“Our deep history was spent, at different times, in ancient oceans, small streams and savannahs, not office buildings, ski slopes and tennis courts. We were not designed to live past the age of eighty, sit on our kleisters for ten hours a day and eat Hostess Twinkies, nor were we designed to play football. This disconnect between our past and our human present means that our bodies fall apart in certain predictable ways”
Neil Shubin,”Your Inner Fish” page 186
If the remit of tai chi is to encompass all possible Range-of-Motion movements that evolution prepped us for-to wit, loping for hours on a sun-stunned savannah after a greater kudu, spearing mammoths or woolly rhinos, flaking obsidian for axe heads for hours, digging for roots, constantly foraging-then it follows that the edge of that ambit for Supermarket Man is when ligaments or tendons-chlorotic seedlings compared to the robust rubber vines they ought to be- fray and shear from a trivial stumble. Knee joints leak and blanch, not from “wear and tear” as is claimed, but from years of still immobility punctuated by walks, cycles or frantic antics in a gym or dancefloor.
Fascia melds the muscle seams via the atrophy of idleness; the body secedes into discrete blocks, and suppleness is lost; the lithe youth, all slim limbs of green willow, slowly lumbers by the daily drudge into a boxy robot. Sclerosis can afflict the pipes and brain, and the whirligig of juvenile exuberance is clamped and soldered into sober suits and levered legs. But I bring glad tidings; the full ROM for citizens can be recovered; thus, tai chi and qi gong are concise summary sets of lost daily ranges for the limbs for restricted citizens whose society prescribes inhibitory movements for interaction during the working day; and proscribes all but children and acrobats the full gamut. Silent Metro Sitting, the desk-bound hunch, the pinstripe march-most of these involve severe restrictions of limb movement. Seeing Cubans walk was an imprinting moment for me. I say “walk” with hesitation- their languid panther sashays were a stunning muscular refutation of any dictionary description of the dirty pavement shuffle by us pallid, spindly, tubercular Coldlings.
Given the industrial nutrition we are ingesting, and the structure of the days we keep, I cannot control the level or rate of a student’s practice. So when I talk about these optimal ROMs, I am referring to Ideal Student, the focused bunny who practises every day and reaps benefit. But we are slaves to habit and routine, conditioned since kindergarten to clocks and bells, our day shaved into ever-smaller slices of a Babylonian 60, so the full hour I get with some people every week has to be a stuffed episode of data and practice, a Barnum and Bailey extravaganza for frazzled city-dwellers.
It sometimes makes me sad to realize that we are no longer free to roam all day, as hunter gatherers did, and still do in vanishingly small numbers. My childhood was spent in monochrome suburbia, but beside the sea, so I had at least some taste of a tepid wildness between the scholastic morning and the domestic evening curfew. I was lucky in that I was introduced to the world of wild birds at the age of 9, a revelation of “otherness” that has never left me. The appreciation for plants came later. But I still inhabit a gelded world. Ireland is bereft of wildlife, shorn of trees beyond manicured gardens and black regiments of spruce-cloaked hills. Wonder is reduced to watching David Attenborough in our germ-free cells. We are not evolved to deal with our diet and static status, and we are paying through “mismatch diseases”, and a sickness of the soul. Exponential levels of cancer and cognitive disorders are tiding in. Yet we wring our hands and look for cures, not causes.
Etiolated, weakened by excess and automation, we are wide-open prairies of opportunity for pathogenic killers. The exponential Babel of new diseases ascends to the clouds. Eponyms for new diseases now metastisize. Crudely, we are prey to new diseases because we are no longer prey. The whetstone of evolution that should hone us daily onto that slim, slippery ledge between death and survival has widened into a sprawling mall full of fast food outlets, and we have widened too, physically; the argument that a constant harassment by hunger would preclude the development of any “higher” cultural pursuits is refuted by fifth-century Athens. Under threat of annihilation by Persia, the tiny city-state rose to combat Xerxes while producing some of the greatest art work the world has ever seen. As Nietzsche said, we are Epigones; members of a later and less distinguished generation.
My service then, is to offer a highly artificial Sisyphean task; to arrest the entropic inevitability of decline inherent in the average western body which has access to a fearless supply of denatured food. Whole foods plus some tai chi and qi gong can be a powerful antidote to the relentless disintegration of the average industrialised body. The change in the mindset of a world bent on self-destruction requires a revolution in human evolution before it’s too late. I leave that to some oratorical genius who can persuade our species as a whole.