Tai Chi in the Morning

Around 1971 or 1972, Townes Van Zandt wrote and recorded a hauntingly beautiful song called “Highway Kind”. Several terrific versions by different artists are out there ready to be enjoyed. The song first came to my attention via Lyle Lovett’s Step Inside This House. Lovett’s version is still my favorite, but other versions also have their appeal. This version featuring Twin Shadow (Live on KEXP), posted in 2014, deserves far more than the few thousand views than it has received so far.

The opening lines of “Highway Kind” never seem to fail to establish an ambiance suitable to quiet, introspective deep dives.

My days, they are the highway kind. They only come to leave; the leaving I don’t mind, it’s the coming that I crave. Pour the sun upon the ground, stand to throw a shadow; watch it grow into a night and fill the spinnin’ sky. Time among the pine trees, it felt like breath of air. Usually I just walk these streets and tell myself to care. Sometimes I believe me and sometimes I don’t hear. Sometimes the shape I’m in won’t let me go.”

Bask in the desolating warmth of these lovely lyrics as I may, this is a kind of poetry that I’m unlikely to ever conceive. Not least because these are sentiments and feelings that I rarely experience. I do not now and never have craved mornings. More often, I will doggedly cling to the last wonderful sensations of a dark and quiet night. What is among my cravings, however, is to establish new connections within and understandings of life and myself. That craving makes this song an easy and valuable meditative partner for morning Tai Chi routines.

When I realized that my do-it-when-I-remember-to Tai Chi schedule did not qualify as a commitment, I started to consider what I could and should do about it. I decided that I needed to set a regular schedule for the activity that I could stick to. I also wanted a routine that could maximize any benefit I might derive from the practice. In my case, I settled-on the worst part of my day. Mornings. It makes a kind of sense…if this is my worst time of day, maybe including Tai Chi could be an improvement. Maybe I could capture some of that pour the sun upon the ground enthusiasm.

Tai Chi Vectors by Vecteezy

My usual morning, and still my first inclination, is a groggy, grudging, reluctant affair. I’m rarely able to consider food. On most occasions, a hot shower and a hot beverage are the two minimum requirements to get me going. Upon occasion one or the other of these two things may be skipped. Never both. This tendency of mine is a very old (and possibly quite incorrect) predilection – to focus on getting things done rather than on finding ways to make the present richer and more enjoyable.

Waking has always been a trial. Particularly now that I’ve solidly entered, if not absolutely passed, mid-life, waking and rising in the morning, I seem to viscerally experience the fact that my lungs and circulatory system are not strong, healthy systems. I seem to feel a still-thickening sludge pooling in my chest and limbs like the dirty black oil of an engine that’s 100,000 kilometers overdue for service. Despite my perception that I’m not terribly overweight and am decently active, this kind of feeling has grown, sometimes to awful proportions, in recent years.

One morning, I recalled the bouts of pneumonia that I’d experienced over the years. Wave after wave of liquid infection that left me wheezing and panting for weeks and months afterward. I also recalled the embolism that drizzled into my lungs and choked-off my youthful feelings of vitality. That morning, I decided that I’d rather get up and do some Tai Chi than let that feeling continue to grow.

Rather than hunkering miserably on a chair while the morning beverage came together, I acted. I ran through the Tai Chi moves I had been learning. Calming the Water. Over the drum. Brush Knee. Single whip. Several others. In fact, I was surprised by how many came to mind. I won’t claim that they felt natural and smooth. But they were there for me. I simply stood in the kitchen and ran through what I could.

I also decided it would be an interesting opportunity to bring some deep breathing into my day. Since I spend most of my day (metaphorically) tethered to the tools of my professional day, I don’t get much cardiovascular exercise. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic environment, I work at home and don’t benefit from the meager bit of walking that used to be my commute.

By combining the Tai Chi movements with the deepest breathing I can muster in the morning, I’m expecting to derive some benefit. It’s not going to replace a good 40-minute bike ride or any of the other genuine cardio activities you care to mention, but it must be better than what I had previously been doing: nothing. So now most mornings, I get about twenty minutes of movement and deep breathing.

In the morning, I find it easier to synchronize deep full breaths with the Tai Chi moves. This is partly because I’m focused on wanting those deep breaths. I am better-able to allow my breathing to guide the movement. I pay less attention to the movement to focus on the breathing. As a result the movement seems to flow easier.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig makes use of mornings several times, emphasizing it as one of his narrator’s favorite times to ride a motorcycle. Many others within motorcycle culture and literature have expressed similar sentiments about riding in the morning. In one scene, when the narrator arises after a bad dream and riding is not yet an option, he decides to warm himself up with a walk down the logging road that he and his son had camped on the night before,

But pines and sunlight are stronger than any dreams and the wondering goes away. Good old reality…..To warm myself I speed up to a jog and move up the road briskly. Good, good, good, good, good. The word keeps time with the jogging. Some birds fly up from the shadowy hill into the sunlight and I watch them until they’re out of sight. Good, good, good, good, good. Crunchy gravel on the road. Good, good. Bright yellow sand in the sun. Good, good, good.

The scene recalls elements of Van Zandt’s lyrics. I even have a notion that I could look forward to mornings when I will be able to see and feel the sun filtering through the branches of the forty-foot fir tree that dominates our backyard and then also through the south-facing windows that are only a step or two from my morning Tai Chi station.

