Knowing Yourself through Exercise
In the late summer of 1993, I was working for a convenience store chain in Wichita, Kansas. During a shift change, I kneeled to open the safe and there was a loud pop from somewhere below my waist. It was so loud that both the manager I was relieving, and the customer he was serving asked, “What was that?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, “but tell you one thing, I really need to exercise.”
“Exercise? Don’t you guys get enough exercise around here?” The customer said, “You’re going a hundred miles an hour, day and night in this place.”
What he said was true enough. The stores I worked for were the busiest in town, and I had worked there for ten years. Those were the days when a single person would run the store for nine or ten-hour shifts. During that shift you would take out the trash, stock the coolers, make the coffee and tea, and keep the place in shape. When those tasks were complete enough, you would write orders, stock the shelves, and perform general maintenance on anything from a pop machine to a gas pump. It was hard to believe that anyone working at such a job could be out of shape.
I had been thinking about finding an exercise program, and David Carradine’s Tai Chi Workout had earned my attention with a series of infomercials. I had practiced karate and some judo in high school but had never heard of taijiquan.
The video was about $40 (as I remember) but my wife and I lived on a tight budget, so I would have to take it from cash and be sure we did not miss any bills, making me reluctant to buy the video.
The crack I heard as I opened the safe on that sunny day sealed the deal. That night I bought the Tai Chi Workout VHS tape before the “limited offer” expired.
The largest part of David Carradine’s Tai Chi Workout reminded me of middle school calisthenics. Most of the tape was floor exercises followed by something called qigong. Some of these exercises had exotic names but were familiar to any gym student. Within a week of starting the program, I was feeling better.
However, learning taijiquan would have to wait. I had left my longtime employer, and my marriage was failing. We had a high amount of debt on the credit cards, and neither of us was happy. Divorce and bankruptcy were not far off.
When I look back on those darker times, I realize that it was the simple things that brought me through them. BookStar had opened recently, and the store had a wide range of martial art books. The section included books about taijiquan, baguazhang, and qigong. I would sit on the floor in the martial art section and consider if baguazhang or qigong were better than taijiquan. I would page through the books and examine the pictures or line drawings, trying to understand this exotic new world.
Because of where and how I grew up, the ideas presented in these books were a new world to me.
I grew up in a conservative Mennonite community where eastern philosophies were only discussed in social studies class. My connection to the outside world was the post office. Magazines like Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report brought me the world one week at a time. Marvel and D.C. Comics fed my imagination, and the high school librarian ensured I discovered works by Tolkien, Dostoevsky, and Bradbury. My first vision of Buddhism was a monk setting fire to himself, and my understanding of China formed during the Cold War.
At the bookstore, Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming had more books on the shelf than other writers. His yellow book on Yang Style Tai Chi looked as though it must be his own form. However, upon reading a few pages, I discovered there was another Yang that created the form and Yang Jwing-Ming did not claim to be of any relation. Dr. Yang also had a blue book about qigong and, after sleeping on it, I decided to start with Dr. Yang’s blue book.
I bought the yellow book on taijiquan a few days after my divorce was final. I was heading for bankruptcy, yet I barely noticed the type of trouble I was in. I worked odd hours, and had a physically demanding job, but I would find a set of qigong to perform from the blue book on workdays and spent my days off learning taijiquan from the yellow book.
I would eat and drink and practice taijiquan under a 40-year-old pin-oak tree. My toy poodle would wander around the yard and exchange barks with the squirrels throwing acorns down at her.
I would read each posture in detail from the yellow book, then practice the entire sequence from the beginning to that posture. The book’s spine was beginning to break, and rain would soak the book even when I tried to shelter it under the pin-oak. I broke it apart entirely and put each page in a plastic sheet protector, then put the entire thing in a three-ring binder.
This manner of practice allowed me to reconnect with myself. For the first time in my life, I realized that the physical exhaustion I felt at the end of a day at work was not physical at all; it was emotional and mental. The time spent under the pin-oak, learning taijiquan from Dr. Yang’s yellow book was restoring a type of energy I had not known since I was a child.
