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White Crane Spreads Its Wings Three Years Later

Three years ago I wrote a column about taking up the practice of tai chi and said I'd report back after a year. I did and promised an update in 12 months time. Did that too. Which brings us to the present, three years in. For readers who haven't seen the previous columns, follows is a recap.

The beginning: I have only two strong memories about martial arts. Number one, I was enrolled, if not attending, Grossmont Junior College and living in a Fifth Avenue flophouse with two other students. One roommate, Dick Allen, was a huge, violent man, who practiced karate every afternoon, then cruised downtown bars at night, got drunk, and picked fights with hapless civilians. I liked him.

The other memory is graduate school in San Francisco and walking past Huntington Park to class. In the mornings, particularly early in the morning, the park was populated by elderly Chinese practicing their tai chi. Men and women, dressed in street clothes, silently moving together like an impossibly slow-flying flock of geese.

And that's it, which is not a great deal. So, I was surprised to find myself wanting to take a tai chi class. I thought, "Can croquet and pottery be far behind?"

One year later: Yang style tai chi chuan has three sections and 108 movements. Within one or two decades I should be able to demonstrate for you the Grasp Sparrow's Tail, White Crane Spreads its Wings, Embrace Tiger Return to Mountain, Needle to the Bottom of the Sea, Wave Hands Through Clouds (9 times), and Snake Creeps Low. Please check back then.

It took ten months to get through section 1. Your mileage will vary. When I say, "get through," I mean able to slog my way from beginning to end in the grossest possible manner. I mean, rough cut, hippo-in-ballet-shoes, lurching from one foot to the next, moving twice too fast, pushing -- make that shoving feet, arms, and torso around in a cloddish approximation of my teacher. Ten months, one section, the shortest section.

I started going to more classes -- four per week -- to get over the hump. This is a good deal more regularity than I'm used to. Three of those classes are at 7 a.m., which means I get up at 5:30 a.m. on those days, and considering that sleeping in is one of the most valuable trophies a writer possesses, 5:30 a.m. says more than one might ordinarily suppose.

Two years later: I'm back to three days a week, but practice more often on off days. Turns out the world of tai chi is like the other worlds humans create. I have listened to stories about great masters and their smoking, drinking, fornicating, power grabbing, money grubbing, back stabbing -- acting exactly like the rest of us. Becoming an expert in tai chi chuan doesn't make you a good person; more precisely, for some it does, for some it doesn't.

In terms of physical health and wellbeing, after a considerable investment of time and energy, I can say I feel better. Not much better, but I have more energy, more lightness, a happier mood, just enough to know it's real. An equivalent amount of time spent in a gym or on a track or on a bicycle would have returned greater physical improvements.

Three years later, the present: We finished the three sections and 108 moves on the right side. I can do them in the correct order in a gross way. We've been working on the left side for the past six months. This goes slowly. We're spending more time on breathing, balance, and moving chi. We're beginning the practice of inner tai chi. I don't have a clue.

Fellow students have become individuals. I know their stories and they know mine. Two have become friends. We have dinner together, go to concerts, take bike rides, often show up at the same events. I feel I can count on them more than I can count on friends I've known for decades.

This is what I've acquired from tai chi world since I walked through the door three years ago: Fifteen tai chi books. Two tai chi calendars. One tai chi magazine subscription. Forty-three tai chi reprints. Four tai chi DVDs. Two tai chi VCR tapes. Three Buddhist magazine subscriptions. Twenty-five Buddhist books. Two pounds fancy/smancy teas from Celadon Fine Teas. One clay teapot. One ceramic teapot. Two porcelain tea cups. Twenty pounds brown rice. One odious lump of rock candy in the shape of a sitting Buddha. One zafu. One zabuton. One tai chi ruler. Three tai chi T-shirts. One oversized writing journal. One copy of the I Ching. One set of Tao stones. One MindfulClock software program. One figurine depicting a white-bearded Chinese man finishing a Flying Diagonal. One rice cooker. One vegetable steamer. Early bed time. Early rise time.

