Posts Tagged ‘Tai Chi’

World on a String

October 13, 2010

“I think I should teach you tai chi,” he said when I arrived for physical therapy.

A highly recommended physical therapist, I knew Allie was the “tai chi guy” from his presence at health days at the school. He seemed like a normal person, but visions of citron sheets and shaved heads still entered my mind. Although I didn’t have that angry, fighting spirit so often described in the “how to have cancer” literature, I had decided I would do whatever it took to become healthy, so I listened for what he had to say. As a result of chemotherapy, at least I had the right hair cut.

“Sometimes, people who are dealing with big problems need a way to get away from them, to clear their minds…” Allie said.

Do I seem like I am not dealing well with this, I wondered? But I continued to listen.

“…and it’s good exercise.  It would be good for you.”

Well, he had me there. So, when I returned to the office, I clicked on complementary medicine, and did a little research.

According to the Mayo Clinic website, among the many possible health benefits of tai chi are reducing stress, anxiety and depression, improving balance, flexibility and muscle strength, lowering blood pressure, improving sleep quality and cardiovascular fitness, increasing energy, endurance and agility, and improving overall feelings of well being. Wow! Those seemed like good things.

So, as part of my physical therapy, I very self-consciously started to learn the 24 forms or postures of tai chi chuan, yang style (simplified).

“Begin from a point of nothingness,” Allie said.  “Imagine you are suspended by a golden thread.” Oooo.  This is a little weird, I thought.

“Commencing step. Horse position.  Rising ball of air.” He recommended doing this with my eyes closed.  I couldn’t.  It made me feel dizzy, and I couldn’t stand the thought of unknowingly being observed by the staff and other patients.

“Carry the ball on the right.” Sigh.  I don’t know my right from my left, and it gets worse if I try to think about it. So far, tai chi was contributing to my growing dread that the illusions of confidence and air of competence, carefully developed over many years, would soon disappear, leaving me exposed as a pretender. I could not imagine how that would help me. Well, I guess it gave me something to worry about that wasn’t cancer.

“This is how you should breathe,” Allie began the next lesson. What?! I thought I at least knew how to do that right! Oh goodness.

Through the weeks of physical therapy, as I regained mobility in my shoulder, he patiently taught and retaught the beginning forms of tai chi. I don’t know how apparent my discomfort and nervousness were, but I was determined to “live the life I was trying to save,” to see all my treatments as more than a fight against cancer, but as a steps on a journey toward good health. In spite of my misgivings and lack of coordination, I became convinced that tai chi would help.

Much literature on chemotherapy speaks of imagining the drugs coursing through your veins, seeking and destroying cancer cells. That imagery didn’t work for me.  Surrounding myself with fun, life-giving people (and very effective antiemetics) had made chemo an enjoyable experience. Once I made the decision that I wanted to aggressively treat the cancer and had a great team in place whose medical decisions I trusted, it seemed like all I had to do was to show up. I arrived at chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and physical therapy, willing to do whatever was necessary.  Up until this point, my treatment felt like something that was happening to me. But to my surprise, with these slow graceful movements, I gradually felt empowered. For the first time, I was fighting back. I became part of the team.

Allie demonstrated each posture, breaking it down into small, managable movements. “Turn toward the front window, and part the wild horse’s mane,” he said. “Reposition, link, and part the wild horse’s mane.”

I turned and imagined myself facing the cancer. As I became stronger, better able to keep my balance, I began to feel like I was back in control.  Now, I was confronting the cancer, blocking it from taking over my thoughts and emotions.

“White crane crosses it’s wings.  White crane spreads it’s wings.” I had seen Allie demonstrate these postures for the children at school.  I spread my wings in the face of the life-threatening illness. I am bigger than you, and I still have a lot to do, so back off.

“Twist and brush left knee. Twist and brush right knee. Twist and brush left knee again.” One website lists this move as “Green dragon shoots out pearl.” What a great name. When Allie does it, it looks like a major league pitcher’s wind-up and release. Even though I was only a rookie, I imagined myself advancing toward the cancer, driving it away, pelting it with pearls.

“Play the lute.” I gathered my inner resources to prepare for the whatever would come next.