I wanted to learn more about taijiquan than even Dr. Yang’s yellow book provided. I could not afford classes at a local martial art school. Instead, I attended martial art tournaments and watched for things I could use. At these tournaments, I decided that I am not a fighter and if practicing in a school meant engaging in that activity, then I wanted no part of it. Besides, I was learning from the book and decided that I did not want to hinder my concentration on it with a new set of instructions.
I supplemented my practice with translations of the Dao De Jing and the Yi Jing, and a regular subscription to Marvin Smalheiser’s T’ai Chi Magazine. The strange world of a few years ago had turned into a vocabulary I used for personal growth.
Barnes & Noble replaced BookStar with a massive collection of books, a coffeehouse, and a deli. My first trip to the Barnes & Noble revealed a treasure; a hardcover, perfect-bound, plastic protected, red and gold inlaid edition of Jou Tsung Hwa’s The Tao of Tai-Chi Chuan—Way to Rejuvenation. This book captivated me. I read most of it before I left the store. Jou Tsung Hwa and I had a personal connection in our love for taijiquan. His explanations of the art and his summary of its history touched me. I purchased the book and walked out of the store into a perfect Kansas sunset, resolving to explore all the family styles of taijiquan before choosing one for a lifetime of practice.
This was before widespread access to the Internet, so I had to find training materials through the Barnes & Noble, or through catalogs advertised in T’ai Chi Magazine, or through other martial art related magazines. At fifty bucks a video, and several weeks delivery time, I had to study each teacher as much as possible before making a purchase. I was resolved to my research, spending three months with each new video or book before moving onto the next.
A few years later, the Internet provided a wealth of new material on the internal martial arts, and my research was easier. By this time, I chose Sun Style Taijiquan for my personal practice, and purchasing new material was more of an academic exercise then for personal study.
By mid-2000, I was in a new house with a new bride and looking for new opportunities with my employer. I had always wanted to be a computer programmer and a position to code Java web applications was opening. I had learned the longest sequence in Chinese martial arts from a book and decided that I could do the same with Java.
I spent hours on my laptop reclined in front of the television. I was learning how to code from open source software sites. I returned to work with practices for coding and Java that surprised the veterans on my team and improved our ability to deliver.
Open source software development is a process where you develop a program, then share that program and all its source code for others to use and improve upon. These programs develop communities, and the communities interact with other open source communities around the world through the Internet. Organizations and software licenses protect the open model.
With such a large community for me to engage in, and with better pay and activities at work coming because of that engagement, I spent less and less time practicing my martial forms. That was when my left hip started to hurt.
Responsibility to Exercise
I had never felt pain like this before. When I was in grade school, I broke my left arm. That was a sudden pain that had gone away, and I knew when it would heal. This new pain was constant, and nothing gave me encouragement that it would pass.
It was painful to sit, and my hip would get stiff and make it difficult to walk when I stood up. I had overstretched myself in the past and thought I had overdone it in one of my practice sessions. I tried to loosen my left hip and leg with taijiquan and xingyiquan sequences that kept me upright and abandoned qigong or calisthenic exercises entirely.
My hip and leg would hurt for a couple of days, I would work through it, then it would return. I instinctively knew that I needed more movement but was not yet willing to give enough attention to the solution. There were too many things to learn about software development, calling for more hours behind the computer instead of in mindfulness practice.
Over a couple of months, my hip was getting worse, and I was blaming my martial forms. I never considered that sitting all day at my desk and then all night with a laptop was the cause.
By the end of 2002, I was in the type of pain that never quit. I could not sit, lie down, or walk without hurting. I asked friends, family, and coworkers for advice about a doctor and visited a physician. Without some incident to indicate an injury, he believed I was developing arthritis in my hip. I said that it felt like my muscles and not my bones, but he insisted that was common and gave me a popular arthritis drug.
I tried the drug to see whether my pain would subside. Within two days, I was feeling sick. My skin felt itchy everywhere, generally I felt odd, and I had sudden bouts of nausea.
