I believe in balance, in yin and yang, give and take. I came to appreciate the concept of balance late in life, at age 50, when I began to take tai chi, an eastern discipline oftentimes described as meditation in slow motion.
Moving slow has never been part of my makeup. I have always been known for doing things quickly, for moving too fast or for being the proverbial bull in a china closet. When I was a child my mother used to say I walked like an elephant. Needless to say I never took ballet. For me, grace was only something I said before meals.
Tai chi is based on a martial arts discipline that emphasizes strength, defense, and balance, enabling you to swiftly and efficiently render an attacker or enemy incapable of harming you. Tai chi is also about strength and balance, about moving gently and precisely, flowing like a slow-moving stream. It involves shifting your weight from one side to the other, feeling the energy flow within you. It also is about defense, but with tai chi you channel potentially harmful energy away or allow it to dissipate. It is a defense against the assaults of the world—the stress, imbalance, injustice.
“Soft, stay soft,” says my instructor, “do not lock elbows or knees.” And what I hear is, do not be rigid, unyielding, unforgiving. When you lock your joints you also lock your body and your mind, but you open yourself up to attack.
“Shift your weight,” he reminds me, and I do, and I marvel at how the elephant is no more. Instead, I am hands, passing like clouds. “Take it slow,” he cautions, and I reach into the core of myself and struggle to hold onto the calm, the source of my strength. “Open your arms wide,” he says, and I am a crane spreading its wings.
Now wherever I am, whenever I’m standing, I am conscious of balance. I remind myself to keep my knees slightly bent, my shoulders relaxed. When I open my arms, I extend them to embrace more of the world around me. When I bring my hands together, I can feel the energy pass between my palms.
I believe in balance, but I don’t always achieve it. That’s why I return to tai chi instructions week after week. When I first started going to class, I wondered why so many people had been attending for six, seven, even ten years, always working on the same routine. Now I know. Every time I take a lesson, I understand or learn something new, even though I’ve performed the motions thousands of times. Maybe that’s because balance is like flowing water: you can never step into the same river twice. Life requires that we constantly readjust, that we keep struggling to get our balance. Tai chi helps me do that. This I believe.