I found my way to Tai-chi by complete accident. I was in an unhealthy long-distance relationship with an Azerbaijani man who, apart from my academic endeavours, disapproved pretty much of everything I did or thought. I remember complaining about gaining weight and back pain from sitting in front of the computer for hours on end, when he graciously suggested that I could do Tai-chi as a solution to my troubles.
I latched to his suggestion, even though I had no understanding of what Tai-chi was or how it could support me. The idea of connecting with something else outside of my bedsit and academic achievements fired me up. My desire was so strong that I was not even surprised when a few days later, one of my housemates mentioned a Tai-chi class he intended to attend in a week’s time. The class was to take place at the Birmingham Buddhist centre, a mere 10 minute walk from the house I lived in!
On 24 April 2007, I flew to my first class. I loved every second of it. In a spacious white room with wooden floors ten students attempted following my teacher (Alec Jones)’s fluid moves. I watched white blossom on the trees through large windows and willed myself to relax. My moves felt clunky and jerky.
‘It’s simple,’ Alec said, making the room giggle in response. ‘Simple, not easy,’ he added lightly. He was an embodiment of soft strength and his self-deprecating sense of humour made me grin throughout the class. I could barely wait till the next week. I committed to the practice whole-heartedly and started attending every class I could get to.
The first major shift happened six months later. My Tai-chi teacher’s master, Richard Farmer, was running a day-long workshop in Birmingham. As I glided (in my head) in the overcrowded room with thirty fellow tai-chi students, I tried to soak in every word Richard said. At some point, he asked us to pair up. One person was to sit on a chair; the other was to trace their spine and correct their posture. When my partner tilted my head towards my chin and straightened my back, the position felt utterly uncomfortable. Surely, this was not right?! My ‘normal’ posture was to let my shoulders edge towards my ears, pull in my head and expose my throat in an unconscious gesture of surrender.
For the next few days I kept replicating the ‘correct’ posture until a week later I went to see a chiropractic. The clinic happened to be across the road from where I lived. Based on the chiropractic’s assessment, I needed at least ten treatments to start with. As my spine straitened, I became aware of a huge burden of the past I was carrying on my back. This was the first major step in letting go of what did not serve me anymore. Shedding layers that I’ve outgrown is one of the key driving forces for my writing today and I am confident it started on that November day in 2007.
The other chief influence of Tai-chi on my life and writing formed over years of practice. As a perfectionist, I often found myself frustrated if I could not get a new move. Invariably, Alec reassured me that it’d be easier the next time I do it. You know what? He was right. I was amazed how ten-minutes into the next class, the move flowed effortlessly. It was the new move which seemed impossible to master … until the next week. This learning is an integral part of my writing practice. If something feels clunky or not to my liking, I know it’d feel lighter and easier to manage if re-visited a day or two later. Practice makes perfect.
Perhaps the most profound way in which Tai-chi touched my life happened at the Deepening on-going group with Richard Farmer in 2010-11, held at Poulstone Court. In the course of four long week-ends spread over two years, his aim was to help us to experience Tai-chi principles (listening; sticking; rooting and yielding) in our bodies. Each time we met, he offered a number of exercises to help us connect with them.
I remember vividly returning with the group from a walk. We were due to start our afternoon session. Richard asked us to stay outside of the large spacious room filled with sun and overlooking green fields. While a crowd of us stood by the door, he told us a long story. Although I liked his stories, all I grasped on that occasion was that there were some dragons guarding the door and how if one entered the room without being fully present, the dragons would chop off their heads. My legs ached after a long walk and I stepped impatiently from one foot to another craving to sink into comfortable cushions on the floor. Eventually, the invitation to enter followed. I did my best to wake up to the moment, to be as present as I could possibly be. Breathing in smells of food wafting from the kitchen area and soaking up the sunrays on my skin, I stayed perfectly still on the floor. It’s hard to explain, but somewhere in my belly I felt the part of me which was whole and healthy, despite what had happened to my body throughout the lifetime. Connecting with this sacred part, the spirit of who I am, was so vivid, I can still recall it. So when I write about difficult times in my life, I keep in mind that those were experiences which impacted the course of my life, but they do not define my true essence. Was it a coincidence that I did my first writing retreat with Dr Barbara Turner-Vesselago at the same venue? I don’t know. But the experience has certainly given me a wider perspective on the content of my writing.