In my youth, sports and dance classes were something that my family observed from the sidelines. There is great value to being there to witness such progress. Yet it is a deeper experience holding the pad in my own hands and feeling the force of someone’s kung fu. This is what I discovered while practicing martial arts outside in a park in Saigon, with a group of women and their children.
A Typical Practice: Incorporating the Five Elements of Chinese Medicine
A 13 year old girl does tai chi while a student and Si Phu (the master teacher) quietly observes. Her mother is doing squat kicks with a partner, while the rest of the group takes turns practicing kung fu five-element punches, named after the same five elements that correspond to the five flavors that make up our herbal formulas (for more info on the five elements found in food, click here). It is unique to find a group with such a high concentration of women and children practicing together with a single teacher. With mothers as active participants, rather than observers, this shared experience brings an abundance of healthy mind and body practices into a family, as well as laughter, play, and relaxation.
Tai Chi Teaches Flexibility for Our Minds
We meet at 7:30 am under the trees, at a designated place in the park, when the air quality is at its best and the tropical sun is still manageable. In the mornings and evenings, the parks are bustling with visitors of all ages, and it is not uncommon to see people using the exercise machines, salsa dancing, or just strolling around. Sometimes our usual meeting space is filled with badminton players, or even a festival, and we may have to adjust our practice location to accommodate this unforeseen flow of traffic as well as potentially unwanted attention in a shared public space. It is all part of the mindset that comes with tai chi, of accepting what comes into the environment, and being flexible and adjusting to how things are, without judgment.
The Opponent’s Force
Our Si Phu teaches us from several traditions, both internal and external forms, depending on the student’s interests and aptitude. One day, he handed me the pad and suggested I practice kicks with one of the younger, smaller teens. I went first, and held back a little due to my larger size. Yet the women laughed and shouted for me to use more strength, as they know what I am capable of. Nothing seems to go unnoticed with this crowd. They also wanted their kids to experience someone of my size, practicing. Then we switched, and I had to grab the pad with two hands, to keep up with the power of this teen girl’s kicks and I had to stay alert as we traveled down the path together so I could keep up. I learned I can’t judge a person’s strength and ability by their size and age, alone.
Value of this Group
What drew me to this group were the methods our Si Phu uses for teaching. A student doesn’t start learning tai chi on their first day. There are a series of exercises that a student has to master first in order to strengthen muscles and blood vessels in their legs so that they can be strong enough to handle the poses, without their legs shaking from weakness. I stay for the health benefits, the practice of inner cultivation, as well as the community.
Sweat to Grow
With all of the rigors of modern life, working out together is a great way to relieve stress, and witness each other’s abilities and progress, as we challenge each other to present our best selves and to keep growing. Participating with this group, we also can bear witness to the force that each person packs in their punches. These families that work out together could not imagine it happening in any other way. It is pretty amazing for a child to see just how powerful their mother is, and vice-versa! If you have a child, I highly recommend practicing a sport together—even if it is just walking. If you sweat together, you grow together.