Improving in Tai Chi - It Just Takes Time and Hard Work
October 29, 2011
Two years ago this week, I was lying in Intensive Care at the Cleveland Clinic, a ventilator down my throat, drugged up so I wouldn't choke and gag it out. I hadn't been expected to make it. I celebrated Halloween staring in a hazy stupor at horror films on some cable network. Without my glasses on because of the breathing machine.
Doctors had tried to figure out why I had been coughing up blood for nine months. It had destroyed my ability to breathe. They saw that my left pulmonary veins had closed down due to a procedure I had gone through for atrial fibrillation. When the Cleveland Clinic doctors tried to stent the pulmonary veins, they tore a vein and pierced my heart.
So there I was, suddenly facing the prospect of a shorter life -- or none at all -- and all I could think about, besides how good the drugs were, was competing in a tournament doing Laojia Erlu about seven months from that time.
I had weighed 206 before I got seriously ill. When I was released from Cleveland Clinic the first week of November, 2009, I was a skeletal 158, barely able to walk. I had lost most of my muscle mass. By the time I got home from Cleveland, I barely had the strength to walk from the couch to the restroom. I spent a couple of weeks on the couch, slowly trying to get the strength to walk downstairs to work on this blog and the online school.
This situation came as quite a shock. It couldn't be happening to me. I was always in top shape. Why didn't anyone tell me to watch out for closing pulmonary veins after the A-Fib treatment? Why didn't my pulmonologist suspect that it was the reason I was coughing up blood?
I'll never know.
In the two years since, I have gained a little over 20 pounds and now weigh about 180 pounds, sometimes a couple of pounds less, and I can't seem to get heavier as much as I try. My legs, arms and shoulders still need more muscle.
But in tai chi, my body mechanics and some of my movements have improved during this time.
A week ago, I videotaped Laojia Erlu (Cannon Fist) in my yard to put on the online school. A version was on the site that I had taped in Florida in 2008. I knew that my movement is better now, and my fajing is better. So I reshot it and put the front view up for members to see.
I'm also planning to complete the videos for the individual movement instruction for the form and put those up, too. When I shoot a complete form, especially one as athletic as Laojia Erlu, I have to break it up into sections. I complete one section, then stop and let my oxygen levels rise a bit before proceeding to the next section.
The good thing about tai chi is that through time, study, and practice, if you're focusing on the right things you should see improvement. This is especially true when you're dealing with body mechanics such as in Chen taiji, which are so subtle sometimes that it takes years just to key into them so you know what you're trying to improve.
I practiced Laojia Erlu over and over, preparing for a tournament last weekend. At age 58, I was going to compete if there was a 40 and over competition. Turns out, it was such a small turnout, no one over age 40 showed up to compete. That's okay. I didn't mind. A tournament is a great way to focus on a goal and push yourself. When you have less than one lung functioning, doing Laojia Erlu with power is enough of a challenge, so the fact that I didn't have to do it in public was fine.
Another side benefit was an improvement in my performance of Laojia Erlu overall. Focusing on it with the thought that an audience would be watching, including my students, made me bear down on some of the subtleties -- the flow of relaxed strength that suddenly explodes in fajing, for example. Storing and releasing in a relaxed but powerful way. Another challenge is capturing the silk-reeling movement as you make it flow through the body and unfold the strength like a ripple from the foot through the hand.
Sometimes, when I think of how shocked the cardiologists were at the Mayo Clinic last year when they learned that I was still doing kung-fu, I have to laugh. And when I think of people who have one excuse or another why they can't make time to train, I get a little impatient. Most of them are taking their good health for granted. They think, as I did, that it will last forever. It won't.
When I see people working out hard, I feel pulmonary vein envy. I'm still in mourning. And when I see overweight people who never exercise, I want to shake them and wake them up.
So work hard while you can. If you put in the time and the study, you will get better. I'm still trying, I'm still improving, and I'm taking it one breath at a time.