Tai Chi in the Morning

Around 1971 or 1972, Townes Van Zandt wrote and recorded a hauntingly beautiful song called “Highway Kind”. Several terrific versions by different artists are out there ready to be enjoyed. The song first came to my attention via one of Lyle Lovett’s album, Step Inside This House. Lovett’s version is still my favorite, but other versions also have their appeal. In my opinion, a close second place goes to a version by a recording artist going by the name Twin Shadow (Live on KEXP), posted on Youtube back in 2014. It seems to me to deserve far more than the few thousand views than it has received so far.

Even before I was aware of Van Zandt’s rather troubled life and regrettably early death, the opening lines of “Highway Kind” rarely failed to establish in me an ambiance suitable to quiet, and perhaps even sombre, introspective deep dives.

My days, they are the highway kind. They only come to leave; the leaving I don’t mind, it’s the coming that I crave. Pour the sun upon the ground, stand to throw a shadow; watch it grow into a night and fill the spinnin’ sky. Time among the pine trees, it felt like breath of air. Usually I just walk these streets and tell myself to care. Sometimes I believe me and sometimes I don’t hear. Sometimes the shape I’m in won’t let me go.”

Bask in the desolating warmth of these lovely lyrics and the haunting melody as I may, this is a kind of sentiment that I’m unlikely to ever conceive or experience. I have never craved mornings and I don’t expect to ever develop an appetite for them beyond a recognition that they are an established fact of life. Most typically, I will doggedly cling to a warm bed and the last wonderful sensations of a dark and comfortingly quiet night. What is among my cravings, however, is to find and develop new connections within and understandings of life and myself. That craving makes this song an easy and valuable meditative partner for morning Tai Chi routines.

In my Zensylvania essay and installment titled “Learning”, I talked a bit about beginning to learn Tai Chi as a 50-plus-year-old beginner. Among other things, deciding to learn and experience this martial art was a way for me to re-establish a positive learning state of mind while also coping with what turns out to have been a not-quite-fathomed COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. It has been a social situation that I still don’t quite see the end of and whose psychological impact on individuals and society xx. The global situation and circumstances of COVID seem to have had a Highway Kind-ing type of effect across many, if not all, parts of society. There seems to be a part of us all that has felt a desolating disconnection with our days. I’m sure that study of the effects of these still indeterminate months will be the work of various academics over the course of the coming decade or two. While that may be, taking up the practice of Tai Chi has been a method to be an active agent in the disruptive period of time has on me as an individual. I guess I’m saying that coping with stress, change and circumstantial adversity is not merely the deployment of passive (static) unconscious resiliencies but is also involves a dynamic and consciously engaged set of behaviours.

Initially, I tackled the learning of Tai Chi as a kind of “do-it-when-I-remember-to” routine. Since I was using online resources as my tools, there were no classes to attend and no schedule of learning to adhere to. Once per day or once per week didn’t matter since there was no kind of external or circumstantial accountability. This initial routine that I was following, if you care to call it that, carried on for several weeks.

Finally, when I realized that my do-it-when-I-remember-to Tai Chi schedule did not qualify as a commitment and that my learning process wasn’t actually proceeding, I started to consider what I could and should do about it. I decided that I needed to set a regular schedule for the activity that I could stick to. I also wanted a routine that would help me to maximize any potential benefit that I might derive from the practice.

After deciding that I needed a specific part of the day that would include Tai Chi, the next problem I faced was when that time might be. Even in the lock-down pandemic days and working from home as I was, my daily routine provided only a two relatively narrow windows of opportunity: before work in the morning and after dinner in the evening.

In my case, I settled-on what is typically the worst part of my day. Mornings. It makes a kind of sense…if this is my worst time of day, maybe including Tai Chi could be an improvement. Maybe I could capture some of that pour the sun upon the ground enthusiasm that Townes Van Zandt had described.

My usual morning, and still my first inclination, is a groggy, grudging, reluctant kind of affair. For instance, I’m rarely able to consider food for several hours. On most occasions, a hot shower and a hot beverage are the two requisite items to get me going. Upon occasion one or the other of these two things may be skipped. Never both. This tendency of mine is a very old predilection. It seems entirely probable that there are reasons why mornings are the most consistently challenging part of my day. Some of those reasons are probably behavioural while others may be rooted in biological processes. The human condition is certainly a complicated morass of causes of causes and effects of effects. While there are some people who want to believe they thoroughly understand the causes of the causes and the effects of the effects, mostly I just want to find practical ways to make the present richer and more enjoyable.

Waking has always been a trial. Particularly now that I’ve solidly entered, if not absolutely passed, mid-life. Grisly as it certainly is, waking and rising in the morning, I seem to viscerally experience the fact that my lungs and circulatory system are not the strong, healthy systems I enjoyed as a younger person. I seem to feel an ever-thickening sludge pooling in my chest and limbs like the dirty black oil of an engine that’s 100,000 kilometers overdue for service. Despite a self-image (or perhaps I should say self-delusion) of being a reasonably healthy individual….after all I don’t carry too many extra pounds, I eat pretty well and I’m reasonably active with dog-walks, bike rides, occasional weight lifting….. this kind of feeling has grown, occasionally to awful proportions, in recent years.

