by Natalie Stanchfield (2005)
Assembled in a large circle, grass under bare feet, we stretched out our limbs, elongating to the sky, bending to the ground, loosening our joints. It was an overcast day, not too hot, with trees all around us at Gosho Park near the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. I listened to the alien cries of the Japanese crows and cicadas from the trees, but if I closed my eyes, then everything, every sound seemed strangely familiar—like home. Like I was a kid.
There it was. It was the sound of lawnmowers, that ubiquitous suburban noise, the background of all of my Southern California childhood memories. I remembered the same feeling of fluid movements and grass underfoot. I remembered tai chi class on the lawn of the community college with my mom when we took that half a credit course together. I remember it not being as relaxing as I had hoped. I remember being in a rush with my mom. She was always late.
We were late today too. Crunching the gravel underneath our bike tires, we arrived noisily. Self-conscious, we silently joined the circle.
“Hurry up and relax.”
It was the same way with my mom. She would dash around the house, finishing up her last minute chores and projects she had started in the morning, always thinking she had more time than she really did. I remember once betting my mom twenty dollars that if we stopped for that last errand we would be late to class.
She never did pay me.
I was always frustrated slipping into tai chi class with my mom and her loads of bags, extra towels and thermos filled with day-old coffee, interrupting class, missing the opening stretches and just joining in the middle of the routine, as if nothing was wrong. Trying to focus on the flow of chi, when my chi was just frazzled and upset, was nearly impossible. Add to this the excessively repetitive and simple nature of the form of tai chi we were learning and it was obvious this class was not suited to relieving my tension.
We were being taught a particular type of tai chi called Tai Chi Chih, which to me seemed more appropriate for geriatrics or physical therapy patients. Tai Chi Chih was developed in the twentieth century, consisting of a routine of motions repeated eight times, each side, eight times, each side, bring in the chi, push it out, contract, expand, eight times, each side. I got very bored with this over the 16-week semester.
I was expecting something very different here in Japan. A form of tai chi with more history, not one invented in 1974 by a man named Justin Stone. Where Tai Chi Chih has no connection to the martial arts, the tai chi movements we practiced in the park were essentially slowly performed self-defense techniques, drawn-out to bring focus to the chi-flow and develop precise posture. From a distance, tai chi looks easy yet all these motions required incredible control and focus.
And yet I slide easily into the rhythm of these new moves; though in foreign surroundings, they feel familiar. The anxiety and stress of being late starts to disappear and I think of my mom again. My perpetually fifteen-minutes-behind mom. But who else would have signed me up for a tai chi course for fun? And it actually was fun sometimes. I remember once practicing tai chi on our own in the park across the street. After a heavy rain it was flooded, water up to our ankles, the grass under our feet pressing into mud. Maybe we looked like cranes in a marsh, moving gracefully, slowly expanding, contracting, expanding, contracting; very foreign-looking birds for Southern California suburbia.