“You’re changing your mind, your personality, your conduct, it changes who you are. That’s exactly what I mean by mind and body change into something. Because you’re training ‘letting go’ first by itself ‘sung’ and then, more importantly under stress when somebody puts pressure on you. First it’s cooperative pressure, and then non-cooperative pressures all the way violent pressure. If you can relax, let go and release under pressure it changes who you are at a fundamental level and this is the true benefit of tai chi. Being able to bounce people across the room is great fun but it can’t compare with being at peace.”
When I was a young boy my mother noticed my crooked spine. Initially, she thought I was slouching, or standing at a funny angle. She had me stand straight while she ran her hands over my back to smooth me out like a wrinkled tablecloth.
After a trip to the doctor, I learned I had Scoliosis.
Scoliosis is not painful, in fact, I didn’t know I had it. In its extreme forms, it will distort your back and eventually squash your organs, but the doctor was determined to nip it in the bud before anything like that occurred.
To meet the specialist we traveled to Kingston, and I remember the man had a peculiar habit of removing his glasses and sucking on one arm. He looked at me carefully and made a thoughtful noise, weighing the decision. I liked him immediately.
It was like I was seated before Gandalf.
In a calm and collected fashion, he described the procedure that he had planned out in his head.
First I would be stretched out on a table held there, steel rods would then be surgically attached to my spine. The total length was from just below my collar on my neck right down to my solar plexus. After the surgery, I was going to have a wicked scar and gain two inches.
The Sports Nazi
As part of the recovery process, the doctor restricted me from physical sports until I healed properly, which meant no karate, and no curling. Unfortunately, I still thought Tai Chi was for old people.
Tai Chi would have been perfect for the occasion to occupy my mind.
Martial arts had always been a part of my life and that was put on hold, as well as my adventures out in the curling rink. That one stung. I had to sit back and watch my brother take over the curling team, while a friend replaced me on the team. while I sat back on the sidelines.
Watching from the sidelines wasn’t my style.
Another side effect of scoliosis surgery was a hump on my back. Once my body had grown in a certain way, straightening it out still left an “S” curve, and left a pronounced musculature on the right side.
Although most onlookers might not notice, my mind magnified the feeling of disproportion, and I thought I must look like Igor.
Mind over matter.
Taking off my shirt in public was difficult, which made activities like swimming uncomfortable. Eventually, I lost my ability to swim effectively because scoliosis curbed my natural enjoyment and love for the water.
Often onlookers that saw the scar on my back for the first time they would exclaim, “Holy shit, what happened to your back?”
I hated the question.
Black Thorn Blossom
Eventually, with practice, I got over it. When my twin boys discovered “Daddy’s” scar, they were fascinated by it. I explained it was a wound I endured during a sword fight with ninjas.
They believed me.
Getting over the self-consciousness began with the process of a human laying hands on my back in a non-judgmental way. Through massage therapy, I learned to relax and enjoy it.
In my new narrative, I characterize myself as a tree that has experienced trauma and learned to grow around it.
Through no fault of its own, the tree found itself growing too close to a chain link fence. In order to survive, it swallowed the metal into its trunk and kept growing.
Only the scars remain.
The Road Ahead
Setting aside the psychological issues for a moment, I have also developed back pain later in life. Realistically, it’s probably no more than any 40-year-old male that has had a rough career in hockey or football.
A dull backache shows up every day.
The bottom line is that the spine is a magnificent piece of organic engineering. Shocks and loads placed on the top part of the body are absorbed and released through the legs into the ground.
This is why Tai Chi has become a lifeline to me.
Practicing Tai Chi encourages the releasing of tension, one body part at a time, with the eventual goal of becoming completely “song.”
As we get older our muscles bind up and the tension is held in places like the shoulders and neck, and lower back. It’s a symptom of being cramped at a desk for hours at a time, stressful environments, and not enough exercise.
Add the rods to the equation and it is easy to see that my issues are going to develop above and below where the tension cannot leave my body.
I suspect the embedded steel rods are going to be a major hurdle on the way, but I’m hopeful that there’s a workaround solution.
Darwin’s Drunken Monkey
Tai Chi specializes in developing an internal and external sensitivity, with the eventual goal of self-mastery. I don’t think the term “mastery” here implies imposition or control in the typical way it’s thought of in the West.
In Tai Chi harmony and balance are sought, very similar to the ideals of Permaculture. In fact, I think Permaculture principles are completely in line with what I have read and experienced.
It’s a one straw revolution, moving through the vertebrae.