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Tai Chi Walking on Yom Kippur, by Hanna Perlberger

Inexplicably, I fell in love with boxing.  I switched to boxing after I got injured during my love affair with kempo karate.  Now, I am in physical therapy for a boxing injury, so in the manner of loving the one you’re with, or at least the one that doesn’t require cortisone shots and physical therapy, I am learning Tai Chi.  And this relationship may actually last.

I’ve only had a few classes so far, but I am learning the art of “Tai Chi walking”.

An apt description of how a person normally walks is that walking is a form of “controlled falling”.  The weight is forward, and the leg comes out at an angle to prevent the body from falling.

In contrast, in Tai Chi walking, the person is not leaning forward; the weight and body are centered, and when the leg comes out, only the heel touches.  There is no weight in that leg.  The heel is testing the waters.  Is this ground safe?  Is it good?  Is this where I want to go?  Do I want to commit to this action?  And when the decision to take that step is made, only then does the body commit and although weight is transferred to the extended leg, the body stays centered and straight.  Then, there is a yielding, what I describe as an internal “yes”, a shift back and then another step forward.  People doing Tai Chi walking often keep their arms clasped behind their backs because their weight is always centered and there is no danger of falling.

So, really, who cares?  What’s the difference?  We have obviously mastered the art of “controlled falling” or every step would land us on the ground.   So here’s the difference – and a lesson to be learned – it’s about intention, space, and balance.  It’s about accepting the reality of what is and then making a choice.  It’s about letting things be as they are – the surface of the ground, the situation, the person, and then deciding the action to which you want to commit, and doing it with grace and ease, almost looking as if you are barely moving as people seem to go flying around you, and as they rush towards you, you allow their energy to go on by, pull them along if necessary, and sometimes introduce them to your best friend – the floor.  But I get ahead of myself.  Back to walking.

On Yom Kippur, we ask forgiveness for the sins which we commit with “our legs which run to do evil”.   It’s an odd image.  Running towards the forbidden?  Seriously?  Running?  Do you have any idea how much damage I can do sitting at my desk?  Or is the idea that when I do something I know I shouldn’t do, what’s my pace?  Do I dawdle, do I take my time, procrastinate, consider my options, or am I “on it”, like, three cups of double espresso “on it”?  Am I in a state of controlled falling?  Am I falling?

In contrast, the idea of Tai Chi walking embodies the space of presence.  If you can go from the normal state to where your thoughts and your actions are separated by a line, to where they are separated by a space, a moment, a pause, for you to consider your next action, your next move, the next things you say, you will be giving yourself – and everyone around you – a tremendous gift, the gift of emotional mastery.

Now I’m not suggesting that you live life in slow motion.  That would not be practical.  While certain serious actions should take a lot of time to weigh the consequences, I am thinking of a slight pause, here.  You know, every time we breathe in or out, there is a very slight pause which occurs at the end of the in-breath and the end of the out-breath.  There is this slight pause of no air, of stillness, as the lungs prepare to reverse course.  When I teach breathing techniques to my clients, I try to get them to focus on this pause, to direct their attention there, because when you are in the space of the pause, it is very difficult to be anywhere else.   That’s the kind of space I mean.

So, if we gave ourselves the gift of this pause, this space, if we tested the ground, made certain we had sure footing, were certain we wanted to commit to this path, then, and only then, would we – in a balanced and centered way – shift our weight to our outstretched leg to put our full intention into that step.  If we did that, how could we ever run to do evil?    How could we stumble into error?  How could we ever fall?  And by yielding, by first having an “internal yes” before we then react with intention – we can act with such internal power and choice instead of being triggered and acting from unconscious habit.

If all I accomplish by staying with Tai Chi is avoiding my orthopedic doctor’s office for a while, that alone would be good.  But I see so much more that will help me have balance, control, intention, and help me achieve emotional mastery, so that my legs will keep me walking, with the gift of one sure foot after another, towards the light.

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