Physical therapy ended at the same time as the second round of chemotherapy, but tai chi lessons continued.  My middle child found the idea of coming to one of my medical appointments too frightening. Allie suggested she take tai chi lessons with me, giving us an opportunity to walk together on the good health journey, and taught a private mother-daughter class for us. She quickly became the personal tutor my chemo-addled brain required.

Each week we went to the clinic to learn a new posture.  Every night we pushed coffee table against the couch, covered it with instructions, and practiced in the dimly lit living room.

“Repulse the monkey,”  Allie told us. This is also referred to as the reverse reeling forearm. I was pleasantly surprised that I could bring my arms up and around, a move that would have been impossible before physical therapy.  This became my favorite move. I felt like I was baiting the cancer, daring it to take me on, while at the same time, pushing out of my space.

“Tai chi is movement meditation, but it is also a martial art,” Allie explained.  As radiation therapy became a dreaded part of my daily routine, I was secretly becoming a warrior in a campaign against cancer. Treatment required holding completely still in an unnatural position for 45 minutes, alone on a cold and uncomfortable table in a dark room. Every day when I heard the lead door close, I fought back panic by using the breathing techniques I had learned in tai chi while tears streamed down unbidden. Every night while I practiced tai chi, I rebuilt my resolve to see the treatment to the end, to repulse that monkey another day.

Although most of my attention was focused on the battle against cancer, I continued to live the rest of my life. “Parry left, ward-off right, and grasp the swallow’s tail,” Allie demonstrated. Even as I pushed in other directions, I continued to ward off the cancer, keeping it from controlling my destiny at the same time I relished the opportunity to deal with the ordinary annoyances of daily living.  Tai chi moves mirrored by life.

“Danbien and strike left. Ward off right. Wave hands like clouds.” With graceful motions, I deflected blows from well-meaning people, exposing loving intentions as hurtful comments fell to the ground. All the while, I moved toward the left to resume the battle.

“Danbien, strike, high pat on horse.” The cancer was loosing power as I tamed it with an overhanded blow.

“Block and kick right. Turn and strike opponent in the ears.” Listen up, cancer! You will not be my identity.  I am more than a patient, more than a cancer survivor. I am a very lucky person surrounded by love and grace, a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a beloved child of God. Cancer was a problem I had, it was not who I was. I privately raged at the cancer, allowing me to show a happy demeanor in public.

“Turn. Block. Left heal kick. Danbien.” Danbien (pronounced “don ti on”) is a concept as well as a posture, Allie told us.  It is the single whip form in tai chi, but it also refers to the physical center of one’s gravity, the seat of internal energy or chi. I liked this imagery. It corresponded with the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when life seemed to be spiraling out of control. When I achieved balance, in my life or in tai chi, I had a “gut feeling” that everything would be okay.

“Snake creeps down and golden rooster stands on left leg.”  You have got to be kidding me! I am a bald, overweight woman in my late 40’s undergoing radiation therapy for late stage breast cancer. Allie does not acknowledge my incredulous glare. My daughter, naturally, can do it with ease. Oh! I did it! I feel as proud as any golden rooster! On to snake creeps down right.

“Fair lady at the shuttle.” Life went on around me as treatment and tai chi lessons continued.  I found comfort and humor in the fabric of daily living, the familiar rhythms of folding laundry, eating dinner, washing dishes, working, driving, texting, laughing, sleeping, weaving a future for family and friends that would include happy memories of time spent together.

“Needle at the bottom of the sea.” I reached into the deep recesses of the blessed ocean of my existence — constant yet changing, powerful and refreshing. There I found faith that gave me a sense of gratitude and peace.

“Fan through the back. Strike left, protecting head with the right.”  The oncologist said it was not curable, but I knew it could be beat it into remission. I refused to get caught in the head games of negative internet chat rooms, scary statistics, and annoying predictions of doomsayers. An 80% recurrence rate means that one in five people escaped unscathed.  I could be that one.

“Turn body, deflect, parry and punch.” Once again, I turned to face the cancer.  I was still standing. When I die, I hope my obituary will read, “she died unexpectedly,” with no mention of a valiant, lost battle to cancer. I will die while living this amazing, unexpected, yet wonderfully ordinary life.

