Underneath my yellow skin

The Art of Relaxation

My cat, Shadow, has developed a morning ritual since his brother died* in which he meows loudly at me, gently gnaws at me, rubs his head against the blanket in which I’m encased, and then hops up on my hip (I usually sleep on my side) and stands there. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a fifteen-pound cat just stand on you, but it doesn’t feel great. When I try to roll back and forth to get him off, he simply rolls with me. It doesn’t matter how quickly I roll, he sticks like glue. Funny side note: One morning this week, he wasn’t around when I woke up. I was puzzled, but went into the kitchen to get his wet food for breakfast. I open his cabinet, and he still didn’t come. I was starting to get worried and was about to go after him when he came running towards the kitchen as fast as his chubby little legs would take him. He opened his mouth to meow, but it was cut off by a huge yawn. It was ridiculously adorable that he had fallen asleep on the job!

Anyway, I was thinking about that in taiji class yesterday when we were talking about relaxation. It’s one of the most important tenets in taiji, and it’s something I struggle with all the time. I’m a tense person by nature (and nurture), and I carry all my tension is my shoulders and back. It used to be my upper back, but now it’s mostly my lower back. The way to relax your back is to drop your tailbone, and every time I check in with my tailbone, it’s ratcheted up an inch. Every damn time. Even if it’s a minute from the last time I checked in. I think it’s less ‘up’ than it has been in the past, but it’s still tense. The problem is, though, that I can’t always think about my tailbone. If I did, I wouldn’t have time to think of anything else. I get easily frustrated when I can’t do something, which is one reason I love Dark Souls games so much. I’m not inherently good at them, and they’ve taught me not to give up when things get tough. I’m still inordinately proud of beating Biggie & Small (Ornstein & Smough) after almost giving up on the game.

Anyway, we were talking about breathing in class. It’s important, obviously, and there are many different ways to breathe. Our teacher told us about the man who owns the Guinness Book of World Record for holding his breath, and one of his practice techniques is passive breathing. You inhale with your abdomen, and then you just let the breath passively exhale. I’ve tried it, and I’ve ended up feeling choked or lightheaded. I mentioned it to my teacher, and she said not to do it then. She said that focusing on your breathing is important, but it shouldn’t be laborious or painful. My problem is that the passive exhale is an anathema to me, which makes me angry. As I said, I don’t do well with things I don’t understand or can’t do on the first go. While I can conceptually understand what passive breathing is, I can’t do it in practice. I don’t understand how to let my breath out without actively pushing it out if I’m concentrating on it at all.

I said my problem was that I was holding my breath instead of just letting it sit there. Then, I was forcing it out, even as I struggled to passively exhale. My teacher talked about the difference between holding your breath and pausing your breath. She’s talked about it in the past, but I haven’t quite been able to grasp exactly what she meant. This time, though, it made more sense. Holding your breath is taking a deep breath and keeping it locked in your chest. Pausing your breath is, well, it’s a bit more complicated. Inhale with your abdomen and as you’re inhaling, make your abdomen still. You’re not breathing, but you’re not actively holding your breath, either. Basically, pausing your breath should happen in  your abdomen, not in your chest. When she put it that way, it made sense to me.

I have a tendency to brute-force my way through something if I can’t figure it out, then I get frustrate when I can’t muscle my way through something. My teacher has said many times that taiji is the lazy person’s martial art because it’s all about putting in the least effort for maximum output. We’re not about breaking boards or kicking as hard as we can. We’re about moving our finger an inch and making someone fly back ten feet. It’s common when someone pushes against you to tense up in response. I would argue that it’s almost reflexive. However, then it becomes about who’s stronger, and that’s rarely going to be me. Let me be brutally frank. If I’m being attacked by a dude, I am probably not going to be able to out-muscle him. Therefore, tensing up and pushing back is a lost cause. Taiji is about redirecting someone else’s power, ideally into the ground, but it’s not instinctual.

