Underneath my yellow skin

How to See Progress When It’s Microscopic

i will cut you
Wudon Sword Fencing

My teacher’s teacher opened a new taiji academy last weekend, and I attended the open house. There was a demo, and I couldn’t help but compare this demo to the first time I saw a demo at the old studio. It was a year or two after I started taking classes, and everything looked so amazing to me. One of the masters said, “To the beginner, everyone is a master,” and it was so true in my case. I watched them do the Solo Form, and I couldn’t imagine I would ever be able to do the whole thing. The next time I attended a demo, I knew the whole Solo Form, but I was still really impressed with the people doing weapons. Again, I had no idea how I would ever do anything as amazing as that. I did note that I could tell between the different styles of the practitioners of the Solo Form. “This one is a bit stiff.” “That one needs to bend her knees more.” I wasn’t trying to critique; I was just happy that I could tell the difference. This time, I joined in on the Solo Form (first section only. Sifu knows if he has people demonstrate more than that, it would be boring for the audience), but I didn’t have my sword with me, so I had to sit that out. I could have borrowed one, but I would have felt awkward doing so. As the others did the Sword Form, however, I could see where they were making mistakes, which meant that I had learned the form pretty well. It’s hard to tell because it’s not as if I’m making noticeable progress every time I practice, especially now that I’m focusing more on refinements rather than corrections.

When I first started to learn taiji, it was easier to feel as if I were actually learning something because I had concrete units to measure by. “I’m learning a new posture today!” That’s something my mind can grasp. Once that’s over, even the major corrections are tangible. “You made a mistake here. Fix it.” I don’t like it, mind you, because I hate making mistakes, but it’s something I can work on and notice when I’ve actually corrected the mistake. Now that I’m eight or nine years into my studies, I’m mostly past this phase of the Solo Form. I know the whole form. I don’t make major mistakes. Sifu has changed some of the postures so I’ve had to relearn them, but I at least know them by now. What I need to do is teach myself the left side to keep it interesting*. OK, I have to make a confession. I don’t like the Solo Form. I never have, and I don’t know if I ever will. I really didn’t like it in the beginning, but I knew it was the basis of everything else, so I suffered through it. Now, I don’t hate it, but I still don’t like it. Ever funnier is that the position most people like best and thinks is easiest–Cloud Hands–is one of my least favorites. The kick section, which most people don’t like, is my favorite section. I like complicated better than easy, plus there are obvious applications to the kicks, which there aren’t for Cloud Hands. There are applications, of course, but not so immediate to the eye.

I have to force myself to practice the Solo Form because there are a hundred things I’d rather be doing. In my morning routine, I deliberately included a section of the Solo Form so I’d at least be practicing a little of it every day. Right now, I’m focusing on the last two subsections of the third section. I like practicing the third section because it’s the one I know the least. We practice the first section quite often in class, and the second section less often, but still more than the third. Lately, we’ve been doing the whole form to music, which is good for practice, but bad because it hurts my back. This is the latest thing I’ve been working on, and it’s something that’s been plaguing me from the beginning of my studies. I’ll elaborate more on it in a minute.

Whenever you learn something new, there are several phases. The first is the learning phase in which everything is fresh and new. Then comes the plateau phase in which everything is on an even keel. There are no highs, but there are also no lows. You just keep on doing the same thing you’ve been doing, and it’s OK. There’s also the phase in which you think you’re doing everything wrong and that you’ll never get better. I was in one of those recently, and it was very dark. I questioned why I was even studying taiji, and I contemplated giving it up. Everything I was doing felt wrong, and at the time, I was working on correcting my knees going too far forward any time I shifted. Before that, my knees were hurting like hell, and my teacher watched me do a few postures and commented that when I was shifting, my knees were collapsing forward. It’s a problem I have with my knees in general, and it’s only been exacerbated by doing taiji. That’s another phase–while some things get better, other things get worse, or you realize something bad you’ve been doing for a while. One thing my teacher says often is how the first step to becoming relaxed is to realize how tense you are. Most of us walk around oblivious to the tension we are carrying with us. Once you start relaxing a bit, you realize just how tense you really are.

The next phase is the leap in learning. This usually follows after a long plateau, and it’s a welcome event because it boosts the spirits. I had a moment in Push Hands in which everything lined up perfectly, and I had a push that was both powerful and effortless. It was a breakthrough, and I felt exuberant. Then, of course, I fucked up the next push, and I had to smile ruefully. That was the actual breakthrough–knowing that every step forward comes with a half step back. It’s progress, but it’s not always linear. I can’t become too attached to the perfect push (or the perfect posture) because it won’t repeat itself any time soon. Still. It’s helpful to have those feelings of euphoria now and then to keep the despair at bay. Yes, ideally, I would just be satisfied with the practice, but it’s human nature to want validation. Having the perfect push or a great sword form is really satisfying to the old ego.

