The Best Lesson My Teacher Ever Taught Me
Updated: Apr 10, 2022
Over a decade ago our Tai Chi teacher sat us down after the lesson one day and gave us a piece of advice that shifted my thinking and changed my life for the better. To this day it is something I live by and I imagine it will be until I am old and grey.
My teacher was a lovely older Taiwanese lady who went by Helen. She was in her late 70s and more limber and healthy than I was in my early 20s! So naturally her advice held some gravity. She told us that when she was young, Taiwan was a developing country and most people were pretty poor. They didn't have automatic washing machines, vacuums, dryers, escalators, and cars. They had to rely on the strength of their bodies to stomp on laundry to clean it, bend from the waist and straighten up to hang it on a line, push a broom, crawl on hands and knees to scrub the floor, climb the stairs and walk to the store and school. That generation still baffles scientists with how healthy and youthful they are even in their advanced years.
"Nowadays, people complain that they don't have time or money for exercise, like it's some sort of luxury." She said in her matter of fact sort of way. "Exercise isn't a luxury, all these other modern conveniences are but we treat them like they should be a given. We pay for a gym membership, carve out time in our busy day to go there and then we try to park as close to the entrance as possible and complain if we have to walk more than a few feet. We feel unhappy and dissatisfied if our neighbor has a newer model vacuum cleaner or dish washer than us. We can save ourselves so much suffering if we just change our mindset.
Instead of always trying to do things the easiest way, rather try to think of everything as exercise. Climb the stairs instead of taking the elevator! Park on the furthest end of every parking lot or walk to the store, save some gas too while you are at it. Instead of breaking your back bent over a stove or a sink washing pots, squat into your legs and hold that position while you work, you will have nice strong legs in no time and your spine won't be curved when you are old. Soon you won't care if your dishwasher is the newest model because it is just a tool that can be replaced. Soon you will start to think of your body as the most precious tool you have and pay as much attention to keeping it working like new as we do on our other things."
She was absolutely right though. I have used this advice to maintain and rebuild muscle and strength at times when this was all I could afford in terms of time, money or energy. Need to pick something up off the floor? Why not do a lunge or deadlift right there? Bathroom sink too low for you to brush your teeth without hunching over? Why not hold a high squat while you do? If you can't hold it the entire time, come out of it and go back in when you are ready. Just running to the post office or corner store? Jump on your bicycle instead of firing up the gas guzzling SUV. In fact, does your SUV need a wash? Why pay for an automatic wash that will ruin your paint job, cost you money and time spent letting your muscles atrophy? Wax on, wax off. Move your whole body instead of just your arms while you are at it, get all those muscles working instead of just getting your arms tired and sore. What a great opportunity to learn to allow your strength and movements emanate from the ground up?
At first, this sort of shift in mindset will be a challenge. It is something that takes dedication, focus, and time. Our bodies are capable of great things with discipline and training and everything can be training. A strong body and a strong mind are not things that can be bought with money, they can not be stolen, they can not be borrowed nor sculpted quickly and there is no other thing in the world that can replace them. It takes time to get to where we are limber and strong mentally and physically and it requires enduring dedication and discipline to keep our bodies and minds strong. Don't let it discourage you if you fail either, you will have setbacks and sometimes it will feel like you are taking one step forward then one step back. Just keep at it, start again and don't give up. The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The next best time is today. Starting to grow into your best self is no different.
Once you decide to walk this path of knowing your body as the most important tool you will ever have, you will come to appreciate it in ways you have not yet discovered. The rewards of your focus will pay off in unimaginable ways.