Smitten: Why I Do Tai Chi

Maggie Newman 

for Maggie Newman, Tom Daly, Lorraine Reinstein, and All My Tai Chi Friends

Last week, during the final minutes of Tai Chi class, my teacher Tom Daly, asked us a simple, hard-to-answer question: “Why do you do Tai Chi? What is the main reason?”

We all looked at Tom a bit stunned and confused. Put on the spot, we brought up some of the more normal and obvious (and what I think of as dowdy) reasons at first: balance, health, and wellbeing. Then one longtime practitioner spoke of the wholeness Tai Chi had brought into his life.

I (the writer-editor) was, as usual, at a loss for words. How could I describe how I came to Tai Chi, and why was I still doing the form (and trying to get better at it) after 20 going on 21 years?

People who lack an interest in Tai Chi often ask me why I do this—to their eyes—strange-looking martial art. They often assume that I do it for self-serving reasons: to improve my health and sense of spiritual wellbeing. When I tell them the real reason, they are even more dumbfounded.

I was bewitched by the beauty of it.

When I was a student in NYU’s graduate creative writing program, I tried to stay in shape by running around the university’s outdoor track. My knees weren’t very good, so this wasn’t a very successful form of exercise. One day, inside the track’s oval, I saw a group of students doing Tai Chi. They looked like big exotic birds doing some instinctual dance. I decided that this must be a type of Tai Chi I had heard of called Soaring Crane.

My eyes were drawn to one student in particular whose movements were more graceful than the others’. When still, he was neither handsome nor fit, but when he did the form, whatever it was, he became beautiful—the way a dog’s or horse’s integrated movements are beautiful.

I wanted to be able to do whatever it was he was doing, to feel it in my body, my entire being. This was the initial allure, but the seduction was complete when I found just the right Tai Chi teacher.

By chance, my friend, poet Katrinka Moore, had been studying with Maggie Newman for some time. When I voiced interest in learning Tai Chi, she recommended that I try Maggie’s beginning class. It was being offered in a small studio in Greenwich Village on Lafayette Street. Maggie had her long white hair up in a bun. She was small and moved with great precision and gentle authority. From the beginning, I loved to watch her move. She was poetry in motion, the embodiment of grace and wisdom.

A former dancer in Paul Taylor’s company, Maggie had taken up the form in her forties—at a difficult time in her life. She had been romantically involved with Taylor, and from the rumors I’ve heard, he treated her badly. I imagine that when she broke with that dance world, she must have been bereft. At first, until she began to study the Yang form of Tai Chi with Professor Cheng Man-ching.

What I failed to realize when I started classes with Maggie was that she was famous in Tai Chi circles. She was one of Cheng’s (“The Professor’s”) “Big Six”: senior students in the United States whom he had chosen to carry on his particular Tai Chi lineage.

I hung on Maggie’s every word and movement as she slowly, very slowly taught us the 37 postures of what I later learned was the short form of Tai Chi. Very ignorant, I thought I was learning the long form because Maggie took more than two years to teach us this form.

During our one-hour classes, I also watched the senior students carefully, trying to mimic the way they moved. Their slightest movements and transitions between movements were so subtle and smooth: How did they do it? When I asked one woman, she said, “You’ll get it eventually. It takes time.” So I had to be content with Theodore Roethke’s advice in “The Waking”: “I learn by going where I have to go.”

It would be many years before I could do the form with any skill. At times I was embarrassed by my clumsiness and poor balance. Then—surprise—I would find myself doing one tiny movement a little better.

Again, every time I thought I had learned something elusive, I realized how little I really understood.

Maggie said at one of the first classes, “One thing you’re going to learn is patience.”

I had thought my study of dance as a child and young adult would give me a leg up with the fine points of Tai Chi, but it didn’t offer any shortcuts. The form was not exercise, not dance, not aerobic, though it got me breathing. It is a discipline, a practice, an art form, in which you become the art.

If you let it, the form will inhabit you: your body, your brain, your soul. And it will seldom disappoint—it stays with you and nourishes you in infinite and basic ways.

When I am down or scared or desperate, Tai Chi grounds me. I remember to be thankful for my two feet, rooting me to the earth. I am glad for the luxury of movement.

Following Maggie’s words, I try “to ride the air,” “to set something in motion and follow it.”

And though the form does feel “delicious,” as Maggie would often say, I learned that Tai Chi is not just about Tai Chi. It’s about how you exist with yourself and with others.

Maggie always wanted each of us to be in tune with the rest of the group, to keep the same timing, to move in sync with others. I love doing the form with the group. The others reassure me. Many of the more advanced students can do certain postures better than I can. They have better balance. Their shoulders are relaxed, their legs stronger, and they have more flexible knees. I am inspired to be (and sometimes am) less flawed.

I love that Tai Chi is always new and always familiar. It is like moving to the music of the spheres.

2014-05-18 16.18.07-2
Maggie Newman at her 90th birthday party, with the writer and Tai Chi teacher Ed Young behind her (Photo by Joan Lauri Poole, 2014)

Some Days I Just Gaze and Take Occasional Photographs

Yesterday I just wanted to look around and take photographs of certain moments as they passed me by: Oliver making very distinct shadows on the pavement during our night walk, a daffodil or two springing up into the sun, small groupings of tulips in pink, purple, and red outside St. Bart’s Church.

