I started taking Tai Chi lessons this fall, from Master Tony Wong, and it’s been a very interesting experience indeed. I’ve been getting more curious recently about small decisions, and about paying attention to my fundamental reactions to experiences; Tai Chi gives a lot of material to think about on both fronts.

Over the three months that I’ve been going to class so far, we’ve gone through the first 16 of the 75 movements of the Chen Tai Chi first form. Over and over again, I’d do a new movement dozens of times in the class on Tuesday, and when practicing at home on Saturday, I’d realize that I didn’t actually understand some aspect of that movement at all: there were so many possibilities that seemed plausible, and I’d try to figure out which one made the most sense. I’d come up with a guess, which would in turn feed into next Tuesday’s class, where I’d focus on the bit that I wasn’t sure about.

About halfway through the class, a coworker who was also a more advanced student of my teacher pointed me at a book that gives quite detailed explanations of the form as performed in our class; reading that book made me realize just why there was so much that I wasn’t sure about. Take the sixteenth movement, “Angled Body Fist” the one I’ve most recently learned (or at least been exposed to, I’m not very confident in it yet!); the book breaks that movement down into eight parts, of which the fourth is as follows:

The right elbow continues its arc past the right knee while the left hand continues toward the back of the head. Eyes watch the right hand. As the right hand passes the knee, it becomes a downward-pointing hook hand. Then, simultaneously:

  • The torso rises into a vertical position as the waist continues to turn right.
  • The right wrist leads in an upward arc to a position about forty-five degrees forward and right of the right shoulder. The right arm straightens some as this happens but remains slightly curved.
  • The left hand passes the left side of the head and continues past the face to push toward the inside of the right elbow. Eyes follow the left hand as it passes the face (see figure 5.48).

So yeah, there are a lot of small decisions to think about. Which also feeds into the other question I’d been thinking about: what’s my reaction? On those times when I was confused, could I find one of these which makes more sense? And, if so, is that actually the correct one? I got better at that as the class went on: e.g. paying attention to weight shifts, and to how having my weight on one foot allows me to turn the other foot. And our teacher would give more context to moves, helping us think about them in terms of interactions with a hypothetical opponent.


We do more in the class than just the first form, though: we do Silk Reeling Exercises, which systematically go through your joints, and Qigong Exercises, which are a set of meditation techniques. I’ve been finding the latter surprisingly interesting, especially Wu Ji: that’s a form of meditation where you stand with your eyes closed. In some sense, that’s just taking the question I mentioned above of what feels right to its extreme: what feels right when I’m not doing anything at all? (And, actually, this specific question of what feels right when standing is something I’ve wondered about before.)

But there’s another reason why I’m interested in Wu Ji: in claims that it helps you gather your energy in ways that lead to surprising consequences if you stick with it. Discussion of this (and other Qigong meditiations) turns to a discussion of qi, which makes me uncomfortable: it works within a paradigm that is quite foreign to me, and that part of me has a hard time taking seriously. For example, what am I to make of claims that, while doing standing meditation, I should have my tongue touch the roof of my mouth because doing so completes the circle between my front meridian and my rear meridian, allowing my qi to flow? And you’ll see claims that, if you do a couple hundred hours of Wu Ji meditation, you’ll start to really feel different; on the one hand, at least that’s an empirical claim that I can try to test without understanding the qi paradigm, but, on the other hand, that’s a lot of time to put in on faith.

But, nonetheless: I like mysticism, I do actually feel like I could benefit from learning how to stand better (even setting aside all questions of qi), and I also believe that meditation probably really does have good effects on mental clarity. So I have been doing Wu Ji outside of class: not every day, and not for all that long when I do it (eight or nine minutes at a time, currently), but on weekends sometimes I do it multiple times a day.


If I’d written this post a month and a half ago, that’s where it would have ended up: Tai Chi was giving me a lot to think about, it felt like I was getting more in touch with my body, and I was curious where Wu Ji would lead me. But then my leg started hurting.

