Just before 7 a.m. on an early Tuesday morning, we Hannah Rector ’14 and Jessica Moes ’14 stumbled bleary-eyed to the Ytterboe front desk. We eyed each other’s casual attire- what was one supposed to wear to this sort of thing, anyway? – and both knew exactly what the other was thinking: what in the world were we getting ourselves into?
We were off to the first of what would be a twice-weekly, early-morning commitment to practice the art of tai chi with Professor and Vice Chair of Biology Eric Cole, who steps outside his role as an academic for two hours each week to educate and enlighten the small group of students and professors that attend his practices. The sessions, which last about an hour, have taught us the basics of balance, stretching, flexibility and finding one’s center. Almost at once, we found ourselves relaxed and welcomed into what would normally be a frightening environment. Neither one of us considered ourselves particularly knowledgeable about martial arts prior to our first day, but Cole was patient and excited to share the practice with us.
About half of each session was dedicated to learning the tai chi “form,” a long string of calculated and precise motions that focus on different attacks and defenses in a slow and deliberate manner. Developed in China, tai chi is, fundamentally, a martial art built on a methodology of soft movement, but has been appropriated by a variety of people for its health and wellness benefits. Cole teaches the Yang style of the form, the most popular and widely-practiced version of tai chi. He instructed us in the “short form,” a set of more than 100 different moves that each hold a deliberate purpose. The “long form” of the art, often described as more “traditional,” includes more than 300 moves. Some of the professors that joined us in the mornings practiced the “long form” – though they have been learning the steps over the course of many, many years.
Cole began leading instruction in tai chi at St. Olaf shortly after arriving on campus as a professor, originally with students, many of whom could at one point or another receive a physical education credit for attending his sessions if only that was the case now!. When the weather permitted, they would practice outside, with gentle breezes and sunlight providing warm company.
“Still, it was a little frustrating training young people who would leave just as they mastered the form,” Cole said. “For that reason, I started looking for faculty and staff to practice and train with, so I would always have someone skilled to practice with. Practicing the ‘long form’ with my veterans always feels like coming home.”
Cole’s own journey with tai chi began much earlier, in 1980, when he encountered students in a local park in Portland, Ore., practicing the form. Intrigued by the beautiful and mindful movements, Cole sought out classes in Seattle, where he lived at the time, which eventually led him to the instruction of Sifu John Leong, a renowned practitioner in the Seattle Chinatown district. “After a year there, I only heard two words from Master Leong,” Cole said. “They were: ‘Too tense!'”
Over the course of his career, Cole met and interacted with a variety of teachers. After Leong, Cole moved to studying under Harrison Moretz also in Seattle, who introduced him to the Yang style he still practices today. Cole spent three years under Moretz’s tutelage, even traveling to the San Juan Islands for workshops. As his academic experiences moved him to the University of Iowa and, eventually, to Cornell University, Cole picked up a “sword form” and then a “staff form,” continuously expanding his knowledge of both Yang style and a wider variety of tai chi practices.
But it was the moments on his own that struck Cole with clarity. “Whenever I was between teachers, I would share my practice with friends and colleagues,” Cole said. “Sharing my practice with students, and later with faculty and staff, never felt like teaching.”
Cole’s 33 years of tai chi knowledge come across in the classroom. He walks around between the three or four students that join us each week, tweaking our form just slightly, encouraging our movements with soft and gentle words. He pairs us up for strength exercises in which we ground ourselves against the weight of our opponents. He teaches us how to walk across the room with precision and poise. These lessons benefit us most when we approach the form itself: difficult moves that require balance and strength come more naturally.
Though it is quite common to see large groups practicing the tai chi form together, Cole prefers his sessions to focus on the individual, which is why there is so much emphasis on keeping the class small. Typically, classes consist of three or four regular St. Olaf faculty members and no more than five or six students. It is for this reason that Cole does not over-advertise the classes and encourages interested students to contact him before simply arriving at a session.
“It’s rather lovely to practice solo,” he said. “It allows one to deepen one’s form in ways one might not feel free to do when teaching or practicing in a group.”
For us, Tai Chi has become a way to start our Tuesdays and Thursdays with some time dedicated simply to ourselves and attuning our bodies to the world around us in an immediate, yet detached, way. We no longer worry about what is in store for us each session, and we greet each other at the Ytterboe front desk each morning with a glimmer of excitement for what is to come.
“It is a wonderful gift to know how to create moments in one’s life that are somehow special, maybe even sacred,” Cole said. “Being able to give one’s self a bit of time that is both reverent and sweet is a genuine gift. Being able to share such moments with one’s friends is sweetness multiplied.”