It’s not easy. It’s not natural (for Americans, anyway), but it is learnable and useful. When I had my car crash a year and several months ago, I noticed the car seconds before she hit me. My mind flashed, “I’m going to get hit,” and instead of tensing up as I would have a few years ago, I automatically relaxed. I had a massive bruise on my abdomen from either the seat belt or the airbag, but that’s it. People warned me that I would get back/neck problems months after (So. Many. People.), but I didn’t. It was weird, by the way, and somewhat annoying how many people eagerly predicted I would develop back pains and/or whiplash. It was almost as if they would be disappointed if I didn’t. Anyway, I know it’s taiji that allowed me to relax in that moment of high tension, and I truly appreciate it.

I also credit taiji for my improved relationship with my parents. In the past, I used to be defensive around them at all times. Anything they said, I’d interpret in the least kind way possible, and I despaired that we would ever get along. There are many reasons for this, and I don’t want to get into them, but I had resigned myself to always having a frictive relationship with my parents. I used to get depressed to the point of suicidal when they would come for their yearly visit (even if it was just my mother), and we would fight frequently–often about the same shit. Once my mom latches onto an idea, she will. not. let. it. go. Her current obsession is the family doing a cruise together (family being her, my father, my brother, and his family), and I’ve had to shoot it down several times. I can’t think of anything I’d rather NOT do than go on a cruise, which I’ve made exceedingly obvious to my mother. For whatever reason, though, it doesn’t register in her brain, and she has to bring it up time and time again. Even the last time I shut it down, she then brought it up to my brother. I know because he brought it up to me saying we needed to talk about it. I said we didn’t because I had already said no, but she didn’t tell him that.

The long and the short of it is, they’re going on the cruise and I am not. Yes, we had a few uncomfortable discussions about it (OK, more than a few), but I was firm. In the past, I would have gotten really upset and screamed, but I probably would have ended up going in the end. Then, I would have been resentful and miserable, and I would have been blamed for not having a smiley face. That happened with the last ‘family’ trip to Taiwan where my parents live. I didn’t want to go, but my mom nagged at me for months until I finally gave in. I was miserable the whole time. I actually thought about killing myself to get away. It was one of the worst experiences in my thirties, and to top off the shit sundae, my parents sent me letters (one each) lecturing about all the things that are wrong with me soon after. My father included how they had paid for this trip, and I didn’t smile at all (as a way to show what an ungrateful brat I am). Now, I’m pretty sure he didn’t know my mother guilted me into taking the trip, but it still stung.

Through taiji, I’ve learned to set boundaries and not to fly in a rage while setting them. I’m much less likely to react, and it’s because I now have a core that I never had before. I used to feel powerless in my family, and I don’t any longer. Let me rephrase. I no longer feel helpless to play along with the family dynamics. The funny thing is that as I’m changing, so are my parents. It’s logical, of course, as they can’t keep acting the same if I don’t, but it’s rewarding to see happen in real life. The last time my parents came for their yearly visit, we hardly argued at all. More to the point, I wasn’t constantly irritated and depressed, ready to take offense at the slightest infraction. There are still some dynamics I don’t like, but they’re not as oppressive as they used to be, and it’s all thanks to taiji.  I’m doing the mental equivalent of not tensing up and pushing back, and it’s working wonders.

The problem is, it’s not a conscious decision on my part. I’ve been practicing taiji for eight or nine years, and I’ve only developed this ability in the last year or so. It’s not a fast process, but that’s partly because I used to be lazy about practicing, and I’m still not practicing as much as I would like to be. However, the fact that taiji has produced such a dramatic result, even if it’s taken years, is heartening. I hope I can say the same about dropping my tailbone in a year or two. I can but dream.




*My theory is that Raven, his brother, was the one who always made it known it was eating time. With him gone, I think Shadow feels it’s now up to him to get his needs met even though I never forget breakfast or treat times. Poor baby.

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