Within the first weeks of my experiment with morning Tai Chi, I find that moving slowly, an important part of Tai Chi, is easier in the morning. I’m certain that this is partly a result of the focus on breathing; I also suspect that the pace of the day…the build up of the day’s demands, frustrations, excitements and all of the rest of it have not yet usurped authority over my pace. I’m not reacting to anything yet.

My most significant observation is that my deep breaths are not nearly as deep as they should be. I feel how shallowly and light my regular breathing is. I cough a lot and take it as a sign that I’m working a system that needs to be worked. But also in the first weeks, I feel that improvements are occurring. Perhaps each breath should be accompanied by the mantra: Good, good, good, good, good.

External References and Links

  1. Photo Credit: Tai Chi Vectors by Vecteezy
  2. Lovett, Lyle. Step Inside This House.
  3. Pirsig, Robert. Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
  4. Van Zandt, Townes. Highway Kind from Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972. Omnivore Recordings.
  5. https://www.discogs.com/Townes-Van-Zandt-Sunshine-Boy-The-Unheard-Studio-Sessions-Demos-1971-1972/release/4340258
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWNCqi3FLHs&list=RDZWNCqi3FLHs&start_radio=1
  7. Photo Credit: https://www.twincities.com/2017/04/24/robert-m-pirsig-million-selling-zen-author-dead-at-88/

Tai Chi after Fifty

Several months after my forty-fourth birthday, I purchased a battered and abused 1982 Yamaha XJ550 Maxim. It was my first, and so far only, motorcycle. I acquired the Maxim to fulfill a long-deferred curiosity and ambition. Learning to ride was an exciting, dangerous and extremely enriching personal experience. After a couple of successful seasons exploring Elgin County’s farm-and-Carolinian-forest-lined roads, I sold the bike. I felt that the curiosity had been satisfied and the ambition fulfilled.

Later, as my fiftieth birthday came and went, I began an approach to another long-deferred curiosity and ambition: Tai Chi. Learning Tai Chi may seem rather less exciting and dangerous than learning to ride a motorcycle, but I have expectations that it will be every bit as enriching.

Aesthetically, learning to ride a motorcycle and learning Tai Chi may seem to be very different endeavours appealing to very different types or people. In my own case, the two activities appeal to different parts of the same person. Riding a motorcycle can be brazenly loud and physically demanding. It also carries an ever-present threat of injury or death. Stop paying attention at the wrong moment and you could face the worst (or last) day of your life.

1982 Yamaha XJ550 Maxim circa 2014

Meanwhile Tai Chi is quiet, physically un-intimidating and carries an ever-present threat of peacefulness. Stop paying attention at the wrong moment and you could face being quite ungraceful.

Despite the external and overt aesthetic differences, the two activities have some very considerable similarities.

When I learned to ride a motorcycle, I started with a two-hour try-it-out course at the local community college. There was no point in jumping on any motorcycle without expert guidance to help keep my middle-aged skin and bones intact. By the end of the session, when the instructors let us novices ride around in first gear in a tight little circle, I was as convinced as ever that I wanted to try motorcycling for real. Five or six kilometres per hour hadn’t felt so fast since mastering a two wheeled bicycle. To be honest, that experience is long ago enough, that I’m not entirely certain that it was an exhilarating experience.

Deciding to learn Tai Chi during the social distancing climate of 2020, the only viable sources of expert guidance is the internet. And there’s no shortage of potential experts to choose from. Frankly, I’m quite pleased to learn in the seclusion of my own home. Compared to the possibility of

dropping a motorcycle or launching myself into some unforgiving obstacle amid a group of other students, waving my limbs around with a group of strangers is far more intimidating. At least with the motorcycle gear, a degree of anonymity is assured via the giant helmet strapped to my noggin.

Which brings up the matter of “gear”. With a motorcycle, the requisite gear includes protective equipment from head to toe. Riding without the gear is dumb. The idea is to reduce one’s vulnerability during an inherently vulnerable activity. With Tai Chi, I seem to get away with some loose, light clothing and a pair of moccasins. Is it fair to describe this as setting protection aside and connecting with the increasing vulnerability and frailty of a 50-plus year old body? I think so.

Whether riding a motorcycle or learning to waggle my arms in something that approaches a synchronized and intentional way, I am learning a new physical ability. Let’s not call it a skill yet. With the motorcycle, I was tremendously satisfied with the confidence and courage that I acquired as I learned. Learning something new, something with risk, is a terrific way to relearn who you are physically, intellectually and emotionally. with Tai Chi, I am experiencing the same learning and self-connection.

There is a maxim that is recited in any number of training environments that goes “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. While learning these activities, the good sense of the phrase emerges in different ways. With the bike, taking time to learn how to operate the clutch; how to smoothly change gears, how to be in control and attentive without being over-stimulated is a better done at slow speeds..and over time. With Tai Chi, learning to move slowly, how to be in control of breathing and movements without over-stimulating is just as challenging.

I don’t regret deferring the pleasure of learning to ride a motorcycle until I was in my mid-forties. I’d long out-grown an immature craving for speed – a craving that may have injured or killed me had I been riding at an earlier age. It was also a terrific opportunity to rearrange and enhance my sense of identity. That is a very valuable opportunity. I feel the same way about deferring the Tai Chi. Learning it now, I have no doubt that I am learning it differently and with greater care and pleasure than I may have at an earlier time in my life.

External References and Links

  1. https://negativespace.co/black-white-honda-motorbike/
  2. Tai Chi Vectors by Vecteezy