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The Reluctant Adventurer: Shutting Your Brain Up With T’ai Chi

Saturday, January 10, 2015


I can’t read one more tip about how to keep resolutions. Or how to make more keepable resolutions. Or anything at all with the word “resolutions” in it.

I just wrote it three times and now I hate myself.

To be fair, though, I think I hated myself before I typed The Word That Shall Not Be Written Again.

I hated myself for all the reso…promises I’d made to myself in the past, and broken pretty much immediately. 

If I were my own boyfriend, I would’ve broken up with me a long time ago for being a lying, cheating shithead.

Approximately 64% of my lies to myself are about food. What I won’t eat, what I will eat, and how many calories were in what I just ate. 

Just to break the rest of the lies down: 

13% Gym-related
8% Deadline-related
7% Skirts/jeans shrinking-in-the-dryer-related
5% Waking-up-early-tomorrow-related
3% Not-dying-alone-related

In an essay in Saturday’s New York Times called “Healthy Body, Unhealthy Mind,” essayist Pico Iyer said of himself, “I was, in short, what I’d call an externalist — a person who’ll exercise great care over what he puts into his body and never think about what he puts into his mind.”

Okay. So what would you call a person who exercises no care whatsoever about either? 

Actually, “no care” is inappropriate when it comes to what I put in my body. 

I care and think constantly about it, I just tend to fail at most attempts at making healthy choices. (One time, when I was on my way back up the scale after yet another failed diet, I was standing in the shower one morning thinking, “What if I just stayed in here? I can’t overeat in here. I can have people bring me perfectly-portioned, low-fat snacks. What says ‘clean eating’ more than having all your meals in the shower?”)

So the body part I was bit torn about, but the brain part of Iyer’s statement—that really resonated with me. 

While I’ve spent half my life and a lot of money trying to figure out how to improve my body, my brain, (which, by the way, is PART OF MY BODY), has been jumping up and down, waving its little brain arms and screaming, “DUDE. I run pretty much everything up in this bitch. You might want to, I don’t know..PAY SOME ATTENTION TO ME.”

It’s understandably upset, as I’ve been feeding it a steady diet of Buzzfeed and Daily Beast stories, a completely random Twitter feed and Project Runway binges. I’m the mental equivalent of one of those people Geraldo has to lift out of their apartment with a crane.

It’s time to work out my brain.  

To that end, I took a T’ai Chi class last night.

T’ai Chi is the Chinese martial art you always see old people practicing in the background while two movie characters hash out something important on a park bench. 

It’s a series of self-defense moves (100+ movements in long form), slowed down to the point that it no longer feels like a physical exercise as much as a mental one, i.e. how long can I do this before my mind starts wandering Jesus have my hands always looked that scaley?

To perform this mental exercise, I went to the Taoist T’ai Chi Society, a beautifully refurbished warehouse building in NE Portland on Glisan. It’s a huge, bright space with 30’ wood beam ceilings, an alter and a brand new professional kitchen for their events. 

I mention the professional kitchen because they had snacks, and I enjoy snacks immensely. (Would I have expected a bowl of peanut-butter stuffed pretzels a the Taoist Society? No. Did I have 17 of them during the break? Of course I did. I’m not an idiot.)

But back to the T’ai Chi. 

The Taoist Society teaches long-form T’ai Chi over the course of 4 months. One 90-minute class per week for 16 weeks, and you’ve learned the entire hour-long series, complete with a graduation celebration.

That meant that we learned just four moves during the first class (which is free to new students):

Opening of Tai Chi

Left Grasp Bird's Tail

Grasp Bird's Tail

Single Whip   

I’ll take you through a bit of it, briefly, along with what went on in my head.

Opening of T’ai Chi: Raise and lower your arms in front of your body, then slowly raise your right arm, turn and step to the right, turning your right palm out and pushing out away from your body.

And…up….and…down….and…this is so calming. Is there anyone behind me? Why would I stand at the front of the class? I hate the way my ass looks in these pants. I should get some yoga pants. They’re just like sweats, but you don’t look like you’ve given up. Especially those “dress” ones. Dress yoga pants. What a racket. Did I just say “What a racket”? Who am I, Joe Pesce? Where are we? Oh.

Left Grasp Bird’s Tail: Bend both knees while stepping with your left foot in a 45 degree angle. Move the weight to the left leg and pretend you're holding a big ball. Round up your left arm and push towards the back with your right arm.

Was that my knee cracking? Jesus. How old am I? Holding a big ball…how big is the ball? Like a basketball or a kickball or a football? A football is a totally different shape altogether. Hot wings would be really good right now. Where are we?

You get the idea. 

This is how it went for a while, but eventually, once we’d repeated the moves enough times, things finally quieted down. The combination of the slowness and repetition tricked my brain into shutting its pie hole, and I had a real sense of my body moving through space without worrying about how it looked while doing it.

T’ai Chi has been called “meditation in motion,” and when combined with breath, a person with the self-discipline to continue can concurrently learn to focus more while calming the hell down. It’s supposedly also good for balance, alignment, fine motor-control and a host of other things, but I mostly want the calming-the-hell-down part.

In the past, when I’ve thought about change, I just wanted to be fixed. Now. The frustration from not being able to fix myself was palpable, and it weighed on me as soon as I opened my eyes in the morning. 

This is why things like Zumba, running or boot camp seem appealing, because not only do you see the results quickly, it just feels like change is happening. You’re literally moving towards change with great speed.

But it’s never worked, because my body isn’t where I’m broken, it just looks that way.

If I’m broken (and I think I am, a little, like all of us are), it’s in my brain and definitely somewhere near the heart area. 

So as much as I feel like my impatience might not allow me to see this through, I’m going to try it. 

It’s a start.

T’ai Chi at the Taoist T’ai Chi Society

2241 NE Glisan St.


RECOMMENDED FOR: Patient people.

NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Anyone who wants to feel the burn or see results in 1-2 weeks. There’s no burning. But there are peanut butter pretzels!

Note: The Taoist T’ai Chi Society is a non-profit, so the classes are taught by volunteers and therefore pretty loose. If you’re looking to be taught in a more structured environment, there are a few other resources in the Portland area, just Google them!

Courtenay Hameister is the Head Writer and Co-Producer of Live Wire Radio, a syndicated radio variety show distributed by Public Radio International. She is currently working on a book that will be released through Audible.com in 2015. Follow Courtenay on Twitter at @wisenheimer


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