Learning to stand: t’ai chi, qi gong, and unscrambling the CNS

About 15 years ago, I studied shaolin kung fu with Ted Mancuso at the Academy of Martial Arts in Santa Cruz. I was outrageously lucky to wind up there. I had too much spiritual feeling to tolerate the gym-type martial arts classes normally found in the US, but not nearly enough discipline to make the most of my time at the Academy.

However, I did learn a few things, including how to block a punch in such a way that my opponent’s spinal reflexes were disabled for my return punch. That was cool.
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Being short, blonde, female, well-traveled, and — above all — a sometime Emergency nurse, all my illusions about bad things only happening to bad people were long since destroyed. It’s a great big world out there, and anything can happen to anybody.

So there I was, in my self-satisfied early 30’s, at a top-flight martial arts training school. The fact that the teacher (or “sifu”) had started in qi gong somehow totally eluded me. I was infatuated with the grandmother of martial arts, shaolin kung fu, and really had eyes for nothing else.

Smiling sparrers from Shaolinsuomi at Wikimedia.
Smiling sparrers from Shaolinsuomi at Wikimedia.

I briefly flirted with t’ai chi, but decided it would be too hard on my knees… Knees are important, but shoddily made. I had cruddy cartilage (what was left of it) under my kneecaps. I thought that was painful (how cute!) and was afraid of making it worse before my time (another joke, in retrospect.) I got physical therapy for that problem, and learned that my legs had been aligning poorly at least since I was 11.

Retraining my legs to activate different muscles, ones I could hardly feel (and no wonder), was daunting at first.

I remarked to Sifu Ted, in tones of reflective melancholy overlaying a certain smugness, “I’m re-learning how to walk.”

That was supposed to be the opening line of a short discourse on rebuilding something so fundamental, literally repatterning one of the most reflexive early lessons in life, going right back to the beginning and restructuring an utterly basic activity … yeah. Cute.
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But, before I could get started, he said, in a tone of unrehearsed frankness overlaying a certain frustration, “I’m always relearning how to walk.”

My verbal hot-air balloon deflated on a laugh, before it ever left the ground.

He said, “It’s true.”

I nodded, and went away to think that over for a decade or so.

I thought of Ted when I realized that combining energy discipline and body work was the best rubric for managing my CRPS. I’m back at his school now, studying — you guessed it — qi gong and t’ai chi.

Um… No, it’s not too hard on my knees.

T’ai chi is second to nothing I’ve tried for correcting posture, the way Ted’s Academy teaches it. While each body is unique, there are certain things that have to happen in order for the movement to work. To do good t’ai chi is to line your body up properly. My low back is slowly opening and lengthening again, and my feet are remembering how to find the ground.

Qi gong is another dimension beyond that. I’m sweating over re-learning how to stand. When I find the words, which may take awhile, I’ll write about it more. To start with, I’ll just say that I had no idea how much I get in my own way — and I’m not that bad, for a Westerner. I started qi gong 20 years ago, but now I’m starting all over again.

I thought it was trippy to go back to when I was 11, and un-learn from there. Now I’m realizing I have to go back to when I was 1.
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But I’m looking forward to knowing how to walk.

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