Winter had turned to spring, and lessons were coming to an end as we were introduced to the closing postures.

“There is a drop-in class on Wednesdays.  You should come,” Allie said. By this time, I agreed that the practice of tai chi was good for me, but idea of joining a class filled me with trepidation. I took a deep breath, reminded myself of the many thing I had done over the past year that tested the limits of my courage, and wrote the class time into every week on my calendar.

The class gathers in a circle, and I look into the faces of kind strangers, but when we move together in the graceful, grace-filled unison of the 24 forms, I recognize their open, broken hearts. Pretension and illusions of confidence have no place here. I am still nervous, but I feel safe.

“Appears closed.” To my surprise, the cancer no longer feels like an enemy. I clear my right arm with my left, and withdraw my hands with my palms up, with the realization that the cancer is neither friend nor foe, but part of my being. I accept this part of myself, then push it an arm’s length away, closing the door on it’s ability to dominate my thoughts and emotions.

It’s World Tai Chi Day and some 50 people have gathered in the town park. My heart sings as Allie leads us in the beautiful dance in the wind and the sunshine.

“Cross hands, then circle to gather everything, wrists cross and rise to the throat.” I draw the lessons of tai chi and my affection for  the now dear strangers, and hold them close to my heart.

Allie gives the final instructions. “Closing. Separate hands to shoulders, palms down and descend. Return to commencing position, relax and return to nothingness, suspended by a golden thread.”

In returning to the beginning, I can see how far I have come.

I got the world on a string/I’m sittin’ on a rainbow/Got that string around my finger/What a world, what a life! (Harold Arlen, Ted Koehler)


At First, I Thought it was You

October 4, 2010

…but it was me, all along.

There were two mirrors in the room where my Thursday morning tai chi class was held last week. No matter where I looked, there I was. But I never watch myself in the mirror when doing tai chi because it feels like I am fighting against myself – (and then there are those spacial and body image issues that we can explore another time )– but then I thought, whenever we are fighting, aren’t we fighting ourselves? Even on a global stage, aren’t we  fighting our inability or unwillingness to see something from someone else’s point of view?

Are there things worth fighting for? Mothe and I had a good-natured discussion on this during our regularly scheduled Saturday morning phone call. We have been having a lot of “good-natured discussions” lately.  I think my mom suspects that chemo-brain has turned me into a wild liberal. She might be right. But, although I continue to avoid national and international news, I have been thinking about war and peace a lot lately, and wondering what we are called to do when we see injustice in this world.

Are we required to fight to preserve our way of life, to protect innocent lives elsewhere?  Sarah has said that she thinks that Augustine and Aquinas were just crafty enough to develop a “just war theory” that in effect says that there is no such thing as a just war.  Huh!

But maybe, rather than fighting to get across our point of view, we are called to radically live out our beliefs, and let them stand on their own merits. What would it look like if we were to love God with our whole hearts, our whole minds and our whole selves and  our neighbors as ourselves? What would it look like if all of us who believe in the dignity and preciousness of human life were to do all that we could to create “a world where we can dedicate our resources to the development of human life and not to its destruction” (Benazir Bhutto), “a world where human life is always loved and defended and every form of violence banished” (John Paul II)?

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”  ~Edmund Hillary

Here’s My Justification….

October 3, 2010

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, Steve and I decided that we would view the “ordeal” as a journey toward good health.  It really made a hugh difference in how we looked at everything, and his positive attitude helped me to keep my spirits up when we hit new challenges. (Although, he also was the person who was most likely to receive the full force of my frustration when the going got rough at times.  “I have CANCER, you know,” I would tell him.  “The show that I am handling this well is for EVERYBODY ELSE!” It actually became a little joke between us.  “Oh, yeah,” Steve would say with a roll of his eyes, “you have cancer,” when I was being my ornery self.)

Now, I often have to remind myself that the journey is not over just because the cancer is in remission. The walking and lifting and tai chi-ing and healthy eating are all necessary, just as important as going to see my friendly oncologist, as required on my calendar as the appointments with the surgeons and physical therapist and radiation technicians had been during the cancer year. I have to remain committed to continuing on the yellow brick road to good health.

