The older I get, the softer I become. And I’m happy about it. Let me hasten to point out that I’m speaking about my martial arts training, not, um, something else.
For nine years I labored in the field of a Shotokan karate dojo. Shotokan is one of the hardest of the hard-styles. I then transplanted myself to the Pacific Martial Arts Academy here in Salem, where, for about four years, I cultivated the mixed-style approach taught by Warren Allen—a blend of karate, jujitsu, aikido, weapons training, and other disciplines.
Now I’ve thrown myself into nurturing the seed of Tai Chi that is beginning to sprout in me. I feel like a baby again, just learning to walk. It’s delightful to explicitly return to what I’ve always been, but didn’t want to admit I was: a beginner.
When I first started training with Warren, I remember being surprised to hear him say: “Tai Chi is the ultimate martial art.” I had never thought of Tai Chi in that way. I considered that it was a rhythmic system of exercise practiced by people in parks who waved their hands around in a graceful fashion that looked good, yet wouldn’t hurt a flea.
It wasn’t long before I changed my mind. Experience will do that to you. Warren began to show me how softness can overcome hardness, just as the Tao Te Ching says. Those forceful linear punches and kicks so much beloved by Shotokan are easily deflected with a gentle circular response.
Plus, I’ve always wondered about the logic of taking self-defense classes where your body gets hurt. Isn’t the idea of self-defense to defend yourself? Even with the mixed-style I’ve pursued the past few years, I started to see that I was losing flexibility in my shoulders because of the forceful joint locks that kept getting applied in training. At the age of 56, my body wasn’t quickly bouncing back to normal the way it used to after being abused.
When I would go to Shotokan karate seminars, often I’d see high-ranking black belts who had been training for thirty years or more hobble around. Their knees and other important body parts were in bad shape after enduring hard impacts in Shotokan classes and competition. I could see that I was heading in the same direction, albeit less emphatically.
So I’ve become a Tai Chi neophyte. I’m coming to realize why another black belt in the Pacific Martial Arts Academy likes to say, “I’d learn Tai Chi but it’s too damn difficult.” You can’t fake lack of coordination, poor balance, bad posture, inflexibility, or lack of body control when you’re moving at the pace of a snail. That’s why I feel like a baby. It quickly dawned on me that after thirteen years of marital arts training, I don’t know how to take one step.
I know the short 24 form. Outwardly. Inwardly, I can’t do a single move. I mean, you can go through the motions of Tai Chi and not really be doing Tai Chi. Some of the advanced students in Warren’s Tai Chi classes have been pointing that out to me. I’ll perform some Tai Chi posture and they’ll say, “Yes, that’s how you do it. But you lost your root.” Which means, really, you aren’t doing it. They’re just being gentle with me, the Tai Chi way. I reply, “I couldn’t tell that I had lost my root, because I don’t know what it is to have my root.”
They show me. I can see that they have it. And I don’t. When I ask how you get it, I’ll be told: “Imagine that your energy is passing downward through your feet all the way to the center of the Earth, where it wraps itself around a (conveniently located) metal pole. Now it is immovable. That’s your root.”
I think: “Gee, that sounds easy. All I have to do is send my energy to the center of the Earth and wrap it around a pole. Should be able to learn how to do that in just, oh, a dozen years or so. Patience, Grasshopper, patience.”