Back to incremental progress. After working on my knees for several months, I noticed that I was able to keep them over my toes for the most part, but they were still hurting. I asked my teacher about it again, and she watched me again. She noticed that I was over-shifting, which made me mad. Not that she had told me, but that I had over-corrected. Fortunately, I had only been doing it for a few months, so it wasn’t as deeply ingrained as the other bad knee habit had been, but it still irritated me that I had a new bad habit I had to unlearn. Two classes ago, I mentioned to my teacher that my lower back always ended up hurting after doing the whole Solo Form. It’s been that way since the beginning, and nothing I’ve done seems to help. She gave me several suggestions with the main one being to make sure my hips are tucked properly. Tuck them not enough, and it hurts the lower back. Tuck them too much and–well, I’m not sure because that’s not my problem so I didn’t pay close attention. Then she had us do a first section keeping this in mind. I found that I had to re-tuck my hips after every posture. I would think, “I’ve got this,” only to find my ass sticking out a tiny bit at the end of each posture. It’s not much, but it really makes a difference. When I’m able to keep my tailbone dropped, my lower back hurts much less.

I don’t have this problem with the Sword Form, mind you, because it’s an advanced form, so there’s not as much emphasize on doing everything precisely right. It just assumes you already know the basics, and it’s not such a stickler when it comes to empty stepping or counting. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but trust me, it’s true. I can do two Sword Forms in a row (left side and right side) without my back hurting, but one or two sections of the Solo Form, and I’m wincing. I’ve been trying to drop my tailbone as I ¬†practice the Solo Form every morning, but it’s been rough. I’m discouraged by how often I have to do it and how easily my ass sticks up again. However, as I was practicing this morning, I realized that my knees no longer hurt. At all. That cheered me up a bit because I didn’t believe my teacher when she said that they wouldn’t hurt after a few months if I practiced in the correct way, but she’s right. She’s said the same thing about my back, and I’m skeptical once again. I should trust her because she’s been right so far, but it’s hard to listen when my back is barking at me.

I’m still amazed at how much I’ve learned, even though I’m the world’s worst student.** Back to the demo, I was able to spot the mistakes people were making during the Sword Form, and I could tell who was shaky when during other forms, even the ones I didn’t know. I’m not saying it to brag or to be mean, but just to gauge how far I’ve come in the last eight years. It’s something that I’m trying to carry over into my life in general because I get down on myself often and easily. ¬†I hate that I’m such a negative person with low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. I’ve been this way ever since I can remember. It’s only when I take a step back and reflect that I realize I’m much better than I’ve been in the past. I can actually feel happiness and joy, even if it’s very fleeting. I am not as easily riled, at least not on the outside. My mom commented on it the last time she was home, saying how nice it was that I wasn’t as touchy and that I seemed more positive about my future. I had to laugh internally because I didn’t feel that way, but I know that I’m at least better at keeping my negativism to myself.

I also haven’t had an anxiety attack in some time. I’ve written a few posts at my old place about how I’m better able to deal with stressful situations, and I attribute most of that to my taiji practice. It’s taught me how to deal with what is in front of me rather than what I’m anticipating. That’s the main tenet of taiji–never attack first. I translate that into never look for trouble in the rest of my life. Deal with it if it comes, but why look for it? I’m not saying it’s easy because it’s not. I can find a million things to worry about in five minutes. Something my last therapist said to me fifteen years ago before I moved to the East Bay, however, has stuck with me ever since. She said, “Minna, half of the things you’re worrying about will never happen whereas you can’t imagine half of the things that will happen to you.” She also said that faith is not believing before taking an action, but taking the action and allowing the belief to follow. I didn’t really agree with either at the time, but I begrudgingly agree with her now.

I’ve learned, however, that I can’t force myself to be less anxious, less depressed, or less negative. In fact, the more I focus on any of them, the worse I get. I find if I work on other things, then the depression, anxiety, and negativity slowly abate. I know that’s not a very satisfying answer, but it’s all I have. There is no magic pill to cure life’s problems, but taiji has helped me a great deal in the past eight/nine years in dealing with mine. I’m glad I’ve stuck it out.






*We have to teach ourselves the left side of each form. It’s a way to see if we really know the right side or if we’re just faking it. Teaching myself the left side of the Sword Form has helped me see where I’ve fudged things on the right side or where I’ve let bad habits form.

**I’ve said that to my teacher many times because I used to not practice outside of class at all. It’s one reason I started taking classes three times a week so I would actually practice those three times.

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