Tai Chi that Isn't Tai Chi but Is Tai Chi

Oaken Limbs

by Christopher Dow 


A lot of readers might be familiar with the parable of the oak tree and the willow that grew next to it. For many seasons, the oak grew tall and extended strong branches, while the willow, with its drooping boughs, seemed weak in comparison. In fact, through the years, the oak frequently disparaged the willow, much like jocks bully nerds. But then came a reckoning in the form of a terrible storm whose winds relentlessly battered the two trees. Finally, a succession of terrific gusts uprooted the oak, which crashed to the ground beside the willow. The willow, however, with its supple branches, was still standing when the storm subsided.


The parable might have something to say about braggadocio and payback, so maybe the oak should have knocked on wood when it was boasting about its strength. But the parable is really about the ability to provide the least resistance possible when confronted with a seemingly overwhelming force—a Tai Chi maxim. However, when talking about Tai Chi, the oak tree isn’t always the fall guy.


I had an interesting lesson in Tai Chi about six years before I ever heard of the art. I was in Austin at the time, visiting a friend, and one afternoon, we walked from his garage apartment to a nearby park to hang out. For a time, I lay on my back beneath an oak tree, with the crown of my head nearly touching the base of the trunk, which was about three feet in diameter. As I lay there, a gusty breeze was blowing through the tree branches, and I observed something I’d never noticed. I guess I’d always thought of wind rustling the leaves of trees or causing the branches to wave if the wind was strong enough, but my prone perspective of this tree showed a new dimension of behavior.


The breeze was strong enough to shake the limbs, but they did not simply move independently of the trunk—as if the trunk was a rigid pole and the limbs were just moving back and forth. Instead, as the force of the breeze impacted the broad, if irregular, surfaces of the foliage, several branches in any given area would flex in unison. And it wasn’t only the branches that were flexing. The trunk was twisting slightly back and forth with the flexing branches, around its central core. Maybe for the first time, I saw a tree as a real living being, though not all trees can flex and twist in this manner, only straight-trunked one with sufficiently balanced branches. Tall, spindly tress probably just sway, and brushy trash trees probably just thrash. But then, neither type has as well-developed a central equilibrium as does a straight-trunked oak.


Many years later, when I finally loosened my waist, torso, and shoulders enough to open my body to the twisting of the trunk of my body around its central equilibrium, with the arms flexibly following the movement, I recalled not only the lesson this oak had taught me, but also a popular dance from the early 1960s called the Twist, which I’ll cover in the next installment.