Underneath my yellow skin

When Progress Feels Like a Setback

The middle of my back is aching, and my taiji teacher says this is progress. See, I used to have lower back pains as I practice taiji, Before that, I had knee pains. Concentrating on fixing my posture to improve the knee pain led to the lower back pain, and now that I’m working on correcting my posture so that my lower back doesn’t hurt, the middle of my back is grumbling. My teacher has often said that we all carry tension in our bodies–we’re just not necessarily aware of it. The first step to relieving tension is feeling it, which I’ve been doing in spades the last few years. I noticed that my knees were really hurting, and I mentioned it to my teacher. She watched me do some postures and gave me a few suggestions. I worked diligently on her advice, and my knee pain subsided substantially in a month or so. However, my lower back started hurting, so I mentioned that to my teacher recently. She told me to focus on tucking my hips, and I noticed that I was popping my ass out in the middle of every posture. I practiced tucking my hips until it became somewhat a second nature, and my lower back stopped hurting almost completely. Simultaneously, the middle of my back started hurting. I mentioned it to my teacher, and she said it was better than my lower back hurting, but harder to massage (which is a good remedy for aches).

I’m frustrated, I won’t lie to you. It doesn’t help that my knees have been achy a bit, too. I think it’s because I’m focusing on my back, so I’m not placing as much emphasis on making sure my knees extend properly over my toes (but not too far forward). I used to think I was decent at multitasking, but taiji has shown that to be a lie. Yes, I can think about two things at one time, but neither are going to get my proper attention. My teacher has said repeatedly that we can only focus on one thing at a time, whether it’s waist, knees, or arms. I’m always tempted to focus on two things, usually the knees and the waist, but then I end up neglecting both. My sword practice has been helpful in this respect because I do five repetitions of a section of the form. Each repetition, I focus on a different aspect. First time, I usually just do the section as naturally as possible. I follow that up with watching the tip of the sword in the second time through. Then, focusing on the waist. Then, as gently as possible. Lastly, with as much power as possible. I don’t always do it in that order because I don’t want to become rote with my practice. It’s not easy to carry the same focus over to the Solo Form because as I’ve said a time or a hundred, it’s not my favorite thing to practice.

In my last class, my teacher has us focus on empty stepping as we did the first section of the Solo Form. Briefly, this means that as I set my foot down, there is no weight in it at all. I gently place one part of my foot down first (heel to the front, toes to the side and back), then roll my foot down slowly, feeling the floor the whole time. Once my foot is down, then I shift into that foot and not a second before. The martial application is that this makes it easy to quickly pick up your foot if need be. You don’t want to commit until the last possible moment lest your opponent change what he’s going to do. It may sound easy, but it’s not. One thing it taught me is how often I fall into my step and/or how quickly I put my foot down. This shows that I’m not properly balanced, which, obviously, is not good for fighting. I’m glad I know that I’m doing this incorrectly so I can work on it, but it’s yet another thing that’s impeding my taiji studies.

The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. When I was a neophyte, I was overwhelmed by all the new information coming at me. I didn’t have time to worry about my knees or my back or anything other than learning the postures. It was such a feeling of accomplishment when I finally graduated from the Solo Form, though I by no means considered myself an expert in it. Indeed, I don’t think I could have done the whole form on my own at the time. Actually, it wasn’t a feeling of accomplishment so much as a feeling of wonderment that I’d actually learned all the postures. When I first started, my teacher had me do the whole form with her, and I felt like an idiot as I fumbled my way through it. Now, I can do it with confidence, though I can still get tripped up if I don’t concentrate on what I’m doing. There are several repeat sections of the form, and they’re put in specifically to make you mess up if you’re half-assing it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done a Roll Back and then thought, “What comes next?” I also have a habit of forgetting Cloud Hands because it’s one of my least favorite postures, even though most people love it.

Anyway, now that I’m working on refinements rather than learning postures, I’m frustrated. I can’t measure my progress in leaps and bounds. Hell,  I can’t even measure it in steps. It’s inches, and it’s not every time. I suppose I should take some pride in how far I’ve come over all, but I’m just grumpy about how much further I still have to go. In weapons alone, I have the rest of the Sabre Form, the Cane Form, the Fan Form, the Double Sword Form, the Double Sabre Form, and I’m assuming there’s a Double Fan Form, too. There’s also a Chopstick Form, and there are probably several I don’t know, either. There’s also the Two Person Form, of which I know the first section. Beyond that, though, are all the corrections I need to make to the forms I already know. I really wish I had incorporated them from the start, but there’s no way I could have focused on refinements when my head was full of new ideas that I had to think about and digest. That’s the ironic thing about studying taiji–some of the bad habits I developed in the beginning of my studies are so entrenched by now, it’ll take me months to unlearn them. Had I been able to correct them as soon as they developed, it would have been better for me in the long run. However, if my teacher had pointed out these habits as I was learning new postures, it would have been in one ear and out the other. So now, eight years later, I have to painstakingly undo them.