And then there is this:  “Exercise gives you endorphinsEndorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t kill their husbands. They just don’t.” ~ Elle Woods, Legally Blonde


September 10, 2010

The small man
Builds cages for everyone
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the

I was telling Chris about something that happened at my tai chi class that has been on my mind this week, and she ‘dropped a key’. (I wish I knew how to link to her great post on this, but I don’t yet. I encourage you to go read around in her blog, Everyday Feats of Courage for some really fine thinking and gorgeous writing. You can click on it from my blog roll.)

Anyway, a couple of the fellas in the class had asked Allie if there were exercises that would help with balance, and we did a little extra balance work in the class. He said some interesting things as we were doing the exercises, including this: Many people don’t actually walk, it’s literally controlled falling. And this: Studies show that walking pace slows as balance increases. He pointed out that dancers move differently that other people, and they don’t look like they are hurrying. I thought about how Jillian walks, and how beautiful and easy-going it looks. And as I watched Allie demonstrate the exercises, I couldn’t help but notice how in-line and graceful he looked while he did them.

Now, as someone who has trouble walking…. I would say “and chewing gum,” but in the interested of accuracy, I should probably say “and staying upright,” …this was all very interesting to me.  Is my walking just controlled falling? Do I just use my next step to stop my fall (not always successfully)?  Hmmm.

Chris asked this, “How much of our living is lurching from one emergency or crisis to another?” Oh my goodness!  Exactly! So many of the things on my list are pointed toward changing the balance — toward good health, physically and spiritually, for me, for those I love, for my small corner of the world.  Learning to walk “with poise and peace and intention,” Chris said.  That’s the key!

Maybe this is a good time to review The List, so I can give you some examples.

Here is The List of ten things that I want to/think I should/am afraid to do, but will try to do before the end of this year:

1. Commit to walk anywhere that is less than one mile away.

I am walking a lot more, and I love it! I extended the commitment to “anywhere in the borough,” and it makes me slow down, not take on as much, since I have to plan for the time it will take to walk to places.  It’s been a really good thing to do.  There are a lot of interesting things to tell you about walking, which I will do in another post.

2. Take a tai chi class and/or a yoga class.

Tai chi has been really good for me, and it’s fun that Laura took the class so she could come with me to class, and I could show her off.  And Sarah is taking tai chi this semester, too!  I added a second class this week, and it was really cool.  Allie teaches it, too, but it seemed different than the Wednesday class.  Chris tried to show me yoga, but I was really bad at it.  I still might take a class with Caryl at a new studio opening in town.

3. Grow enough tomatoes for a whole year. Maybe green beans, too.

The weather didn’t cooperate on the tomatoes, but I love our little tomato garden for so many reasons, including the delicious Cherokee purple tomato sandwich I enjoyed for lunch, but mostly because Steve and I did it together.  Love and homegrown tomatoes.  You can’t buy ’em.

4. Get into a clinical trial on chemobrain or some alternative chemobrain therapies.

I don’t have anything to report on this one — or maybe I just can’t remember.  : )

5. Ask the questions that I want answers to.

I’m getting better at this, but it’s still hard, even for small things.  One question, “Do you think lifting weights would be good for me?” has resulted in a fun, new routine that involves walking, lifting, drinking coffee, and philosophizing.  What a great combination!

6. Attend a powwow.

Still need to do this before the year is out.

7. Go to a post-cancer support group.

Does my “life after breast cancer” class count?  I learned a lot about myself during that time.

8. Write more.

I am writing more.  Not enough, but more.

9. Learn a new language.

I haven’t found a class time that works yet.

10. Ride the bus.

I still need to do this, but Laura and Jack rode the bus!  Admittedly, it was to cut a mile off of the return hike from Green Acres, but they figured out which bus to get on and how to get home. There were three people on the bus….Laura, Jack and the driver.

(11. Make a new list.)

