When I have a class of students "carrying the ball" in the course of doing t'ai chi form, I try to provide a hint about how to visualize the size of said ball, and say it's roughly soccer-ball size. And I walk around the room, casting an approving or disapproving eye on the classs as they move from the first move into the second, bringing the the right hand over the left, an empty space between the two hands, and begin to turn. Throughout the form, we'll carry the ball again and again, maybe a dozen times. But one student asks, why does it have to be that size? What if your ball is the size of an orange?
If your imaginary ball is that small, I want to say (but I hold myself back) it just isn't right.
Her question though makes me feel suddenly a little cranky. So I sit with that feeling and ultimately ask myself, is being picky OK? What is my justification, when I tell students -- hold your arms out a little farther, raise your eyes and look straight ahead, make sure your feet are in Santi. Aside from the fact that "this is how I learned it" and that's not a good enough reason, deep down I have to confess, I'm really not sure.
Until now. I recently came across the best explanation I've yet seen about why the right size of the ball we "carry" matters. Why a soccer ball was explained brilliantly by an architect I know, a Roger Westerman, who writes about what it means to create a "holy" space. Bear with me. I haven't swung off onto a strange tangent.
a simple exercise will help define this term. Put your hands just slightly apart, as if you were about to clap. The narrow size between your hands is constrained. Now, very slowly separate your hands farther. When they are about four or five inches apart, you can see the proportions of space which define many of our Brownstone Brooklyn living rooms. The ceiling is too high, and the rooms too long and narrow. Not constrained, but not "quiet" space. Finally, when your hands are seven or eight inches apart...you can sense the air attaining a kind of mass, as if you are holding an invisible ball. You have created a space which has a density, across which the fingertips and heels of both hands relate on the diagonal -- this is "quiet space." *
The inventors of this magical art of taiji were Taoist sages and martial artists working in monastery-type settings centuries ago in China, some believe as far back as the 12th century. What forms they practiced, what the movements looked like -- with the absence of Youtube or even illustrated texts -- all these details are shrouded in the mists of time. But as these things always happen, distinct schools of thought split off from the original. Three schools, actually, of taiji developed -- Chen, Wu and Yang -- each with different movements, styles, energies. But the essential shape of the hands, the line of back, tilt of the tailbone, the rounded shoulders, the lofty way the neck lifts the head ... were the same.
And when I read Roger's words, and sense how right my hands feel when each hand floats at an oblique angle above the other, fingertips of one hand above the heel of the other, and this fleeting construction at an angle with my torso, and they're 8 inches apart, creating a tangible ball of air between them, I really do feel as though I'm in "holy space."
Put another, maybe more Taoist, way, I feel in deep connection with some universal natural forces.
No, an orange just won't do.
* this excerpt first appeared in Voices, a publication (now defunct) of Kolot Chayeinu, an explosively vibrant Jewish congregation of which I am a member.