Some days images are more important to me than words. Letting whatever is there come into my sight is enough. The visible world that my eyes open on every day unfolds, and I simply let it.

There is idolatry in looking, worship in gazing; and there is sexuality in it as well, just as there is always some sexual desire when a person gazes at or tries to make a painting or sculpture to body forth the bodies around us.

I like to look
to the animals
to the trees
to the bursting out flowers
and the newly budding leaves.

When I just want to observe plant, animal, and mineral life around me, I often think of one of my favorite thinkers, the psychologist and writer James Hillman. I think of an essay he wrote in 1982, “The Animal Kingdom in the Human Dream,” which has had an enormous effect on my view of the natural world (as if there is any other).

Animals figured large in Hillman’s body of thought, and the lecture drew on the many animal dreams Hillman had collected over the years, some from patients. He continued to collect such dreams until the end of his life in 2011. In the essay, Hillman warned against interpreting the animals in dreams as symbols and suggested that we “read the animal. . . . the dream animal can be amplified as much by a visit to the zoo as by a symbol dictionary.” In other words, if a snake comes to you in a dream, don’t think phallic symbol or evil. Go out and observe snakes. Read everything you can about them. Instead of reducing the dream animal, Hillman suggests that we reduce “our own vision, to that of the animal–a reduction that may be an extension, an amplification, of our vision so as to see the animal with an animal eye.” (Hillman, Animal Presences, p.438)

Ultimately, Hillman goes even further, and I love where he goes. Hillman equates the animal in all its physical presence with artistic creation itself: “the animal eye is an aesthetic eye, and . . . the animal is compelled by an aesthetic necessity to present itself as an image.” (Hillman, p. 765).  He says that when animals display themselves through their colors and songs, gaits and flights, they are the original, primordial works of art.

I love this equation and think that it could apply to other living beings, such as trees and flowers, as well.



Still Life

“White Roses in a Vase” Frans Mortelmans (Belgian, 1865-1936)

The loss of my aunt, who was the oldest member of my family left (leaving me next in line), plus the general political uncertainty and violence of this past year have increased my need for still life paintings and photographs.

I am drawn to all types of still life painting except those in which recently killed fowl, rabbits, and other small creatures are shown, lying lifeless on a table or hung from a hook, about to be cooked and devoured.  Am I, then, a hypocritical lover of nature morte, which Wikipedia defines as “art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, typically commonplace objects which are either natural or man-made”? Why would the act of stilling life be so appealing, when the final stillness for us, the only stillness we humans will ever know (though we don’t really know if we’ll know it when it comes) is death?

I came across the still life above when an art lover I had recently friended on Facebook posted it about a month ago. Immediately, the fresco-like quality of the painting, and the unusual quality of the light caught by the roses, thorns, stems, and leaves, infused me with a deep upswell of feeling followed by relaxation. It was as if I had taken a tense breath in and then exhaled very deeply until I was relaxed.

The truth is that there is something about the pale, barely yellow roses, the crinkly leaves, and the vase with browning water that is not at all realistic. Or better yet, there is something artifactual about the image the Belgian painter Frans Mortelsman created here–a mysterious artifact found and preserved. I looked for more examples of this painter’s works, and found many many paintings of flowers, but none possessed the extraordinary millenials old feeling of  light captured here. I wonder whether this still life was an unusual painting for Mortelsman. Was he trying to make this particular painting look itself like something very old, as the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder often does? Whatever his intent, this painting has become part of my museum of beloved pictures.

Blue Day


Bather. 1935. Oil on Canvas. Private Collection.

Oliver’s been extra antsy today. He can’t get enough play, treats, socks, or balls. And he won’t leave me alone when I try to be quiet and read or write or just scribble and ponder.

The weather’s dark, rainy, and indistinct. I waited until the late afternoon to go out, and I didn’t stay in the open air long, even though it’s warm (50ish degrees) and soft on the skin. The rain was almost gone by the time I emerged with Oliver on the street.

The lack of light and contrast between light and dark gets to me. I become blue and unsure of myself and my path. I worked on a haiku about a homeless man, which didn’t make me feel any better.

On a day like today, the best thing for me would be to go look at paintings by a great colorist like Bonnard, whose settings and colors and women and dogs make me endlessly hungry for more life and more color.

I loved Bonnard before I had a dog. This is probably why I never noticed the dogs in his paintings or knew that he had done quite a few paintings of dogs, including poodles and greyhounds. Once I got Oliver, all images of dogs intrigued me, so I was particularly happy that Bonnard had rendered them in his own unique way with his paint brush.

Here are just a few of the Bonnard paintings I love. They cheer me up for some reason. If you’re feeling blue too, I hope they make you feel better.

Two Poodles. 1891. Oil on Canvas. Southhampton City Art Gallery.

The Red-Checkered Tablecloth. 1910. Oil on Canvas. Private Collection.