Yoga was my “gateway drug.” It was my first introduction to Eastern exercise philosophies. I took to yoga like a junkie does to crack. I was under 20 with sap still rising in my veins. It felt really good to stretch out my young, lithe body that was recovering from years of very intense growing pains. My joints were limber, my tissues nearly brand new and flexible. I was somewhat fit from an active life. I got hurt overstretching in class once, but it was no big deal as I often got hurt from the activities I chose.
It’s hard to believe now with the proliferation of yoga studios and teachers, but back when I started, yoga was a weird, foreign thing best to be avoided. In fact, yoga was so uncommon and misunderstood I was once asked to leave an apartment complex because it was believed I was practicing “witchcraft” by laying out a blanket under a big oak tree in the common yard and going a little yoga outside the building on beautiful days. That’s a true story!! Oh how things have changed in my short lifetime.
A few years after I had become addicted to the joy of stretching in yoga, I started doing tai chi in an effort to meditate while moving. I could be calm and centered and peaceful when isolated to myself on the mat, but not in the rest of my life. Tai chi was much, much harder for me. It had always been easy for my young body to twist and bend in yoga poses but the slow, flowing movements of tai chi were considerably more challenging, especially the slow part. I enjoyed tai chi “on the side” in those days, but maintained a daily indulgence of my intense yoga habit. Occasionally that yoga still hurt me: a little overstretch here or there leaving me sore for only a half day or so. But I didn’t care about that, I was totally hooked.
Being a Generation X progeny all the way, I engaged in a lot of so-called extreme sports back then; skateboarding, serious off-road mountain bike with as many jumps involved as I could find, whitewater kayaking, caving, rappelling, skydiving, sandboarding- you get the picture. One day I landed too fast when jumping out of an airplane and shattered my right lower leg. It’s a miracle the accident didn’t do more damage to me; it was so intense it actually horrified at least one of the bystanders. But I survived, even though I couldn’t stand, walk or move any part of me without excruciating or intense pain, for over 16 weeks.
In an instant, I went from training for another marathon and biking 30-40 miles almost daily for work to barely being able to move through my house. With a few surgeries and physical therapy I improved and slowly started doing some tai chi again, yoga was far too strenuous to even think about at this point. I needed super gentle movement that wouldn’t pull on my recovering battered tissues that now had numerous layers of stitches. Tai chi was perfect for this. Tai chi was also my saving grace in learning how to walk again. All told, I was non-weight bearing for 3 months. My former rock solid legs had atrophied into matchsticks. I had extensive damage to all of my interior and exterior ankle tendons and ligaments and now I had all these screws and a big stainless steel plate holding the fragmented bones together in my lower leg. From the time of the accident until the first steps of walking unassisted on my own was 6 months. My body, that had consistently become stronger through my years, had very quickly lost it’s strength and forgot how to walk. It was about a year before I proudly walked without an aid over loose gravel again.
Tai chi stepping re-educated my “new and improved” leg about how to step safely in every direction it needed to go. At the same time, consistent practice slowly made my damaged soft tissues stronger and remodeled my now thickened and scarred fascia back into balance. The concentrated functional slow stepping of my Yang short form tai chi practice did a much better job of physical therapy than the insurance paid PT who was more interested in watching basketball with the other trainers than helping me walk again. I was very lucky to have tai chi to heal me when I needed it the most.
When I did finally return to yoga class years later, it wasn’t at all the same for me. Now, instead of enjoying the unusual positions I was putting my body into, they felt unnatural and almost straining, even when I wasn't pushing. My back felt really sore after class and for several days after so I didn’t go back for many years. I still did some of the poses on my own when I felt like I needed it. I had a strong foundation to go it alone in yoga now but was now doing tai chi in larger and larger doses. That’s when I discovered qigong, the idea of energy or chi and how awareness of our own energy changes our perceptions of and relationship with ourselves and the world.
