I held my breath as I walked through the physical space a second time. The stench was overwhelming. I had no idea of what was causing it. It seemed to be localized to one small area of the gymnasium. I hoped it didn't spread throughout the gym, or I'd have to cancel the class.
I've had some interesting experiences while teaching tai chi over the years. The first memorable one happened shortly after I started teaching. The class was part of the special interest section of the adult night school program. Previously, I had experience teaching children in the education system. This was my first time teaching adults. I quickly learned that a bit more finesse was sometimes needed with adults.
At the beginning of each class, after we'd bowed in, we would walk around the room twice to warm up. The first time around, swinging our arms to warm up the muscles of the upper and lower parts of the body. The second time around, we did a type of walking from another internal martial art called hsing yi.
The first time around, I gagged as I walked through that corner of the gym. Oh my gosh, what was that smell? The second time around was just as bad. Everyone, including myself, had passed through the fetid air-space. None of us said a word. Perhaps we were stunned by it. Then again, being Canadians, we were probably too polite to say anything.
We finished with everyone back in their original positions. I stood at the front, facing the class, and turned my head to look at the man standing in the back corner to my right. He had to be the source. Then I noticed the people standing in his vicinity were standing further away from him than usual. That was the confirmation I needed. I don't like to center people out, but I had to get to the bottom of the olfactory assault.
I asked him if he was doing something different in his life. He was happy to share his new health knowledge and practice with us. He had read that eating raw garlic was good for one's health, so he was eating several cloves a day. Yes, several cloves of raw garlic every day.
I grew up in a predominantly Italian neighborhood, so I was no stranger to garlic breath. It was unpleasant, but bearable. This was not. In addition to his exhalations, it must have been oozing out of his pores and the odor hung in the air. A lot of 'r' words came to mind, like ripe, rank, and repulsive.
I had no way of knowing how long he would continue his newfound health improvement. I had to find a way to mitigate this situation, for everyone else's sake in the class. I didn't want to offend him, so I needed to address the matter as delicately and politely as possible.
I told him that I hoped his new health regime worked and also asked him to refrain from eating raw garlic on the days when he attended our tai chi class at night. I explained that the odor from the garlic was very strong, and unpleasant. Fortunately, he agreed and didn't seem offended. The air was clear after that.
The second memorable experience involved another of the five senses. It occurred at the same location, but a year or two later. By then, I had become more familiar with the students, so I didn't feel the need to be as delicate with them.
We had finished our warm-up. I stood facing the class, as I led them through a basic set of qigong movements. The student standing in the middle of the back row caught my attention. He had white skin. Or at least he did, the last time I saw him. On this night, he looked decidedly different. At first, I thought his skin was tanned. No, I'd never seen a tan that color.
My curiosity got the better of me. I had to ask. "Are you doing something different in your life?" As with the garlic guy, this student was also happy to share his new health regime with us. He had bought a juicer machine, and he was juicing carrots because he had read that drinking fresh carrot juice was good for one's health.
I asked him how many carrots he was juicing a day, and he said a whole bag. I broke the bad news to him. His skin had turned an orange color. He was surprised by what I had told him. I was surprised no one else in his life had let him know. Family, friends, co-workers? It wasn't a slight change, a tinge of color. His skin was orange.
I told him about beta-carotene, the pigment in carrots that gives them an orange color. He was drinking so much juice that the pigment had changed the color of his skin. I suggested he cut back on the amount of juice he drank before our next class. In the next class, his skin color was better but not yet normal. I suggested he cut back a little more. The orangeness was gone after a few classes.
Thinking about the two previous stories, two adages come to mind:
1) You can have too much of a good thing.
2) Moderation is best in all things.
The next story took place a few years later. It was at a different location because I'd started teaching on my own, not as part of the high school night program. Rather than two ten-week sessions per year, I was now teaching year-round. Best of all, I had complete control over the program and classes. I could be more direct with my students.
I was teaching a class for beginners. I've taught people from all walks of life. In this particular class, one of the students was a farmer. I had just finished going through the first few moves of the tai chi form with the class. I turned right to begin the core movements of the form when my attention was immediately drawn to the movements of the farmer.
I stopped and watched him for a few seconds. It was mesmerizing. The movements he was executing didn't look anything like the movements I had taught. My first thought was perhaps he didn't understand. I quickly realized that was not the case. His movements bore no resemblance to the tai chi moves.
Then, I turned my gaze to scan the room. Chaos. Visually, the other students seemed torn between watching me and watching the farmer. Some were following my movements, some were following his movements, and others stood still with confused looks on their faces. And who could blame them? His movements were much more dynamic and expressive than mine.
I looked at the farmer again. He had a peaceful smile on his face. I almost felt bad for what I was about to do. I called out his name to break him from his reverie. A discussion was in order. Here's how it went:
Me: What are you doing?
Farmer: Oh, I made up my own moves.
F: I like them better.
M: If you do that, you're not doing tai chi.
F: But I like them better.
M: I understand what you're saying. And if you do that, you're not doing tai chi.
F: But I like my moves better.
I admired his creativity and free spirit, but not in my class. As the sensei, I had to put the needs of the group over that of one person. He insisted on doing his moves, and I insisted on his doing the tai chi moves while in the class. We were at a standstill. Neither one of us would budge.
I could tell by his facial expression, body language, and tone of voice that he was not intentionally being difficult. He was sincere. He really did like his moves better than the moves I was teaching. So, I suggested that he practice his moves at home, leave the class to never return, and I would give him a refund for the remaining classes in the session. He readily agreed, gathered his things, and left. I wished him well on his way out.
I'm all for people trying new things. If you find something that makes you happy or improves your health, and it doesn't negatively affect or bother those around you, go for it. Life is short, find your bliss. I hope the farmer continued to create his own movements. If so, I'm sure some of them were spectacular.
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.