I’ve started a new list.  It includes this really fun goal: Going to every museum in Gettysburg! It will also be kind of hard, since I feel funny going into places where I am not sure I belong.  Like the new Brooks Brothers outlet. Although walking in there with my son the offensive/defensive tackle, and having him give the salesman who was dressed in a striped, white collared shirt and tie with a cashmere cardigan tied around his shoulders the “once over,” and turning to me to say, “I could rock that style,” makes me hope that Jack will come with me to at least some of the museums.

Now, a final thought on controlled falling.  Sometimes I think it’s okay to fall into something without holding back.  Like faith and love and friendship and parenting and laughter. Sometimes we need to fall overboard….even if it’s not peaceful or poised, because it can be grace-filled.

But as strong as I seem to think I am my distressing damsel,
She comes out at night when the moon’s filled up and your eyes are
bright, then I think I simply ought to

Fall over, fall over, fall overboard, overboard
Fall overboard just so you can catch me
You can catch me

(Ingrid Michaelson)


April 26, 2010

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic,” Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910

One hundred years and one day later, I fell flat on my face. I was walking along, on my way to World Tai Chi Day at the Rec Park. One minute, I was enjoying the brisk, sunny morning, the next, I was kissing the sidewalk. Ouch! I picked myself up, and continued to my destination, my face marred by blood and dust.

I first heard this quote from my father, the third consecutive year that I unsuccessfully tried out for cheerleading in high school. It has since been a favorite of mine. For one thing, you have to be pretty lucky to have a dad who would know that not making the cheerleading squad again and again was a really big deal. Because of my dad, I fondly remember the days before the final try-outs, learning the routines, sharing the comaraderie and the aching muscles with my friends (who made the team), instead of moment of learning that I was not among the chosen. I don’t even remember how we found out the results. I learned something that has helped me many, many times in my life, how to handle disappointment, to be gracious in failure, and to hold my head up when I have given my best effort.

Oh, I felt like crying on Saturday morning. And yesterday, my lip hurt, my hand hurt, my knee and toe and shoulder hurt. Truth be told, I am still a little sore today. But I’m glad I kept on going to the park. It was really cool to do tai chi with close to 50 people outdoors, including my dear friend Chris! I found out that Alpha, my next door neighbor, does tai chi, and we are going to go to the outdoor class on Tuesday nights together.

I don’t want to be one of the “cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.” So, even if it makes me feel silly or out-of-place, I am going to keep working on the list….channeling my inner Gert Loplitz!

Asking Questions

April 21, 2010

A man may fulfill the object of his existence by asking a question he cannot answer, and attempting a task he cannot achieve. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

Surprisingly, the “ask the questions I want answers to” goal is probably the most difficult and scary thing on my list. It doesn’t seem like it should be hard, but it is. I think it’s the fear of revealing too much about yourself to others.  But we need to open our hearts and let others in, even when it makes us feel uncomfortable. I think it’s also because the answer might require you “to do the thing you think you cannot do.” (Go to The List: 2010 on my blogroll for more on following this advice from Eleanor Roosevelt.)

Today in tai chi class, I asked if it might be easier if our instructor were to change the way the class was facing so that we might be able to see him during the later parts of the form where everyone is not as familiar. (There were new people there, and I figured that if I wanted to learn some parts better, they probably did, too, and I could see that they were struggling.) Of course, I am directionally challenged, so my idea didn’t work out as well as I hoped it might, and so we tried another direction. By the time the instructor asked me if that was working better, I felt like I had completely disrupted the whole class, and the others were making fun of me a little bit.  I hope in a very friendly way. It was readily apparent why I was named brightest blusher in my high school class. I felt like an idiot.

Now, as I write this, I realize it doesn’t sound like a big deal.  But it was for me.  I am friendly and pleasant in most settings, and I think most people who casually know me might be surprised how hard it is for me to speak up to ask for help. Am I glad I asked?  While all of the disruption was going on, I would have to say, not so much. Afterward, Kermit gave me a hug, and said he thought that what we did was very helpful. He is a nice man.

Well, old Oliver Wendell Holmes also said this: “When in doubt, do it.”

Sigh.  Okay….here I go!

Good Chi

March 12, 2010

Who has a friend who would go to California with her to do tai chi with the people in the park? Or at least to Rec Park on World Tai Chi Day?

Why that would be me!