Even with years of a serious daily yoga habit in various methods ranging from Hatha to Kundalini and Vinyasa to Paramahansa Yogananda's Kryia Yoga, I never experienced the tangible sensation of energy like I did in my very first qigong class. It was like I suddenly moved into a whole new level of addiction to healing exercise from the moment I did it. It left me literally buzzing and vibrating physically with energy and excitement about connecting to a part of myself I didn’t even know existed. Now the chi arts became my daily exercise drug of choice; their medicine was working inside me and I could physically feel it. As my system became accustomed to these new healing chemicals being produced inside me, I started upping my dosage doing longer practice sessions and seeking out new routines and learning all I could about these ancient healing Chinese arts. I could feel my energy reserves being restored after having been completely drained from the devastating injury and the resulting personal strife.
Moving to Satellite Beach many years later, I finally returned to a yoga class again. Hot yoga was popping up all over and since I enjoy heat so much, I wanted to try it. To my surprise, I had not lost any of my former flexibility. My chi practices had kept my muscles just as supple as daily yoga had. While I enjoyed the detoxifying, sweating aspect, the yoga practice itself still didn't feel right for me anymore. This time in the class, having now been part of many qigong and tai chi classes, I felt like my little purple sticky mat created an isolating barrier between me and everyone else in the room. I did not feel the group energy or camaraderie that I always felt in chi classes where I wasn’t cordoned off on my own little visible barrier island to go it alone. Since then other former yoga practitioners have shared their own similar experiences with me.
The research indicates that this feeling of connection is indeed one of the reasons tai chi helps us heal: it connects us with others on a chi level that yoga doesn't see to achieve. Yoga is certainly healing but I’ve not felt cohesive group energy from it like I have from chi classes, even when I was a newbie to a tai chi group. Research has also now shown that tai chi offers the benefits of muscle flexibility (like yoga) as well as stronger core, decreased oxidative stress, improved cardio-vascular fitness, reduction in symptoms of depression, isolation and anxiety with greater feelings of joy and connectedness in the world, to name just a few of the research supported benefits. In fact, the wide ranging health advantages of chi arts are so dependable that many world health organizations have adopted qigong and tai chi into their overall mental and physical fitness recommendations and through their funding efforts. The Veteran’s Administration is now employing full time tai chi and qigong teaches because of the overwhelming research evidence of the multi-level, holistic effectiveness of these centuries old practices.
There are no bad side-effects and no one gets hurt doing tai chi or qigong, regardless of physical condition or ability. Tai chi has now been shown to benefit the aging brain in much the same way as learning a new language does. Tai chi practice rewires the brain to adapt better to change, creating greater neuroplasticity, which is why there are so many cognitive benefits stemming from chi arts. Now more than ever in our history, we need to be able to adapt to change. In the past, our ancestors may have spent their entire life in the same town, at the same job, interacting with the same people with little to no news of the rest of the world making their brains literally stuck in ruts and resistant to going outside the norm. With global technology, we are bombarded with drastic change and new stimuli and choices every single day. We need our brains to continue adapting well into our old age so that we can simply survive in the ever-changing world without going mad. I think of it as I don’t want to become the old guy from my youth in the apartment down the hall who had never heard of and didn't want to hear what yoga was. He was angry at the world (as were all the retired people on the building board) for changing simply because his brain found it easier to be stuck in the same old rut wanting to live only with the knowledge of the past and unable to cope with the beginning onslaught of information in a more connected world. I know that tai chi gives me the ability to adapt by changing how it functions. I literally feel it happening in my brain when I learn new forms—my brain changes.
I started tai chi in my early 20’s as a form of moving meditation for my mental health care. I continued practicing and started pursuing it further as a form of physical therapy. Now, with well over twenty years of practice, I’m still doing daily tai chi because I need my aging brain to be able to handle whatever our crazy world throws my way—be it economic, political or environmental change, flying cars, no cars at all or the personal change I know will surely happen again at some point in my future. The only thing we can be sure of in this world is that change will come to us. That is guaranteed. Hopefully, your brain and mine will be able to handle the next enormous wave of change to come and we’ll get stoked on the ride together instead of wiping out solo because we couldn't adapt to the next big change. Looking forward to practicing with you soon.
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