Swimming in a Sea of Air
My daily t’ai-chi health workout in Westmount Park
By Stephen Chin
As a young man, I was a firm believer in the pernicious No Pain No Gain theory of exercise. For many years I had worked out in gyms, jogged, ran long distances, swam, played badminton, tennis and cycled for hours. The workouts took much time and recovery afterwards took even more time.
In mid-life I realized that I could not keep up with the commitment, stress and energy required for strenuous, demanding exercise. And to remain healthy, one had to exercise daily throughout one’s life. I was also very much concerned about the long-term effects on the lungs, knees, ankles, hips and body frame of jogging, and running on hard city streets with high levels of pollution from car exhausts. In running, every single step taken concentrates and focuses one’s total body weight on the ankle, knee, hip and spine. In the continued daily running, the cartilage and joints become worn before their time and would eventually require major surgery and weeks in hospital for cartilage and knee replacement.
A calm, collected mind directing slow, controlled movements in tune with natural deep breathing.
Swimming – not as a competitive sport – but for the sheer pleasure if it, may truly claim to be the king of all exercises. Every muscle and bone in the body is involved and the resistance of the water slows the speed of movement to moderate or slow. The increased action of the arms and upper body stimulated by the feeling of water over the skin makes swimming a pleasure and joy for body and mind. This article is therefore about a form of dance-like exercise that could well be termed Swimming in a Sea of Air.
Joggers and runners on the hard surface of city streets hardly ever think about the air they breathe into their bodies. They only think about how many hours they will run. And jogging triggers the lungs to take in vast amounts of carcinogenic particles from car exhausts in the city. The best place for exercise is in a well-treed park in the early morning when the air is relatively fresh. Every living thing needs exercise. Trees and all greenery are exercised by the wind.
In the early seventies, I enrolled in a t’ai-chi class in Chinatown conducted by a well-known master. There were ten in a small room. I did not relish breathing in air breathed out by so many people in a small room with windows closed. With windows open the pollution coming in from Boulevard St-Laurent was worse. And I found it difficult, annoying and frustrating to follow the instructor’s demonstration as he was more often than not, out of my line of sight.
After a month, I dropped out. Dropping out was not only a smart but an important move. I awoke the next morning with the realization that the ancient art of t’ai-chi had originated as a self-defence art, later practiced for its proven health benefits. As I wanted to learn it only for my health, why did I have to laboriously learn its intricate formal patterns which take months of daily practice to master?
Swimming – not as a competitive sport – but for the sheer pleasure if it, may truly claim to be the king of all exercises.
Only its principles were important and mattered. And quite simply, the principles are: a calm, collected mind directing slow, controlled movements in tune with natural deep breathing. Following its principles would be enough to reap the benefits of t’ai-chi. I got out of bed and, watching my movements in a wall mirror, began my interpretation of the ancient art.
Like a bird just out of its cage, the freedom I felt inspired me to improvise, and the number of original patterns of movement multiplied. After a cold shower and breakfast, I jumped on my bike and cycled to Westmount Park to practice. Daily I continued through summer into fall. In the advance of fall, I found that working the patterns of the ancient discipline’s slow movement with hands free was not enough to keep me warm, even with gloves.
Picking up a fallen tree branch, I proceeded to wield it slowly about me. Each day brought new ideas, discoveries, and moving the weight of the branch in my hands brought some warmth. I needed a smooth straight pole and a heavier one for the winter. I called Langevin & Forest, a lumber company and was advised to contact Eddy, a professional wood-turner at 16959, Gouin Boulevard. A week later I took home a shoulder-length two-inch solid oak pole with rounded ends. After tinting it with MinWax golden oak wood finish I varnished it. Weighing three to four pounds it looked and felt stunning – inspiring me to wield it in countless exciting ways. For forty dollars I had enrolled in the class of the finest teacher!
I cycled every morning to Westmount Park and there, with Wolfgang my Shetland sheepdog tied to my waist, began to practice with my oak pole. The weather turned cold in October and, dressed in a down-filled winter jacket with hood, a woollen shawl and large sized sheepskin mittens from Egli’s Sheepfarm in Ontario, I was ready for the winter. I have not missed a day in Westmount Park – even during the 1998 ice storm. We keep warm not only with clothing but with food and movement. And cold-water therapy triggers the body’s ability to defend itself against cold.
The best place for exercise is in a well-treed park in the early morning when the air is relatively fresh.
The practice gave me unique ideas of what a truly beneficial exercise could be. It could and should be continued throughout one’s lifetime. It could and should be an exercise for every part if the body and of the mind. It could and should be meditation in movement. It could and should help plan one’s day. Because of the controlled movements of my arms and upper trunk it is especially good for the chest and lungs. It is also exercise for the eyes during which I looked alternately at objects far and near. There are new discoveries every day as I increase the range to include facial exercises and, balanced on one leg, to wield the pole.
Practicing with a friend, we included: a) alternately ‘stalking’ each other among bushes and trees; b) at a distance alternately ‘attacking’ the other and ‘defending’ oneself while the other defends and attacks; c) shooting imaginary arrows into the air with the pole as a bow; d) rowing a canoe or paddling a boat. All in slow movement.
Without the pole:
- We stand apart slowly clapping one’s hands to touch the other’s hand
- With hands clasped like in prayer we move them upwards to embrace the sky
- Standing upright, we bend backwards and move hands upwards with fingers together, stretched, we bend forward and down as we stoop and up again forwards as in an elegant figure of 8.
- .A variety of improvisations
In the spring, I added new items to my exercise. Whirling and spinning on feet with the hands free, very gradually slowing down and pausing a moment I was able to walk normally in a straight line. Gradually increasing the number of spins by ten each day, I managed to reach six hundred in two months. I believe I could have gone on to a thousand and after applying the brakes walk in a straight line. But I had no one to count for me and I had no ambition to out whirl the ‘whirling dervish’. Whirling dervishes practice spinning to experience spiritual ecstasy. In decades of daily work out in Westmount Park I believe I have at last found the right exercise for lifelong health.
I believe I have at last found the right exercise for lifelong health.
As important as exercise is the rest and recovery period after it. I had often wondered why tennis players collapse to lie horizontal on the court after winning a game. Humans have a vertical posture that forces the heart to pump blood against gravity up and down when we are standing. When the body is horizontal the heart gets a real rest. This is the reason why a 30 to 40-minute nap in the afternoon is so important for health.
In childhood and early manhood, I was pigeon-chested and had frequent colds, fevers, sore throats and asthma. When I gave up beef and pork, sugar, coffee and butter, replacing them with many kinds of vegetables and fruit (especially pineapple) and some fish and chicken, and began the practice of my exercise every morning 365 days a year, I developed a full chest and muscles and have never had a sore throat, caught a cold or suffered an asthma attack.
In conclusion, I would like to extend a welcome to readers of WestmountMag.ca to join me in Westmount Park any morning from 8 o’clock to practice Swimming in the Air. No Pleasure No Gain!
Images: Michael Walsh and Andrew Burlone
Stephen Chin was born in Singapore in 1930. His early schooling was interrupted for five years by the Japanese occupation of South East Asia. After the war he completed his schooling and left for Germany to study at the Hochschule fuer Musik in Stuttgart. After three years he obtained a scholarship to continue his studies in Poland at the Warsaw Conservatory of Music He lived in Paris for four years and four in London before settling in Canada where he taught piano from 1967 to his retirement in 1995. He writes as one of his hobbies.