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.
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.
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