I checked the package details and called the nurse’s aide. The conclusion we both made was that I was allergic to the drug and should stop taking it. By now I was missing work because I simply could not sit. Lying on my right side was the only way I could get some relief.
I returned to the doctor who scheduled me for an MRI. I explained that I could not lie on my back long enough for an MRI session. He gave me Lortabs and a quick-thinking nurse’s aide put my feet up in the air so my back would lie flat on the MRI table.
The pain did not stop. The MRI confirmed I did not have a slipped disk, and the doctor sent me to a physical therapist. The physical therapist measured my bones and did some gait analysis. He determined that my left leg was one centimeter shorter than my right. He said that this short leg had caused my hip socket to be stretched further on the left side than on the right, and the constant pulling of the muscles was causing them to seize up in an attempt to pull the joint back into place. The long-term remedy, he believed, was to get a special shoe for the left leg to provide balance. In addition, he provided a waist belt I could pull tightly around my hips to help hold them in place.
I was shocked such a belt existed. It was a combination of straps and metal hinges that I could use to pull the belt very tightly around my hips. It pinched my skin, but when it was in place, I felt better.
I had to pull the belt so tight that I wore it out within a couple of days. I found a rubber heel lift at a shoe store just a few blocks from my house. I put it inside my shoe, and it provided an extra nine millimeters in height on the left side.
I had ruined my second waist belt, and although I hated wearing such a painful contraption for the rest of my life, I called the physical therapist for another. He said that insurance would not allow him to release another belt, and I would have to pay for them.
I needed answers that were not coming from the medical profession. No matter how often I measured my left leg, it was always the same length as my right, and holding my hips with levers and straps did not appeal to me. I remembered how only two years ago I was touching the ground in the Snake Creeps Down posture of Yang Style Taijiquan, and now I could barely walk.
What had happened to the physically fit individual that practiced under that pin-oak tree with such determination? I used to impress others with my flexibility. Now I was ashamed of my pain. I headed to the bookstore and looked for answers.
My intent was to find a book on anatomy, to learn the names and connections of the muscles involved in my pain. With that knowledge, I would return to the doctor and argue my case, or I would find an alternative exercise program that promised to restore my hip and reduce my pain. I guessed that some type of Yoga, Pilates, or massage therapy was in order.
Pain Free through Ground Exercises
I found Pain Free by Pete Egoscue, and it just happened to flip open to the hip section. Within a few paragraphs, he described my pain and my situation word for word. After a few more paragraphs there were four simple exercises, postures really, that you do standing up and lying on the floor. These postures let gravity pull your body back into functional alignment and reduce your pain. With your pain reduced, you can begin a normal exercise program and start moving again. According to the book jacket, the premise of the book was that the human body is made for movement, and modern society has starved our body from movement. Sitting, it turns out, is a terrible thing for the human body.
I did not spend any time considering my choices; I snatched the book and headed for the register. My wife who was used to me spending hours in the bookstore had to hurry her choices.
Within a couple of days, I was feeling the type of relief I had not experienced in months. Pain was abating instead of getting worse and I could function again. I performed the Sun Style Taijiquan set, just to see how it felt. I had not practiced anything for over a month, and it was good to be with my old friend again. I promised, this time it would be different; I would not sacrifice my god given right to movement for career or monetary gain.
I had a new weapon in my fight for personal growth. The first three chapters of Pain Free reopened my eyes to the genius of those old martial art masters. I had studied a wide range of martial forms and focused new skills and understanding into a few forms that I enjoyed most. I had neglected basic calisthenics for some exotic, and some practical, qigong sequences. Try as you might to avoid them, push-ups and crunches are required exercise. I remembered that my introduction to taijiquan was David Carradine’s Tai Chi Workout, and that most of the tape was middle school calisthenics done on the floor. I integrated a wide range of isometric exercises into my practice. This became so successful and enlightening that I deserted esoteric qigong sequences entirely. I linked the isometric floor practices to postures from the martial forms and found that my personal awareness improved dramatically.
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