|Posted on July 17, 2014 at 8:15 PM|
We always begin the Folsom Prison T’ai Chi Chih class sitting in a circle of chairs, checking in with each other. How is their practice helping them? Changing them? For the men, it has become a sort of support group - their own T’ai Chi Chih community. Since I was not going to be able to come in and teach the following week, I strongly urged the men to come and practice without me. However, the inmate whom Judy Tretheway had groomed to teach the class in her absence had been transferred to San Quentin many months ago, and I hadn’t been able to find a willing and capable replacement.
There were mumbles and groans. R said, “No, I’ll treat it like a day off, and get my homework done.” I replied, “Every time you practice, you are making a deposit in your chi account. Then when things go wrong, when you are challenged or stressed in some way, it is there for you to draw from. Because you HAVE practiced, even though you might feel stressed, it will be easier to reconnect with that serenity you feel during class. You will be able to take a breath, lengthen and relax your posture, and focus in the soles of your feet. THAT, takes practice.”
As the 8 of us formed our circle on the hardwood floor in the center of the large, old Chapel, I looked around with a mischievous smile. I moved into the center of the circle and asked the men to pretend that I knew nothing about shifting the weight. How would they teach me? Here is what they said:
G. – “You move all of your weight to your right leg, and place your left heel forward. Then you come forward and move all of your weight to the left foot.”
As I shifted on straight, stiff legs, they watched with some consternation.
A. – “Bend one knee, and then straighten the other leg.”
I continued to bob up and down, leaning and dipping over my front foot….
L. – “No, bend BOTH knees when you go back and forth, THEN straighten one leg.”
Ah, much better.
M. – (a newer student, I might add) “Keep both feet on the ground until the last minute, then let the heel or toe come up naturally.”
G. – “Come forward with your hips.”
L. – “Yeah, like there’s a string attached to your dan tien, pulling you forward from your center.”
I am grinning from ear to ear.
R. – “Be careful not to come out over your front foot with your knee.”
Hooray! Not only did they have me moving like a champ, I saw their confidence levels rise exponentially. Maybe they knew something about this stuff after all. So after leading Rocking Motion and Bird Flaps its Wings, I asked if they would each take turns leading a movement. A few more groans and some uncomfortable shuffling of the feet. I named “Around the Platter” and looked pointedly at G, whom I knew wouldn’t mind leading. By the end of the practice, every man had willingly lead at least one move (okay, M took some cajoling). I noted aloud how nice it was to experience different speeds and styles of movement, and what a good job they had done following the leader. They all looked happy and quite proud of themselves.
When I tried this about a year ago in this same class, it seemed to make the class kind of choppy and less meditative, but this time as they each led the movements, it felt peaceful and serene. I think their shared T’ai Chi Chih practice combined with the time spent in our circle of chairs (we also sit down for a meditation after moving), has built a strong sense of safety, support and ease among the men. At the end of the practice, D, who has been in the class longest, said, “Wow, that was better than I thought it was going to be. Very nice. Relaxing.”
Back in our circle of chairs at the conclusion of class, I again asked who would be coming to class next week, in spite of my absence. Every one of them raised their hands. It was my proudest moment yet, as a teacher.