Saturday, November 22, 2008

Tai Chi and the Flexbar

Back in March of 1980, when I was sorting out the ideas and images for the opening chapter of "Contemplatives" - not that it bore that title then, for my working name for it was "The Bush Novel", until I realized that we were not really going to get that much bush until the sequel - I was moved to state right off that a great deal of the time we made hugely important connections with the next step in life because of, as it seemed, mere happenstance. I took great delight in spelling out that Michael Thurman's discovery of the tyro novelist, Nicholas Taylor, came about because of accident. In part, Michael walked down into a certain room because he was looking for a book. There was indeed a book, but it was not the one he was promised. No matter, he found a novelist, whom he had not been looking for, nor suspected existed. These are the memories that come to mind as I sit down to talk about one of the most brilliant creations, in my opinion anyway, in the field of fitness instruments, which I only discovered about 26 hours ago, in the drugstore. It is an utter marvel of simplicity, yet, as simple things often are, it is complete genius, and if there is a Nobel Prize for common sense, the designers should get it.
I know, I know. I sound like Madison Avenue, and serious devotees to the spirit of poverty will be tempted to think I'm angling for cash. Will the Thera Band people advertise on the Ranger's Blog? Will the Ranger begin to float a Communications stock in Toronto and New York? Will Dreamworks pay a million for the film rights to "FLEXBAR", the secret weapon of the Chen Family, withheld from Mao Tse Tung and his henchmen and coming soon to a movie theater near you?
We dropped into the store in the late afternoon because I had decided it was time to get the section manager to order another elastic ankle support. I've been wearing an old one and a new one, on our walks, working on the principle that as the elastic supports hold up the sagging muscles and tendons, but at the same time allow freedom of movement, which my Birkenstock insets do not, quite, I should get another new one, a Futura, because the rib seam in it is not as intrusive as the rib seam in the other one, brand name of which will go unmentioned. Wearing the Futura on the more collapsed left ankle is, I think, helping to restore some of old elasticity of muscle and tendon.
But the department manager was busy with the four p.m. orders delivery and we had to cool our heels. And ankles. So MT was snooping around, always on the lookout for health and fitness information or devices, while I talked with the clerk, and when I rejoined my fellow researcher, she was studying a page or so of instructions and flexing one of the three different-sized coloured cylinders, made of rubber, or a substance equally elastic, that were lying on the display shelf. I don't know which size she had started with, but as I hove to she was demonstrating the biggest one, blue, one and seven-eighths of an inch thick, 12 inches long, bendable in every direction. For a moment I could not see the point of it, but when she showed me the direction booklet, a good 12 pages, I tried three of four of the little exercises, and realized, thanks to some recent re-unification of my initial grasp of the real working union of body and soul in the Yoga area, that we had come upon an enormously valuable instrument.
In 2005, as I was winding down my relationship with the weight room, I was conscious of two motivations to leave. The first, to get back to distance running; the second, to go back to researching yoga. I did both, but three years later, it's become more and more obvious that the priorities have been reversed. I'm not a great runner, by any means, but I've always known more about running, at least from some points of view, than I have about yoga, with the exception of the ultimate yoga breathing experience, that is, the breath of the Spirit, which of course is in no way available as a result of any man made physical practice. When I was given the breath of the spirit, in the early days of 1968, I knew neither jot nor tittle of any concept known to hatha yoga, let alone a conscious awareness of any asana, or yoga position.
But in 70 or so, when being shown how to get into a headstand made me realize there was a method to this mysterious practice, I had no sooner settled into the crocodile pose, face down on the living room rug, and just getting relaxed, than there was a mighty whoosh of the thing that had started coming when I was collapsed on my bed a couple of years earlier, not for the sake of toning my muscles, but simply to ponder the latest spiritual burden. Clearly God was blessing the ancient skills of India and my mystic's interest in it.
