Last Tai Chi Class

Yesterday I taught my last tai chi class before my departure for Iowa City.  After our qigong warm-up, we did the form three times, one time silently, the second time saying aloud the names of the movements, and the third time silently, and more slowly.

My first exposure to tai chi was in Malcolm X Park (aka Meridian Park) in Washington, DC, in the spring of 1998.  It was taught by a German lesbian named Ute.  Ute was slender, in her thirties, with pale blonde hair that fell to her shoulders and a fierce, knowing gaze.  I can hardly imagine what she thought of me—I was so physically awkward, so self-conscious, utterly lost in my busy, academic head.  But something had sparked my interest when I saw the little notice in the back pages of the Washington Blade, DC’s gay weekly, for community tai chi in the park.

For two months, I showed up every Friday morning, and then, without exactly making a conscious decision, I abandoned my efforts: I just stopped coming.  I couldn’t seem to get my body to move that way.  When Ute showed me White Crane Spreads Wings, I saw a body moving with the fluidity of nature, of a bird’s flight, of water, of wind-blown grass.  My limbs and torso felt like a bunch of rigid puzzle pieces that didn’t fit together, let alone anything that might move with the ease and grace of tai chi.

But a seed was planted, a slow-growing seed that would eventually begin to sprout in the summer of 2008, when I enrolled in a tai chi class at the community college in Monterey.  I still had my moments of awkwardness, but I had changed, my body had changed, and from that very first class, I knew that I was in the right place, and that I had found my teacher.  I began my formal training the following year.

At class yesterday, the students had organized a farewell potluck celebration.  Such a feast!  I was used to sitting in a circle with them, for the short meditation practice we do between the qigong warm-up and the form practice, but all of us sitting around a table, sharing conversation amidst a generous assortment of delicious dishes, was a new experience.  After we finished eating, one student recited a poem by Ferlinghetti, and another offered “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas.  Some time ago, my students and I discovered a mutual affinity for memorizing and reciting poems.  Tai chi could be thought of as poetic—the precision, the elements of repetition, the balance between form and flow.

One of the students had brought an enormous bouquet of flowers from her garden.  I am not exaggerating when I say it is the most beautiful bouquet of flowers I have ever seen.  Its sweet fragrance filled me with pleasure—it still does, as I write this just a few feet from where the bouquet sits, its flowers still giving off a deep floral scent of real flowers from real dirt, not grown in a flower factory thousands of miles away.  I wish I could somehow hold on to this bouquet forever.  It feels as if I would need that long to truly take in and absorb how much love and support and connection I felt from my beloved students yesterday.  When I returned home with the flowers, I felt a small but persistent tinge of guilt, of shame, that old tiresome voice I keep trying to let go of, the one that says, “Who do you think you are?  Do you really think you deserve a bouquet of flowers this beautiful?”

My teacher often tells me that tai chi is about planting seeds.  When we do tai chi, we water the seeds we want to grow—seeds of health, and confidence, and balance, and vitality, and awareness, and compassion, and love.  When we neglect our tai chi practice, the other seeds—the weedy seeds, the seeds of doubt, of shame, the seeds of those critical voices that have pestered me for far too long—will quickly overrun the garden.  One of the benefits of being a tai chi instructor is the opportunity to keep one’s own practice alive and flourishing.  I know that continuing my practice in Iowa will be a priority.

And if I must let go of this beautiful bouquet, whose petals are already beginning to droop, whose water will soon begin to turn cloudy, perhaps it is so that I can empty myself of this beauty to prepare myself for something else.  When we do the movement called Cloud Hands, we hold our palms up as our arms slowly move in front of our bodies, our palms gently cupped, as if to hold something precious, and then we turn our palms down: just let it go.  The cycle keeps repeating.  Yesterday was my last tai chi class, my favorite class of all my classes.  I am humbled by my students’ dedication, and their love.  It is hard to say goodbye, very hard, and it is exciting to step forward into the garden of my future, very exciting, and in the spirit of the yin-yang symbol, which permeates tai chi practice, both of these are true, and one could not be true without the other.