference and I am grateful.
Nicole Manus, MFA Dance, Certified Personal Trainer (ACE),
Certified Health Coach (ACE)
Livestrong, Spokane WA