I fell down the other day. I was doing a sort of basic kind of thing, leaning over with too much in my hands to pick up something I’d dropped. I lost my balance and fell right over.
Me. The woman who exercises 8 hours a week. I fell down like a sack of potatoes.
Yeah, my legs are strong, and loaded with plenty of muscle, but they don’t actually work as well as they used to. They’re not as agile. Or they don’t talk to my brain as easily. Or something.
I’ve always had great big muscles in my thighs and calves. But I learned that being muscular, having strength, and being able, or coordinated are all nearly unrelated things. What a rude surprise that was. I learned all about that when I studied tai chi. Kind of wish I’d kept it up.
I studied for years with a fantastic master of a Shaolin style form. This tai chi is performed fairly low to the ground. I learned to hold and move my body in a slight crouch, my legs (in theory) ready to spring or twirl, kick or hop anywhere they needed to, with ease and grace. That was the idea. I aimed for ease, grace, strength, softness. Longevity, youth. Think of the way a praying mantis or a grasshopper rests with its legs folded, ready to spring. Though they are at rest, they are ready to spring.
It’s tricky stuff, learning to relax in, basically, a squat. That takes some serious unraveling and reknitting in the old brain pan.
In my first months of study, practicing this form of tai chi with my big body, my legs shook and trembled. I could barely walk out of class. By the end of three years’ study, I had steel legs. Not big legs. Not bulky legs. But strong legs, secure knees and ankles. Fluid hips.
As I hang out with my parents and as I grow older myself, the Chinese admonition to keep our legs strong to stay young makes more and more sense to me. It means more every day. Your legs are your go-sticks, baby. If you’re lucky enough to have functioning ones, you want to keep them under you and working well as much as possible for as long as possible.
It makes an awful lot of sense to me to work not only on leg strength and balance, but on agility, on “functional exercises” that help my brain and body work together. I want to continuously challenge my center of gravity, do things that help me move my body through space with confidence. Walking, sure, but jumping, leaping, side-stepping, balancing. Doing things on my toes and heels, balancing every which way.
All of the martial arts are great for this. Tai Chi and yoga and dance are all good. The new “functional fitness” classes, too. All of these help you stay on your feet, challenge those neurons, help your whole body do a better job of keeping you upright. If you live most of your life in a chair, you’d be surprised at all the places you might be getting soft.
So, yes, do strength work to build major muscles. We need that, of course. But to really keep your legs working well for the long run, challenge not just how much work they can do, but challenge all the ways they can possibly work. Be agile, friends. I will if you will.