What the Potomac River Taught Me About Tai Chi

 

Along with the “day job” and working to get kids and families connected to the outdoors, I am also an avid martial artist.  I practice a number of styles, to include tai chi.  I call it a passion.  My wife Lori calls it an obsession (I’m a stereotypical German so there may not be a difference).  I’ve been fortunate to train with some of the best teachers in the world.  I now have one more teacher: the Potomac River.

The afternoon before the opening of the 2012 C&NN Grassroots Leadership Conference in Shepherdstown, WV, I took a walk down to the Potomac River.  I found a nice spot along the bank and thought that this might be a great place to practice some tai chi.

Tai chi has long been associated with nature.  It was created, after all, by the same folks that gave us feng shui – the idea that nature is infused with energies of various flavors and that we are connected to - and influenced by - these energies.  Many of the traditional names of tai chi moves describe scenes of nature, like “White Crane Spreads It’s Wings”.  Ask someone to describe a tai chi scene and they will almost always describe a slow-moving graceful display in an outdoor setting.

I practice outside a lot, usually at a grassy spot near my home overlooking a large open space reserve.  But nature has always been a stage with nice props.  I practice in nature, but rarely with nature.  Practice in nature is conditional: I need a decent-sized patch of flat even ground, preferably shaded in summer, sunny in winter.  During my practice I am aware of nature: the protests of a juvenile hawk flying overhead, the deep shadow of a tree against the green grass, the morning moon sinking behind a distant cloud.  But I always interrupt my practice to observe and appreciate these companions to – but not participants in – my practice.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  Tai chi is called an internal martial art and requires a lot of internal focus – especially for me, for whom the art does not come naturally or easily.  But tai chi – and nature – offer much more.

Back to the Potomac.  My spot was beautiful, inspiring, secluded… and there was a problem.  There was only a small rocky area in which to practice between the water and a patch of wildflowers (which I wasn’t going to trample).  I wouldn’t be able to do any of the standard forms and the uneven ground would make balance and flow difficult.  But it was an irresistible scene.  The student was ready – and the teaching of the river came.  I felt an invitation to let go, to modify my form and work with, instead of against, the conditions.  I began a form, adapting and changing as I went.  I added moves here, skipped others there.  I let go of the rules and felt the playfulness arise.  A small moth settled onto my right wrist and stayed there, enjoying the ride.  I did not shoo it away.  A bald eagle lifted from a nearby tree.  I did not stop to look but turned with it as it flew downriver.  Changing steps and postures to balance on the uneven ground created new pathways of flow and movement.  The rocks felt good under my feet.  It was FUN!

The river taught me that this was tai chi at its best, with nature and the body in an interwoven duet.  Tai chi moves such as Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane and Snake Creeps Down combine with the river’s moves of Two Fish Jump Together, Dragonfly Seeks It’s Prey, and Red Flowers Glow in the Sun.  I understand now the stories of centenarian masters practicing on sloping boulders at a cliff’s edge.  Of course they weren’t practicing the Standard Yang 24 or Old Frame Routine #1.  Why would they?  They had moved beyond form and into the formless.

Reflecting on my lesson I wonder how often nature is just a stage for me – and not just when I’m practicing tai chi.  When I am outdoors am I just in nature, or with nature?  Am I just an observer, or a partner in the dance?  Am I collecting experiences to tell the story later, or playing in the space beyond time with a close friend?

With gratitude to my new teacher.

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Comment by Scott D. Sampson on September 21, 2012 at 1:41pm

Manny. Terrific stuff. Your contrast between being "in" nature and being "with" nature, between observer and partner, is a powerful. To often (perhaps the bulk of the time), we -- and I include myself here -- spend our time in a nature feeling like we're connecting, whereas in fact we remain oblivious to most of the sights, sounds, smells, and breezes -- preoccupied with our own thoughts. True nature connection demands that we open ourselves to the full multisensory milieu of the setting. You piece expresses this beautifully. Thank you.

Comment by Chip Donahue on September 6, 2012 at 8:15pm

Thank you for taking me there in person and once again with your lovely writing.

Comment by Suz Lipman on September 4, 2012 at 2:13pm

Hi Manny! Thanks for this wonderful blog. I really appreciate your very vivid description of practicing tai chi and infusing the experience with the surrounding nature to such a degree that the barriers between nature and self are quite minimal. Your blog itself is a fitting meditation.

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