Dance Class and Tai Chi

Tai chi-er

We are waiting for barbells. The resident teenager is reconciled to waiting. If the poor delivery guy/girl struggles through the gate with the 105 lb. package before Christmas so much the better, but meanwhile this health-nut proclaims there are many ways to exercise, a towel apparently comes in handy. I didn’t ask.

I packed fast for this trip. I brought only one pair of pjs. (Hello washing machine.) And I’m getting sick of these 2 outfits and the sweat pants. BUT, my exercise equipment did not get left behind. It is not heavy or forgettable. My tai chi is portable.

I ported it to a dance studio yesterday. Well, a masonic hall really, at least an ex-masonic hall, on Venice Blvd., where dance class is held. There is no instructor leading dancers through prescribed choreography, just a DJ with his computer hooked into what seem like the world’s most powerful speakers and a roomful of people moving however they please. Or lying on the floor as they please or lying in a pile on the floor as they please. So no one notices or cares about the mostly linear moves I’m making in the corner.

Loyal readers will say, “How Hollywood!” But no, I’m told that if I look it up on-line, I will find similar classes in my home town, Toronto. If your town is big enough, you might as well. And they will no doubt feature the same creatively dressed crowd -tights and tank- tops, sweats and baggy pants, floating silks of vivid colour, long skirts on guys and girls,- weaving out of their own imagination the beauty or anguish they feel.

They dance alone or with each other or in groups. One fellow danced with a bright red apple. A woman danced with a long white pillow with a heart embroidered on it. The sweatiest fellow in the room gave me a very looong, sweaty hug. It was déclassé  of me to notice any of this, although I carried away something of the sweaty guy’s essence.

My kind of tai chi -taoist.org – is never done to music. Master Moy, who brought the art of tai chi to the west in the early 70s, taught this silent technique so that we would learn to listen to our bodies. So it’s quite a shock to be practising, as I did yesterday, to tribal drums, as the “class” stomped through something like a solstice ritual.

Yet it is curiously liberating. I am so distracted by the whirling colour and the floor-shaking rhythm and even the occasional melody that I find my body moving unself-consciously. Suddenly I feel it accomplishing some refinement that I haven’t been able to get before. My  weight is well and truly in my feet. My belly soft, no longer trying to do the lifting. My hands, full of intention, but the push coming from the back foot. There is a real internal massage going on.

I had arrived here knotted up. Life will do that, as you know. I am away from my usual supports -osteopath, acupuncturist, massage therapist. Then I slipped on a rock, crossing a stream and added a spiral twist -and a good deal of temporary wetness- to the mix. (Incidentally, it was a beautiful fall, I’m told. I would expect no less after all that tai chi.) What to do? You guessed it. More tai chi. I tripled the number or jongs or standing exercises and came unwound. Now, of course, I have to keep that up for the interim or this 76 year-old body will revert or at least stiffen up.

There is usually someone in an electric wheelchair at dance class. One chap moves his chair in dancing circles with his chin. A woman dances with her upper body. Taoist Tai Chi has a sitting set as well as sitting jongs. I have done these while stricken with H1N1 flu when I would have otherwise just languished in bed for weeks.

So here’s the thing, “Dance, dance, wherever you may be.” (“I am the Lord of the dance, said he.) You don’t need any training for that. Or if you won’t dance, (Can’t make me!) take the training route so you never have to pack your exercise equipment. Learn tai chi. Look it up. Taoist Tai Chi is found in 25 countries. It could be in your town and if not, there is some other kind.

Or just get out your towel!

Merry Christmas!

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The Look of Love: paying attention

I am sitting beside him in La Veranda Osteria, when he seizes my left hand in both of his  calling me, “Sweetheart” and gazing intently into my eyes. No wonder he has had women on several continents and the odd island falling for him. My brother has had this ability to charm ever since he ran away to Europe with a backpack at 17. At the moment, he is trying to convince me of something, some better way to live, perhaps, but I am too overcome by his undiluted attention to take it in.

Great to find this in a dinner date, even if he is your brother, but much more important in a doctor or medical practitioner. I remember sitting in a sound-proof third-floor office near LAX and being the focus of the undivided attention of my acupuncturist. She asked questions of such insight, listened with such concentration and considered me so deeply, that I felt entirely and absolutely loved. The interview itself was healing: there was no real need for needling. In fact, I have had a profound feeling of change for the better, just from talking to her on the phone. That was her goal – to be so present and available to her patients that they felt connected, not just to her  but to the power that animates us. Having felt that connection and felt it repeatedly, it became easier for us to make it on our own.