One morning, while still coming to terms with the idea of a morning Tai Chi practice, I recalled the bouts of pneumonia that I’d experienced over the years. Wave after wave of liquid infection that left me wheezing and panting for weeks and months afterward. I also recalled the embolism that drizzled into my lungs and choked-off my youthful feelings of vitality just a few years ago. That morning, I decided that I’d rather get up and do some Tai Chi than watch myself decline into a medicated yet still unhealthy version of myself.

A 2016 study by Patricia Huston and Bruce McFarlane which you can find on the National Library of Medicine says that the authors conducted a literature review on the benefits of tai chi for 25 specific conditions, as well as for general health and fitness. This was done to update a 2014 review of systematic reviews. Systematic reviews and recent clinical trials were assessed and organized into 5 different groups: evidence of benefit as excellent, good, fair, or preliminary, or evidence of no direct benefit.

According to Huston and McFarlane’s work, during the past 45 years more than 500 trials and 120 systematic reviews have been published on the health benefits of tai chi. Systematic reviews of tai chi for specific conditions indicate excellent evidence of benefit for preventing falls, osteoarthritis, Parkinson disease, rehabilitation for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and improving cognitive capacity in older adults. There is good evidence of benefit for depression, cardiac and stroke rehabilitation, and dementia. There is fair evidence of benefit for improving quality of life for cancer patients, fibromyalgia, hypertension, and osteoporosis. Current evidence indicates no direct benefit for diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, or chronic heart failure. Systematic reviews of general health and fitness benefits show excellent evidence of benefit for improving balance and aerobic capacity in those with poor fitness. There is good evidence for increased strength in the lower limbs. There is fair evidence for increased well-being and improved sleep. There were no studies that found tai chi worsened a condition. A recent systematic review on the safety of tai chi found adverse events were typically minor and primarily musculoskeletal; no intervention-related serious adverse events have been reported.

The researchers concluded that there is abundant evidence on health and fitness effects of tai chi. Based on this, physicians can now offer evidence-based recommendations to their patients, noting that tai chi is still an area of active research, and patients should continue to receive medical follow-up for any clinical conditions.

I am not a researcher nor am I a physician. I am a non-expert who navigates the world mostly making and taking responsibility for my own decisions; and usually trusting my own experience and observational skills. Sometimes I draw from the work and opinions of experts as I may need them. It is interesting to know that some formal investigation occurred which validates Tai Chi as a healthy activity. But I’m not entirely certain that I particularly needed a systemic review of systemic reviews to come to that conclusion. It seems like directly observable sense that including a variety of low-impact movements in a person’s day is better than not having them. I will be interested to learn whether there are formal studies which indicate whether morning Tai Chis is healthier or more sustainable than Tai Chi practiced at some other time during the day…in the meantime:

Rather than hunkering miserably on a chair while the morning beverage came together, I acted. I ran through the Tai Chi moves I had been learning. Calming the Water. Over the drum. Brush Knee. Single whip. Several others. In fact, I was surprised by how many came to mind. I won’t claim that they felt natural and smooth. But they were there for me. I simply stood in the kitchen and ran through what I could.

At this point, I should mention that my earliest practice sessions were based on a twenty-minute YouTube video called “Daily Tai Chi for Beginners and Seniors with Don Fiore“. Fiore’s video is very approachable and is paced well. On Fiore’s website there’s a short passage which outlook on Tai Chi which resonated with what I felt that I wanted out of the exercise: “Although many people consider Tai Chi as a martial art, our videos are focused on the meditative value when doing slow, repetitious, simplified movements with deep breathing.”

Fiore’s focus on deep breathing and meditation matched my objectives for myself. I decided it would be an interesting opportunity to bring some deep breathing into my day. Since I spend most of my day (metaphorically) tethered to the tools of my professional day, I don’t get as much cardiovascular exercise as I probably need. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic environment, I began to work from home and lost the meager bit of walking that used to be a part of my commute. Tai Chi and bicycle trainer at home are part of my plan to overcome a mostly stationary lifestyle.

By combining the Tai Chi movements with the deepest breathing I can muster in the morning, I’m expecting to derive some benefit. It’s not going to replace a good 40-minute bike ride or any of the other genuine cardio activities you care to mention, but it must be better than what I had previously been doing: nothing. So now most mornings, I get between fifteen and twenty minutes of movement and deep breathing.

In the morning, I find it easier to synchronize deep full breaths with the practice of the Tai Chi moves. This is partly because I’m focused on wanting those deep breaths. I am better-able to allow my breathing to guide the movement. I pay less attention to the movement to focus on the breathing. As a result the movement seems to flow easier.

Morning still isn’t the best part of my day and even after a year of working on this project, I find that most mornings I’d rather curl up and wait for that first hot beverage of the day to be ready. But most mornings I manage to run through a few motions. While I may not actually feel good in the morning. I think that I feel good about the Tai Chi. So instead of curling up in that convenient and comfortable chair beside the kitchen, I stand in the kitchen and practice a few moves.

