For the past two months, I have been taking a tai chi class. Forty years ago, Koncho (an honorary title for my teacher and “head of school”) moved to the United States from Japan. Although he speaks English much better than he thinks, he will sometimes explain a tai chi movement in Japanese. Because there is always at least one student in the class who is fluent in Japanese, Koncho’s instruction is immediately translated into English. As I speak some Japanese (due to spending the first ten years of my life as an ex-pat in Japan), I have been delighted to discover that I understand half of what Koncho says and I often return home and look up a word in my Japanese dictionary. Interestingly, I have observed that the use of a second language keeps everyone, not just me, alert and curious. It has reminded me how the act of learning is most primed when students are alert and curious.
The other observation I have made since beginning my tai chi lessons is how much Koncho’s studio resembles a one-room schoolhouse, not just in physical space (it is one large room), but also in spirit and action. Each class is comprised of students at various levels. Some have been practicing tai chi for years, yet most sessions include a student who is trying tai chi for the first time. Because of the way class is organized, everyone is on a learning journey together. An advanced student usually leads the warm-up, which everyone does together. Later, Koncho will take a small group of advanced students to one end of the room to teach and practice more complex moves, while another advanced student will teach beginning students an easier tai chi sequence.
Twenty minutes into class, we take a five-minute break and students talk to each other. It is amazing how this short break establishes a strong sense of community. In Japanese, when one meets a person for the first time, there is an expression used: hajimemashite dozo yoroshiku, which comes closest to our English introduction of “How do you do? Nice to meet you,” but it’s true translation comes closer to “We are beginning. I offer myself to you.” Each time I notice how much the first-time students appreciate the welcome they receive at the beginning of class when Koncho introduces them. He takes time to say something special he has learned about each new student. In this simple way he communicates a trusting space where everyone is equally respected.
Following the short break, Koncho teaches some element of chi (breath or energy flow). The brief lesson changes each time with Koncho’s demonstrations revealing useful tools for improving posture, breathing, circulation, or simple techniques for coping with stressful situations.
At the end of each of my tai chi classes, each student bows and thanks each other student individually. “Thank you very much,” is repeated over and over again by as many as twenty students twenty times. It is a way of honoring the time we have spent learning together. I love this moment so much. It reminds me to be grateful for moments in each day when I feel truly alive. And do you know when I feel truly alive? When I am learning something new.