Can croquet and pottery be far behind?

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Three years ago I wrote a column about taking up the practice of tai chi and said I'd report back after a year. I did and promised an update in 12 months time. Did that too. Which brings us to the present, three years in. For readers who haven't seen the previous columns, follows is a recap.

The beginning: I have only two strong memories about martial arts. Number one, I was enrolled, if not attending, Grossmont Junior College and living in a Fifth Avenue flophouse with two other students. One roommate, Dick Allen, was a huge, violent man, who practiced karate every afternoon, then cruised downtown bars at night, got drunk, and picked fights with hapless civilians. I liked him.

The other memory is graduate school in San Francisco and walking past Huntington Park to class. In the mornings, particularly early in the morning, the park was populated by elderly Chinese practicing their tai chi. Men and women, dressed in street clothes, silently moving together like an impossibly slow-flying flock of geese.

And that's it, which is not a great deal. So, I was surprised to find myself wanting to take a tai chi class. I thought, "Can croquet and pottery be far behind?"

One year later: Yang style tai chi chuan has three sections and 108 movements. Within one or two decades I should be able to demonstrate for you the Grasp Sparrow's Tail, White Crane Spreads its Wings, Embrace Tiger Return to Mountain, Needle to the Bottom of the Sea, Wave Hands Through Clouds (9 times), and Snake Creeps Low. Please check back then.

It took ten months to get through section 1. Your mileage will vary. When I say, "get through," I mean able to slog my way from beginning to end in the grossest possible manner. I mean, rough cut, hippo-in-ballet-shoes, lurching from one foot to the next, moving twice too fast, pushing -- make that shoving feet, arms, and torso around in a cloddish approximation of my teacher. Ten months, one section, the shortest section.

I started going to more classes -- four per week -- to get over the hump. This is a good deal more regularity than I'm used to. Three of those classes are at 7 a.m., which means I get up at 5:30 a.m. on those days, and considering that sleeping in is one of the most valuable trophies a writer possesses, 5:30 a.m. says more than one might ordinarily suppose.

Two years later: I'm back to three days a week, but practice more often on off days. Turns out the world of tai chi is like the other worlds humans create. I have listened to stories about great masters and their smoking, drinking, fornicating, power grabbing, money grubbing, back stabbing -- acting exactly like the rest of us. Becoming an expert in tai chi chuan doesn't make you a good person; more precisely, for some it does, for some it doesn't.

In terms of physical health and wellbeing, after a considerable investment of time and energy, I can say I feel better. Not much better, but I have more energy, more lightness, a happier mood, just enough to know it's real. An equivalent amount of time spent in a gym or on a track or on a bicycle would have returned greater physical improvements.

Three years later, the present: We finished the three sections and 108 moves on the right side. I can do them in the correct order in a gross way. We've been working on the left side for the past six months. This goes slowly. We're spending more time on breathing, balance, and moving chi. We're beginning the practice of inner tai chi. I don't have a clue.

Fellow students have become individuals. I know their stories and they know mine. Two have become friends. We have dinner together, go to concerts, take bike rides, often show up at the same events. I feel I can count on them more than I can count on friends I've known for decades.

This is what I've acquired from tai chi world since I walked through the door three years ago: Fifteen tai chi books. Two tai chi calendars. One tai chi magazine subscription. Forty-three tai chi reprints. Four tai chi DVDs. Two tai chi VCR tapes. Three Buddhist magazine subscriptions. Twenty-five Buddhist books. Two pounds fancy/smancy teas from Celadon Fine Teas. One clay teapot. One ceramic teapot. Two porcelain tea cups. Twenty pounds brown rice. One odious lump of rock candy in the shape of a sitting Buddha. One zafu. One zabuton. One tai chi ruler. Three tai chi T-shirts. One oversized writing journal. One copy of the I Ching. One set of Tao stones. One MindfulClock software program. One figurine depicting a white-bearded Chinese man finishing a Flying Diagonal. One rice cooker. One vegetable steamer. Early bed time. Early rise time.

Can croquet and pottery be far behind?

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