But he was also setting a standard, although I had none of the practical understanding of the subtler rules of exercise, as I might have called them then, that would have made this intelligible.
Nor has the culture I grew up in, so it has been along journey to get to the point where I could so quickly realize the genius of the little blue instrument that lies on the table beside me as I write.
(If every computer jockey had one of these cylinders, would he get tendonitis? Is there a real need for ergonomic keyboards, or are they simpy the door that's built after the horse is stolen?)
Every adequately designed exercise program proceeds by degrees, of course. But given our natural ambition to get to the max as quickly as possible - especially rampant in pittas - how do we come to thoroughly understand the general absoluteness of the the 'less is more rule'? Do we really begin as gently as we should, thus eliminating any and all damage that always retards progress in the long run?
I suspect I'll be writing chapters on this hardest of all lessons to learn or teach, so for now let's get back to one of the early thoughts: FLEXBAR: THE MOVIE.
Our scene is somewhere in China, anywhere famous for a tai chi school. A quiet dojo, with a dozen or so adepts all going through their chi gong warm ups. (Sound track optional.) This is a wide shot. The camera zooms to a single member of the group, whom we now notice is not actually following the others, only doing a standing pose, the wu chi, while staring out the window. Now pan to a corner of the room, where stands a box of medium size. The leader approaches the box and begins to lift out cylinders similar to the one described above. Suddenly the watcher hisses something in Chinese. (My Chinese is much worse than my Latin, so we'll need advice here.) But I know the subtitles.
"NO. NO. No rubber bars. Hide box. Maoist bastards coming now! If they find box we lose most precious secret! Quick! Quick!"
The leader puts the cylinders back in the box and zips it behind a curtain. The group resumes chi gong, the watcher included, and when half a platoon of China's revolutionary finest march in everyone is polite, welcoming, smiling, and signs all the papers necessary to commit the tai chi people to giving up their secrets, guarded for centuries, and coming out of the closet to teach the nation how to get healthy. (It was this, or be rubbed out down to the next dozen generations or so.) More smiling, bowing, shaking hands, short speeches on the blessings of national harmony and the genius of the leader and the happiness of helping out the young republic.
Small army leaves. Musical interlude until the watchman is sure the troops are gone, then out comes the box, each student gets his cylinder, then demonstrates how it is used to gently analyze and strengthen every muscle connected to the shoulder girdle. All the time each practitioner is doing this, he stands still, for the sake of strengthening his legs, this latter purpose being a major priority in Tai Chi. What the audience realizes, although it might take a while to catch on, is that all the first stresses each student puts on the rubber stick is profoundly gentle, held at some length with obvious comfort and stability, and only gradually is greater stress demonstrated, and never without the obvious presence of calm and comfort.
Next scene. Big government presentation. Usual long speech by Chairman M. Thousands watching in some big stadium. Tai Chi group emerges to band music, marches to the centre of the field and begins to demonstrate opening positions, all about standing and various, but motionless, positions of the arms. Low at the side, holding the imaginary ball, and so on. Not only as a demonstration of national harmony does a regiment of Red Guards join in, but also to prove how quickly the new army can learn an ancient skill.
But there are no cylinders. The dojo guys wink at each other. They speak some pretty jolly Chinese, which subtitles into: "Those army guys better not lose their guns. We're still a step ahead. If it ever comes to hand to hand, we'll beat the crap out of them."
Well, not quite a movie. Maybe an ad, that Squire Barnes of CanWest Global can show on his side-splitting Satellite Debris, one of MT's favourites. The movie would have to go back in time, to show how the ancient dojo used bamboo sticks and other flexible items in place of the rubber cylinders and would of course have a love interest and the overthrow of some corrupt dynasty or nasty nest of robber barons. And it might not be at all funny. I have a feeling that the strength that eventually comes to the discerning employment of this device, following the real laws of developing physiology, would be not a little deadly. Yesterday a robber baron, tomorrow a plate of finely chopped pig food.

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