By Kevin Curtin
Recently I found myself on the lower level of the Jackson Memorial Library practicing Chi Gong (Qi Gong) with 10 others, led by our instructor Tim English. I immediately felt the good energy and camaraderie of this circle. Why hadn’t I discovered these sessions sooner? To answer that, let’s recap the previous winter of 2015-2016. I had been teaching college English, and building stone walls all spring, summer, fall, and on towards Christmas time. The cold and the long season were starting to tell on my body and energy reserves. Home one evening, I felt a strange knot sticking out of my back that shouldn’t have been there. I thought, “I don’t want to finish every season stove up like a hunchback–another ex-waller forced to retire because their body’s given out.”
“Self,” I said, “You’re 58 years old and its time for some serious mid-life rehab.” So I went to that shelf of my library with all the yoga, accupuncture, Feldenkrais, Feng Shui, and meditation books—my wife calls it the “Weirdness Section.” I started with “cat stretches” each morning, 10 short Feldenkrais exercises that reconnect you with better movement and alignment. A lot of these exercises open up the back, hips, legs, feet, neck, etc. It was a start on the way back.
My next step towards curing the ogreish back and finding a younger me was crucial: joining a weekly indoor tennis group. Over the years I had gotten away from tennis as walling jobs increased, laying on the couch weekends instead of getting aerobic exercise. With tennis, you cannot show up as a stiff hunchback and play with any pleasure—you have to be quick of foot, loose, and limber. Indoor tennis also requires speed of hand and eye. I found I still could run better than my hitting partners, but once I got to the ball, it could get ugly. Timing and technique were way off. Enter Seth Meyer, hit-group and tennis guru. He gave me some lessons to re-shape and shorten my forehand swing, and kept up constant encouragement and whispered tips as I struggled against better hitters. One day I was surprised that we were picking up the balls to end the hour—I hadn’t been watching the big clock over the courts at all. I was beginning to move like an athlete again, not some gasping gargoyle.
That inner voice inside me started clamoring, “I want to get better, I have to get better.” I wanted my old youthful energy back for good. Slowly, that knot sticking out of my back slipped back into its proper place. I began walling again, keeping my one weekly tennis session. Then, I discovered a book about the health benefits of five Shaolin Chi Gong stances. I began practicing the stances and other Chi Gong swings each morning and night, which I credit for keeping me injury-free this past year—my busiest walling season to date.
From the Chi Gong tradition I also learned about “setting a gong,” 100 days when you vow to practice or discipline yourself with small things. It’s like New Year’s resolutions, but with lasting results. My gong was pretty simple: Practice Chi Gong in the morning and before bed; forego alcohol and caffeine. I picked these things to work on because my two-beer-a-night habit was slowing me down; and caffeine often made my hyper nature too jittery.
Starting in September, that was it. I got through the 100 days pretty easily. I substituted herbal teas for Starbucks, and “near beer” for I.P.A.s. I started seeing the ball better in tennis, and I had more and more energy at work and play. At the end of the gong, I realized that I didn’t miss the alcohol or caffeine, that my body and nerves performed much better without them—though now I am a wicked fan of non alcoholic beer spiked with fresh lime.
So it was many things that got me to Tim England’s Chi Gong class at the Jackson Memorial Library this winter. Sometimes it just takes a huge knot sticking out of your back to give you resolve. After class, all the people leaving have light in their eyes, many smiles, and the bubbling energy of an hour well spent raising the Chi with our guide. I sense we are all glimpsing a way back to our birthright—good energy in abundance to share with the world.
Curtin, who lives on Hart’s Neck Road, builds stone walls and teaches college English for a living. A feature on his walling work, “When a love of language is the driving force behind a Waller’s art,” appeared in the November 3, 2016 issue of The St. George Dragon.