Actors and self-proclaimed gurus, who project charisma, attract us because they make use of this kind of focus although not perhaps with such benevolence. I once met an actor unexpectedly on my way down to his wife’s yoga studio and almost suffered third-degree burns from the radiance of his projection. I was gobsmacked, but I did not feel better for it.

I do feel better when I can master the trick myself. The 108 moves in tai chi give me that opportunity especially when I find myself acting as Corner. (A Corner, as you might expect, is at the end of a line and so in a leadership role.) There is a lot of repetition in such a set, but repetition with variations. For example, there are 3 sets of  “Wave Hands Like Clouds”, one of 5 of this sideways step with soft arm sweeps, one of 7 and one of 3. All of them begin from the position of “Single Whip” or “Whip to One Side”, but between the set of 5 and the set of 7, just when the sleepy Corner has zoned out, the move suddenly switches to “Fair Lady Works Shuttles” or “Four Corners”, an altogether more complicated move. I have often been embarrassed when I have missed that change, dissociated or planning dinner or gazing out the window. I was not in the now, not really present.

When I do hit that groove, I experience a mental rest, like a moving meditation from the one-pointedness. It is easier than meditation for me. The kind of meditation I practise when I am able is mindfulness, just being aware of what is going on, especially internally, observing  without attachment, as my acupuncturist would say – letting each thing go -each thought, feeling or sensation.

It’s a useful technique when I am beset by anxiety or depression or pain. If I sit down, just sit, not cross-legged or full-lotus nor even necessarily straight-backed, but easily, and observe what is going on in me, I gain some distance. I am watching what my mind is doing and so I am now in the role of observer, not sufferer. I am no longer my discomfort. I can stop spinning. I have heard that the goal of meditation is to still the mind. I don’t aim that high. But if I pay attention to it, it stops screaming in agony, like a crying child when her mother holds her and gives her her attention. It may well be that there is no solution. The grief cannot be assuaged. A fearful situation cannot be resolved. A physical pain is intractable. No matter. All these things are more bearable when looked upon steadily.

It doesn’t even have to be a look of love. Did my acupuncturist actually loved each of the parade of people who sat before her? (Of course, she did me.) She became absorbed in them so that there was no longer a separation between her and other. No other in fact. In the same way, I can reclaim my anger and self-loathing, my fear of ageing and death, whatever negativity is plaguing me. Once reclaimed, these parts of me seem to shrug and get on with life.

It is these negative feelings that prevent us from focusing, both on others and on our own mental health.

Eckhart Tolle has written several books, including The Power of Now to extoll the virtues of focusing. Jon Kabat-Zinn has told us how to heal ourselves through mindfulness in Coming to Our Senses. I have read these and others and found them inspiring, but it is simple practice that gives results. Like tai chi. We don’t really need to read more. We just need to do it.

“Attention must be paid,” Arthur Miller said in Death of a Salesman. “Pay attention,” our parents and teachers admonished. Yet we seldom do. We need something like the little bell that Buddhists sound during meditation calling out, “Be here. Be now. Wake up”.

Love is just that: being conscious.

Home Spa: Castor Oil Pack for Tough Muscle Pain

There are 3 layers to a castor oil pack – a flannel or soft cloth soaked in castor oil, a piece of plastic and a heating pad, in that order.
They say a wool cloth is better but cotton seems to work fine. Castor oil, as I said in the Salt Scrub post, is nicknamed the hand of God because it seems to reach into the soft tissue. It is also a powerful laxative as you know, but not when applied to skin as far as I can see. There are various versions, including cold pressed, but any will do. Multiple applications my be necessary.
If there is no heating pad available, try heating the soaked cloth in a double boiler or microwave oven first.
Castor oil is heavy and hard to remove from fabric. I keep an old, oversize t-shirt to wear when I use the pack.

Home Spa: Salt Scrub for Muscle Pain

Mix castor oil with sea salt, and add a few drops of lavender oil. Mix so that it is not too oily nor too grainy. Rub on sore places, wet or dry, until skin reddens slightly. Shower off when done.
Castor oil, beloved of boxers, has been called the hand of God because it can reach into muscle knots.
I like a softer, unmilled sea salt but any will do.
Choose lavender for calming or eucalyptus for cold or invigoration. Pettigrain is nice. Experiment. Use vanilla in moderation if you don’t yet have essential oils.
It’s good for the skin too.
Watch for “Making A Castor OIl Pack” for sore muscles.