Last week I found myself standing in Hamburg’s Memorial Park, suddenly surrounded by a kung fu master and his disciplined students.
When I checked my schedule that morning, nowhere did my day planner read “connect with my innermost self through ancient Chinese tradition,” but one of the perks (and sometimes hazards) of my life as a reporter is that my work leads me on unexpected journeys.
So when I interviewed Master Mike Cimino about his martial arts school and he invited me to join him for a Tai Chi lesson, I decided I had nothing to lose. I am relatively fit person and Tai Chi is a slow, low-impact exercise. I figured I’d be at the top of the class in no time.
I was sorely mistaken. Within the first few minutes of the class, I had already confused my yin for my yang. I was not off to a good start.
As the rest of the group seemed to effortlessly disconnect from the bustling world around them, all I could focus on was the sun beating down, the noise of cars whizzing by and the joggers’ stares as they passed.
At the front of the class, Master Cimino spoke of the importance of correct breathing. There was a wrong way to breathe? For the past 24 years, I thought I had been doing a more than adequate job mastering my respiratory functions, but apparently I had much to learn.
While I concentrated on my breath, I tried desperately to keep up with the master’s fluid movements as he glided across the grass in all directions. I was more panicked at accidentally turning left instead of right than I was on the day of my driver’s exam.
I wriggled my way to the back of the group and suddenly had a flashback to the torturous time I attempted to become a dancer. Year after year, I was bound to the back of the class, as the students half my age could do enough pirouettes to make my head whirl.
It was time to form an exit strategy: I would wait until the instructor’s back was turned and make a break for it; I would try to blend in with the other runners in the park.
When Master Cimino announced it was time to attempt a position known as “grasp the bird by its tail” (I decided I resembled more moose than bird) I began to make my escape. But then three simple words stopped me in my tracks.
“You’re doing great,” said a nearby student, as she shot me a smile and encouraging wink. Me? She is looking at me? I thought. How could that possibly be?
Then I realized that maybe it didn’t matter so much if I was half a step behind everyone else. Maybe it was not about how accurate my movements were, but how I felt while I was doing them.
I let my obsession with perfection melt as I sunk into a position known as “the horse stance.” Instead of worrying if others were watching and judging me, I focused on more important things, like the smell of the sweet evening air and the soft blades of grass tickling the skin between my toes.
I did not even stress when Master Cimino announced we would complete a move known as “carry the tiger back up the mountain,” even though I could not see a mountain nor tiger nearby.
At the end of the class, the kind student who winked at me told me I was a fast learner, having been taught 17 different movements. Then I was told I only had 109 different positions and about 20 more years of study before I could by come a master myself. I better start practicing.