I wish I had patience with myself as I’m working on this, but I don’t. I grumble and I bitch, maybe not out loud, but certainly in my head. I’m also not great about concentrating on one thing for a long time. Let me clarify. My OCD tendencies allow me to focus on things I love for hours on end, but as I’ve stated a thousand times, the Solo Form is not something I love. Sometimes, I feel guilty about my lack of fondness for it, but I can’t help how I feel. I hated it when I first learned it, but I’ve come to be neutral about it over time. I’m practicing a section every day because the Solo Form is the basis for everything else, and I don’t hate it any longer. The kick section is my favorite part of the form, which most people hate. I like to joke that it’s because I like to do things the hard way, but it’s actually true. I like things that engage my brain, plus I took dance lessons for twelve years. The kick section is like coming home for me. It’s at the end of the second section, which means it’s difficult, but not the hardest. The way the Solo Form is laid out, it’s easy in the beginning and progressively gets harder. By the end of the third section, they assume that you know the basics, so they’re not as insistent about it any longer.

When I look back on the last eight years, I have to acknowledge that I’ve learned a lot, though on a relatively slow schedule. The fact that I can casually rip off a Sword Form, Left Side, without breaking a sweat, is something I couldn’t imagine five years ago. I never thought weapons would be my thing. At all. I wasn’t averse to them, but I had no desire to pick one up. When my teacher started making noises about me learning the sword, I demurred. I didn’t think I was ready. I should practice the Solo Form more. Bottom line is that I just didn’t want to. Fortunately, my teacher knew me better than I knew myself in that regard and put a wooden sword into my hand. The second she did, I felt as if it had been there all my life. I had no idea why I had resisted so hard, and I wanted to learn it as quickly as possible. Unlike the Solo Form, which I took no joy in learning, I soaked in the Sword Form. The sword was a natural extension of my hand, and I felt exhilarated every time I learned a new posture. Teaching myself the left side of the Sword Form has been fairly easy–much easier than teaching myself the left side of the Solo Form.

I’m having the same problem with my mental health–meaning I’m frustrated by what I perceive as a lack of progress. It’s partly because I’m not seeing a therapist right now, so I’m excruciatingly aware that I’m not working on my mental health the way I think I should be. The thing is, I feel meh most of the time. Which is funny because my initials are MEH. My brother bought me a shirt with MEH on it for that reason, not realizing that it was a meme, too. I’m don’t enjoy being meh all the time, obviously, and it bothers me that I’m not happier than I am. The thing is, I have to remember that I was severely depressed up until about ten years ago. A crippling, chronic, debilitating depression that nearly broke me. Correction: It did break me for two decades, but I’ve been slowly mending myself over the past ten years. Up until five years ago, I was depressed, though not quite as chronically. It was still a daily thing, however, and it got to me on a regular basis.

As a corollary, my sleep has been shit all my life. Even as a young girl, I never went to bed before midnight. I’d stuff a towel in the door crack and read until I fell asleep. In college, I slept for roughly three and a half hours a night, then I’d get sick when I go home for vacation and crash for fifteen hours. After college, I pushed it up to four hours a night. That’s where I stayed for decades. And, it wasn’t night, but morning to afternoon. I’d fall asleep around eight or nine in the morning and sleep until noon or one. I didn’t plan on sleeping only four hours a night, but that was all my body would allow. The sleep was filled with nightmares, and I never felt rested upon awakening. I slowly started sleeping more, and now I’m up to six to seven hours a night. I’ve also pushed back the time I go to sleep. I rarely go to bed (couch) after four a.m., and I find that if I sleep more than seven hours, I feel worse than when I went to bed. I still have nightmares, but they’re mostly anxiety dreams rather than ‘all my friends are dead’ dreams.

At this point, I’ll take it. Six hours a night of sleep and feeling meh is legions better than four hours of terror-filled nightmares and barely being able to move. I do get depressed sometimes, but it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be. It’s hard because because I tend to forget just how miserable I used to be, just as in taiji I forget what it was like to always feel out of my depth. The best I can do is try, even if that doesn’t feel like nearly enough most of the time. Hopefully, one day soon, this, too, will be a memory of how I used to be.


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