Volleyball: Meditation in Motion

I took up Taijiquan in January of 1997, at the start of my second semester at SFU. I’d been considering it for some time: Taiji was supposed to be a gentle and relaxing form of exercise, with various health benefits, and seemed a good way to at least start getting in shape. It also had spiritual aspects that appealed to me at the time. Since there was a class given at SFU, I decided to join.

The class met all my expectations. I learned one of the forms, the sets of slow and graceful movements that are the public perception of Taiji. Along with this I got a bit of Daoist philosophy and associated mysticism. The exercises were low-key enough to not be too intimidating, yet still managed to give me sore muscles and joints in my legs. That aside, and even though our instructor told us about some of the self-defense applications for the moves, I saw Taiji very much as “meditation in motion”. I was still too intellectual, too detached from my body, to really get into it as a serious physical exercise and even less as a martial art.

Then again, anything even mildly physical was progress for me. I was seriously out of shape, not having done any regular exercise since high school gym class, which I hated. I’d done a bit of cycling in the summer, back in Ottawa, but I was too lazy and self-conscious about my body to enjoy it. I also made sporadic efforts at calisthenics, push-ups in the morning, that sort of thing. But I could never manage to make it last.

Taiji was different. Finally, I’d found something I enjoyed, that spoke to me, and I stuck with it. Over the next two and a half years I kept learning the forms, and gained some leg strength and flexibility. It was slow progress, but I did have something to show for this meditation in motion. Two-person exercises were especially useful in that they forced me to focus on my body and my partner’s body, instead of the meditative side of the art. And my views changed over the years as I grew increasingly cynical about the spiritual aspects of the Taiji I was learning.

Then a classmate told me about another instructor leading a small class in a park in Coquitlam. I attended it for the first time in June of ’99, and it was an instant hit for me. My new Sifu’s teaching was totally different from what I’d known before, both in style and content. There was no metaphysics or spirituality, just down-to-earth and practical exercises for developing internal strength and skill. It was a much more strenuous workout, far more frustrating, but ultimately more rewarding. It was getting me more in touch with my body, in touch with my limits—and, little by little, pushing them back.

That month I also found a job in the industry, my first since graduating from SFU. With the job came access to a small in-house gym. Some time later I decided to start working out. This also was intensely satisfying, a good release from the drudgery of work. I didn’t go as often as I would have liked, because I was feeling terribly stressed out about the job, and so tended to be low in energy a lot.

Even after getting laid off in October I continued practicing Taiji and working out at a gym near my place. It was too important to give up now, I knew it’d be worth it in the end. Besides, anything was better than sitting alone at home feeling sorry for myself. Even walking for 20 minutes in the cold and the rain to reach the gym.

In April, I started work at Cayenta Canada, on Burnaby Mountain near SFU. Near the building is an outdoor volleyball court and every lunchtime—weather permitting—some of us would go out to play with a few people from the IBM Pacific Development Centre across the way. It was an absolutely amazing experience. I hadn’t playing volleyball since high school; I hadn’t been very good, and I hadn’t enjoyed it much. But there I was, sweating and grunting in the hot sun, and loving every minute of it.

I stopped working out at the gym, and began cycling; I bought myself a bike, which I rode a couple times a week. It was excruciating at first—maybe you never forget, but that doesn’t mean the body is willing—but after a while I was enjoying the hell out of it. This was pushing my limits, not just physically but also mentally. I learned not to mind so much being tired, sore, uncomfortable, sweaty and out of breath. In fact, I actually learned to enjoy it on some levels.

And finally my body was responding. The fresh air, sunshine, regular exercise and—who knows?—a more relaxed attitude about myself and my job, together had kickstarted my metabolism. My appetite increased enormously, and after five months I found I’d gained a dozen pounds. Since then I’ve kept on gaining weight. I’m not seeing much difference yet, but I’ll get there eventually. With this and the sun I’ve been getting, I’m feeling a lot better about my body, far less self-conscious.

Volleyball slowed down, then stopped in November, as the weather got worse. Likewise for cycling. For now I’m working out again, at the SFU gym. It’s still highly enjoyable (actually much more now that I’m not depressed about losing my job) but I look forward to the spring. Weight lifting is fun, and it builds up my muscles, but it really doesn’t compare with playing volleyball in the fresh air.

Physically, I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been. But my progress over the last four years (and especially since last spring) has been much more than simply physical. I’ve grown comfortable in this body of mine, and more confident in its abilities. My insecurities aren’t gone, by any means—but now they’re much easier to ignore. And as I connect with my body, I learn deeper truths than all my previous meditations have given me. With my feet on the ground I move, I strive, I build, and I find joy.