I want to write more about how tai chi has helped me cope with living with Parkinson’s Disease.
The thing about Parkinson’s – the great thing – is that it forces you to think differently. You can no longer take anything for granted. This morning I cannot take it for granted that my right hand will be able to make any meaningful contribution to the act of typing this post. Chances are a fitful tremor will render it more a hindrance than a help and I will be limited to a slow punching of keys with the first finger of my left hand. As it happens, by consciously keeping my right arm relaxed and initiating the movement from my shoulder rather than my wrist, this morning, I am able to bring the right hand into some kind of active service. Hurrah!
But, the point is, I cannot take the compliance of my hand for granted, as I used to. If I want to function well, I am forced to think differently about my body. So, over the years, I have developed various “tricks” that help me gain control over my misbehaving form. I know that I can stop the tremor by employing a certain quality of thought – if the tremor starts, I know that I have to stop what I am doing for a moment and focus my consciousness in my right hand – I just put my attention there, but in a particular way, a particular flavour of attention – calm, undemanding – like I am saying to my arm “It’s okay. Just be. Just relax. There is no pressure. No pressure to perform any function in any way. Chill.” And the tremor will stop. Then I have to try to maintain that quality of thought at the same time as I get the arm to perform a function. And that is a tight-rope. A most delicate balancing act. To move, to act, to perform a function, whilst staying as relaxed as possible. In control but only just.
Which is where the tai chi comes in.
When I first began learning tai chi, I remember numerous instructors telling me to “Just relax.” And me thinking “I am fucking relaxed.” Which, of course, I wasn’t. And, as time has gone on, I realise how important their advice was. For me especially. Relaxing is the key. But, by relaxing, I don’t mean putting my feet up in front of the TV with a few beers. Well, sometimes I do. But, in tai chi terms, by relaxing, I mean trying to maintain that quality of thought that I described earlier. A very particular relationship between mind and body. Between thought and movement. Trying to consciously move without tension. As efficiently as possible.
At first, this translates as only using the parts of the body that are necessary to perform a particular action. So, when you stand up from a sitting position, you just use your thighs. You avoid using your arms and back to help shift the weight. Keep them relaxed. That way you can avoid injury. And you will strengthen your thighs.
And, to a certain extent, this remains true. But, over time, it seems to me, you become more and more aware of the body as a whole. You become aware that every movement involves the whole body. It’s all connected. You cannot move one part of the body without it impacting on the whole. Turn your head. Feel how it pulls on your neck. Shifts the weight carried on your shoulders. Which tumbles down your spine to your hips. To your knees. Ankles. Toes.
So, the trick becomes being able to keep your whole body relaxed (in the particular way I have tried to describe) as you go through a series of movements. In the case of tai chi, we are given a series of complex movements which we know as “the set” or “the form.” These movements present us with both a challenge and an opportunity. The opportunity to train our bodies to meet the challenge. The student soon realises that the movements can only flow in a graceful fashion if they are performed without tension – in a relaxed fashion. And only by repeating the movements again and again. Clumsily at first. Over and over. Gradually improving. Only by this practice can we develop the flexibility, strength and coordination necessary to meet the challenge and perform the set well. We practise to improve. We improve through practice. A virtuous circle.
In the case of Parkinson’s, the challenge becomes brushing my teeth, tying shoe laces, or, my personal nemesis, stirring a cup of tea. Actions once taken for granted, not thought about, have become problems to be solved. Problems that demand a new way of thinking. Because the old assumptions no longer work. Take stirring that cup of tea. I used to do that without even thinking about it. A casual circle of the right wrist. Tea spoon held idly between thumb and forefinger. Only, now, for me, that circling of the wrist seems guaranteed to set in motion a fierce, uncontrollable tremor.The result of which is more tea on the work surface than in the cup. Not good. So, I set about learning to use my left hand to do the task. My left arm doesn’t (for now) tremor in the same way as my right. It took time. Practice. Repeat. Fail. Repeat. Better. Just like in tai chi. I now use my left hand for many tasks that used to be the province of my right. It is possible to learn to become left handed.
Fortunately, I have also had the benefit of excellent teachers. Teachers that have taught me to think differently. On the surface, they have been teaching me tai chi but, inevitably, lessons learned in tai chi spill into the rest of everyday life. My first teacher, Jenny Smith, used to urge us to practice shifting our weight on to one leg whilst waiting in the queue at the supermarket. Sinking our weight whilst standing at the sink. Later, Cliff Slater advised abandoning the sofa and practising squatting whilst watching TV. Cliff also took the time to give me some specific exercises he thought might help with my Parkinson’s. Stretches that, at the time, seemed impossible but which, with time and work, became a part of my daily routine. “Try headstands”said Cliff. “Invert.” So, I practised. Failed. Repeated. Failed. Again. Again. Then one day, the world is turned upside down. And I feel better for it. A fresh perspective. Now, I invert most days. Upsets the dog – but there you go.
Jenny and Cliff shared an openness to new ways of thinking that was inspirational to me. They were excited by life’s possibilities. I write in the past tense as Jenny sadly died in 2014. Cliff is still very much alive. So was Jenny, right up to the end. My wife, Jo, and I went to visit her in the hospice where she died. She was days away from the end but she didn’t see it like that. She was, as ever, excited – curious about what lay on the other side of the boundary between life and death. And full of jokes and laughter. Wanting to know news and gossip. Curious. Always curious. And playful. As we left, the meeting had been so relaxed and normal, I offered my usual words of departure: “See you, Jenny” “You might not!” she replied.
It was the last time I saw her. I cherish that final memory: it was very much the Jenny I knew – A bright sparkling mind. Always a fresh, often a jarring perspective. A fierce, dark sense of fun. Fearless. Playful. Curious. Relentless. More alive than anybody I know or have known.
Another memory. Jenny & I were travelling to Norway. We were travelling with two other British instructors to a tai chi workshop with Ann Usher. Ann is another genius at finding new approaches to old problems. Another person who has found herself in a situation where she has no choice but to find her own solutions. In tai chi and in life. Another person that puts great faith in hard work. Knows that it’s the only way to get where you want to be. And we four wanted to be in Norway. Wanted to do the work. It was winter time. Ann had warned us that it would be -20! Bring plenty of warm clothes. Only we were flying Ryanair and wanted to keep costs down. So we agreed to only bring on board bags. No check in luggage. Jarvis and I waited with the taxi outside Jenny’s house. We were meeting Arun at the airport. When Jenny emerged, she appeared to be carrying only a handbag.
“Any other bags, Jenny?”
“Where are your clothes?”
“I am wearing them.”
Sure enough, Jenny was wearing all her packing. Layer upon layer of clothing. Like a pass the parcel present. Two pairs of trousers. Four pullovers. Four pairs of socks. Two coats. Spare underwear and a toothbrush in the handbag. A very Jenny solution.
I have travelled to Norway many times since. I love it there. I love the way the landscape is always present and informs how people live. I love the people. I have enjoyed such wonderful hospitality and warmth there. I have many people I count as friends there now. I think of it as a second home. And, every time that I have been there, the effect of each visit has been to make me think differently. About my tai chi. About my life.
The last time I was in Norway was for a workshop with Philippe Gagnon. I was lucky enough to share Ann’s house with Philippe for a weekend. The weekend transformed my tai chi. Philippe took us back to the very basics of our movement. Asked us to think differently about moves that had perhaps become formulaic and jaded. I am still processing what I learned that weekend. It continues to resonate through my own teaching. But Philippe also talked to me about thinking differently regarding more everyday movements. Tai chi, he said, is just learning to move differently. Any movement can be tai chi. Let me give an example:
It was meal time. We were sitting at the dinner table. I reached for a glass of water. My hand shook. Philippe advised me to try again. This time, instead of focussing on the movement of the hand, he told me to think about opening up my shoulder. Same resulting movement. Just a different focus. A different way of initiating the movement. And no tremor!
For me now, tai chi is life and life is tai chi. There is no separation. Life provides countless opportunities to practice your tai chi and tai chi practice enables me to live better. Another virtuous circle.
And there is one more virtuous circle I want to mention before I go. A virtuous circle between my Parkinson’s, my tremor and my tai chi. As I have already mentioned, doing tai chi, we aim to stay relaxed. Relaxed tai chi is better tai chi. And, as I have also mentioned, in order to stop my tremor, I need to be relaxed. Any trace of stress or tension and my right hand starts to shake. Which means that I have an in-built alarm to warn me if I am not relaxed. Because, for most people, it is actually very difficult to know when you are carrying tension or stress in your body. We are so used to doing so that we accept a tense, stressed out body as normal. It is a relaxed body that feels weird. Me, I am lucky. I have Parkinson’s and, if I am carrying any tension, my right arm will flap like crazy so I will be aware and I can do something about it. My Parkinson’s actually helps me do better tai chi. And tai chi helps me deal with my Parkinson’s. Win win. Funny old world, isn’t it?
End note: I just wanted to add that there are many other teachers whose instruction has been of huge benefit to me and to whom I am eternally grateful. If I have failed to mention them on this occasion it is not through lack of gratitude but merely because each piece of writing develops its own momentum and direction of passage and the writer just has to go with the flow. Hopefully, I will find time to give them due credit in a future post.