Within a few steps of my morning Tai Chi station, are two large glass, south-facing doors. On many mornings I am able to see and feel the sun filtering through the branches and foliage of a diverse and lush arboreal panorama. Our century-old home is fortunately situated on a big old city block that gives us a view of at least a dozen different varieties of tree..including our own 40-foot fir tree. The scene through our back doors recalls for me both Van Zandt’s Highway Kind lyrics and, when I’m practicing Tai Chi, a particular scene in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance wherein the narrator describes waking and engaging with the morning with some exercise.

But pines and sunlight are stronger than any dreams and the wondering goes away. Good old reality…..To warm myself I speed up to a jog and move up the road briskly. Good, good, good, good, good. The word keeps time with the jogging. Some birds fly up from the shadowy hill into the sunlight and I watch them until they’re out of sight. Good, good, good, good, good. Crunchy gravel on the road. Good, good. Bright yellow sand in the sun. Good, good, good.

In this passage, Robert Pirsig has captured a poetic rhythm between the coming of his day, the activity of his morning jog and the philosophy he attempts to describe and depict in the book.

My morning Tai Chi routine usually begins by standing with my feet about shoulder width apart and parallel to each other. It takes several moment to just stand there and pay attention to my posture. To try to correct anything that doesn’t feel right. Sometimes to connect with some part of my body that doesn’t feel the way it should. The first movement I usually do is “Separating Heaven & Earth”. I picked this movement not from Tai Chi’s traditional 108 movements but from Fiore’s daily Qijong video. I’m not above mixing something into my routine that suits me. And this movement seems to set a Tai Chi mood for me, so I do it.

It goes like this. From that initial basic loose standing position, I bring the palms of my hands up to face each other about six inches from my chest and about four inches from each other. This allows for my fingers and arms to be loose. My arms are at about a thirty-degree angle from the floor. While bringing my arms into that position, I also bring in a fairly deep breath – but not so deep that I struggle with it. After holding the breath and hands in this position for one to two seconds, I begin to release the breath as I raise one hand toward the ceiling and the other toward the floor. My objective here is to have each hand slowly turn to face the surface it is approaching and for the breath to be fully exhaled when my arm reaches its extension. I wait a second or two, then I reverse that motion with an inhalation that ends with my hands facing each other and my arms at a thirty-degree angle as they were at the start of the motion. The next motion is a repetition of this motion and breathing routine except that I alternate which hand reaches for the ceiling and which reaches for the floor. The hand which first reached for the ceiling will reach for the floor. In this way, my arms become like the piston’s of an engine…moving up then down in their repeating cycle. Throughout all of this movement, I often find my awareness or attention spotlighting different sensations in my back and abdomen.

I do this movement five or six times. When I extend my arms, the first repetition is not quite a “stretching”. The first repetition is to remind myself of what I’m doing. On subsequent repetitions, I might try out a bit of stretching or I might combine the motion with a bit of knee-bending. Something that is not quite a full-on squat exercise. Usually, I this movement will start to give me feedback about how different parts of my body feel. Are my shoulders and back feeling stiff or loose? Do my knees want to bend or are they sore?

That reasonably simple movement has also come to be a communication within myself that says I’m going to do a bit of Tai Chi. The specific movements that come afterward this first movement don’t seem to matter much to me. I do the ones that come to mind.

Within the first weeks of my experiment with morning Tai Chi, I found that moving slowly, an important part of Tai Chi, is easier in the morning. I’m certain that this is partly a result of the focus on breathing; I also suspect that the pace of the day…the build up of the day’s demands, frustrations, excitements and all of the rest of it have not yet usurped authority over my pace. In the morning, I’m not yet reacting or responding to any part of the day. It’s about as much of a blank slate as I’m ever likely to find in my day.

Another significant observation I had in my first few weeks was that my deep breaths were not nearly as deep as they probably ought to have been. I felt how shallowly and light my regular breathing was. I coughed a lot and took it as an indication that I was working a system that needed to be worked. But also in the first weeks, I felt that improvements were occurring. Perhaps each breath should be accompanied by the mantra: Good, good, good, good, good.

As time has passed and adding a variety of more rigourous cardio-vascular activities (particularly cycling on my mountain-bike and/or using my indoor bicycle trainer setup) has helped to strengthen my heart and lungs, the morning routine has become easier. Also, as I practiced more, I found that I could detach from the whole movement and pay attention to different parts of the movement. The angle of my hand when reaching for the floor or ceiling, the set of my shoulders, how far apart of my feet were and the angles that they might be pointing at. I was also able to pay more attention to the comforting view through the glass doors.

While I recognize in my own experience the desperate, delicate and meditative qualities of Highway Kind, my days are not the highway kind that Van Zandt wrote about. They don’t come to leave. Instead, after living a life of many decades, I find that my days are a succession of continuously present moments and that I am more continuously present in them. Recently I have learned that I feel better and more content when I am in the habit of practicing Tai Chi in the morning than when I do not.

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