A minor miracle

Since going on retreat back in August, I was challenged to do the Tai Chi wake up exercises every morning for a month. School wasn’t back so – challenge accepted. This surprised everyone including me! At the time I couldn’t really articulate why I wanted to do this but I had a deep inexplicable sense of this being something that I needed to do. So I went along with it.

I was conscientious and did the exercises every morning before my shower. I found that it was a perfect way to wake myself up and I began to feel more energized. Some mornings I stood on the balcony with the early morning sunshine on my face which felt simply wonderful.

My wake up exercise routine ends with a 10-15 minute standing meditation. I have never been very good at keeping still and my mind generally goes all skittish with random thoughts. However, at school this year we were encouraged to think of 3 positive things each day as a technique for helping us to cope during the COVID difficulties, so I focus on that at the beginning of each meditation session and it really helped. I began to feel the benefit of having some ‘me’ time and the opportunity to engage in this form of mindfulness.

The standing meditation is known as ‘alert relaxation’ and to my surprise it is actually incredibly relaxing and energizing too. It takes practice but sometimes, occasionally and very briefly, everything goes calm. My joints feel soft and comfortable and I am filled with a blissful feeling that can only be described as a peace which passes all understanding.

Once school started so did the after school activities and Luca (Master Zhang) our Tai Chi Master from the retreat offered classes so I decided to join. His wife is one of our Mandarin teachers and he also teaches the kids Kung Fu after school.

I learned that there are in fact different types of Tai Chi. The sort that was featured in the Beijing Olympic Games opening ceremony is the type often seen in the park or other public spaces. Master Zhang calls that Tai Chi ‘gymnastics’ and says that many of those who took part in the mass performance back in 2008 are now suffering from knee problems! It is popular and showy and we often see people outside practicing it. They even get to use a sword (& I am a teeny bit jealous about that)

The type of Tai Chi that we do is called ‘Neigong’ (pronounced Nay-gong) which translates as ‘inner energy’. It is much less about style and form and more about the flow of energy through the body’s blood vessels. If the body is correctly aligned you can actually feel the energy or ‘chi’ flowing. Expert practitioners can even control the energy flow to specific parts of their bodies. I don’t think that Neigong techniques are as widely available as the traditional Tai Chi and most likely not in the UK.

Neigong has two sides, there are a martial arts moves which forms part of Kung Fu and the control of energy side which is extremely useful in throwing your enemy off balance. Although Master Zhang shows us some defensive moves I am not likely to ever use them! Lol. The exercises and routines that I do are not strenuous but involve stretching and slow, really slow controlled movements. You get all the benefits of yoga without the complicated positions.

When I do the basic exercises I can feel my fingers, palms and hands tingling quite strongly. I was so impressed that I could feel my energies (chi) that it inspired me to keep on practicing. It has reached the point now where I feel that I am probably getting a bit addicted. I now get up at 5:10 am so that I can fit in an hour of wake up exercises and practice before school. And this is something that I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would do.

The principle behind Neigong is that with the correct mental attitude and body alignment one’s energy can flow and increase. As a result the joints and tendons all increase in flexibility. I can testify that this is correct. After doing the exercises for just 6 weeks I was able to reach behind my back to do up a particularly difficult bra that I had previously been unable to do. I can also squat down to the bottom shelves in the library without a whole lot of moaning and groaning. I was delighted and given that I am approaching my 6th decade I thought that working on suppleness now while I still can will ultimately be of long term benefit.

I began to take it all very seriously and worked to learn each of the moves. They are not difficult but there are lots of them! Then I learned to slow the routine down. You need to isolate and move each part of your body in turn, flowing your movements like mercury. And boy, once you can do it all slowly the energy is much more powerful.

There is one particular move which everyone should do each morning when you get up. Stand with your feet slightly apart, knees bent and thighs twisted in. Then palms down, lift your arms to the ceiling and stretch. Do this 5 times.

For someone who has suffered from ME I was hooked. Many of you will remember that I have recovered from the debilitating illness. I can work and travel etc but I am still mindful of the fact that I was never 100% better. I am publishing this blog now because it is the 10th anniversary of that fateful weekend in Rome when I caught the nasty virus which did all the damage to my mitochondrial system and changed my life in so many ways.

Now, practicing Neigong I get a real buzz from the increased energy flow. I am only beginning to learn (I’m still a baby Yoda) but I get quite a natural high sometimes when I get the movement and the posture right. I had forgotten what being energized felt like. People at school have commented on how much more relaxed I look and how I walk the corridors with more energy. (And these are people who don’t know that I am doing Tai Chi)

I couldn’t have done any of this without the excellence of Master Zhang. I can be standing holding what I think is a pretty good position. He then adjusts my arm by twisting it millimeters and wow! There is the most incredible feeling.

I am in awe at how he knows. He even says that he can see visible signs of the energy moving in me when my fingers get puffy. It’s so impressive.

This is Master Zhang filming for a documentary on Tai Chi (note – I can’t do any of those kicks!)

I have a lot more to learn but nowadays I look forwards to getting up and don’t mind practicing in the pre-dawn. In a busy world this wakes me up better than coffee ever did.

My morning view

Talking of which, the Chinese cure for pretty much all ailments is to drink warm water. I was again challenged by a colleague to drink warm water for a week and to see how I felt. Challenge accepted. That was in September and since then I have probably had only three cups of coffee. I have even cut back (not out) on alcohol and I feel so much better and much more hydrated.

Life has a way of throwing curve balls at us and Kevin and I have had our fair share of those. The last 10 years has proved to be challenging in so many ways and on more than one occasion I have been taken way outside of my comfort zone. God moves in mysterious ways though and often bad or difficult things happen for reasons that we don’t fully understand at the time. I have found it best to accept and move on. Go with the flow, learn, grow and trust. This has certainly been the case for me as I reflect and realize that all the twists, turns and hurdles of the past 10 years have brought me to where I am now. In Shanghai. In Jinqiao. At Concordia. Able to take advantage of the opportunity to learn Neigong with its remarkable regenerative, restorative healing powers. I feel better than I have done for a decade and for me that is a minor miracle.

And I HAVE learned from my experiences. I recognize that I was probably over busy 10 years ago being a mother, a library manager, a church secretary, keeping a house clean and having a social life. I was an easy target for a virus that attacks people when their immune systems are compromised. I know now that I need to keep a better balance in my life. Like this…

Master Zhang