This isn’t new; I don’t think I’ve blogged about it here, but I had pretty serious leg pain last year, caused by a herniated disc in my back. Eventually, with physical therapy and drugs, it got better, but it was not good for a while. And a few weeks after starting Tai Chi, I had a bit of a twinge; nothing outside of the range of my normal experiences, but enough to make me wonder. That went away, though, and in fact for a while it felt like my back was as solid as it had ever been recently, so I assumed that Tai Chi was helping.

But then the pain came back, with enough of a vengeance that I knew I had to deal with it seriously and quickly. My current theory for the explanation of the good period is that I got prescribed some steroids in an attempt to get rid of a persistent cough, and that that, as a side effect, calmed down my back. (But it’s only a theory, part of the lesson of this story is that I shouldn’t put too much stock in my theories!) I’m not even entirely sure why it got worse so quickly; maybe it was slowly getting worse and I passed a tipping point, maybe the fact that I started taking two Tai Chi classes a week stressed out my back too much, maybe the fact that we were doing sword work in the Saturday class stressed out my back. I’m fairly sure that Tai Chi is related, both because it’s the only major change and because it sometimes seemed worse the day after Tai Chi, but I guess I don’t even know that for sure? And I’m certainly curious if Wu Ji is related—I don’t think so, but it did get worse right after I started doing more Wu Ji.

The pain is getting better again now. I got another course of steroids, but I already have some evidence that that alone isn’t enough to last more than a month or so, so I don’t want to count on that as more than a short-term solution. I’m trying to be more judicious about what I do in Tai Chi; my current theory is that a couple of the Silk Reeling Exercises are stressing my back a bit much, so I skip those. And I’m toning down some of the more forceful movements, though I didn’t ever do most of them too hard—e.g. my stomps in the “pounding the pestle” moves have always been relatively minimal.

And I’m actually taking a month off from Tai Chi: there’s a break in the beginner’s course from mid-December to mid-January, and I’ve decided to skip the other class during that period as well. I timed that so that I could get an epidural in my back a week after the course stopped: my doctor had brought that up as an option last year, and while I didn’t take him up on that back then because it was doing well enough, right now I really want to get things under control. (One of my theories is that, if I can get the disc un-herniated, then certain actions will switch from harmfully squeezing the disc to helpfully strengthening muscles. But, of course, that theory could be wrong!)

That’s not the only thing I’m doing, though: in a (hopefully) helpful bit of random synchrony, one of the other participants in the Tai Chi course happened to bring a copy of Esther Gokhale’s 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back to class. I got a copy, and I’m finding it surprisingly interesting and convincing. Well, maybe not surprisingly, because I have a thing for this sort of thing; and, to make it complicated, now I have dueling paradigms / empirical claims trying to convince me. Should I tuck in my pelvis, as Wu Ji recommends, or not, as Gokhale recommends? Should I, when walking, land on the front of my feet, as the barefoot running people recommend, or barely on the back of my feet, as Gokhale recommends? We’ll see; at least not everything is dueling, some of the stuff Gokhale recommends boils down to traction, which the physical therapist I went to last summer recommends, and concrete guidance in how not to slouch sounds like a good idea.


The current plan is:

  • Get an epidural in my back. (Done!)
  • Skip Tai Chi for a month.
  • Work on Gokhale’s recommendations, especially about how to sit but probably also about how to walk.
  • Go back to Tai Chi in January, trying not to dial back too much but skipping some of the exercises that I’m dubious about.

If this goes well, then the epidural and rest will get my back non-inflamed, the Gokhale method will teach me how to look after my back in my day-to-day actions (and, given how much time I spend sitting down, it’s entirely possible that changes there will have a bigger impact than changes in a few hours of Tai Chi a week!), and Tai Chi will be pleasant and helpful on both a physical and a mental level. Whereas, if this goes badly, then I’ll be having another needle stuck into my spine…

Post Revisions: