Howard Jacobson: My personal trainer has me doing tai chi


Im a soaring crane, or a tiger sharpening my claws on the living room carpet

I make neither boast nor apology, but I have started to explore that form of martial mysticism the Chinese call tai chi. Its the slow, trance-like movements that appeal to me, even when Im being a soaring crane or sharpening my tiger claws on the living room carpet. To be frank, all Im really doing is learning how to breathe, my personal trainer having told me that I have never breathed properly in the whole of my life. I recognise this to be true. Hoping to be able to swim one day, I keep signing up for lessons, but know its hopeless the minute the instructor tells me to hold my breath. I would if I could find it.

I say personal trainer, but in fact hes my wifes. I decided to tag along only when I saw the wonders he was doing for her core. And he doesnt exactly train me, either. He pulls me out of myself the way one pulls apart a bowl of glutinous spaghetti. I am longer and looser when he has finished than when he started. Not able to touch my toes or scratch my back not yet, anyway but not hunched or hooped, feet and head/Coming together in lifes pilgrimage like Wordsworths leech gatherer.

After the loosening comes the dying bug a diabolic, core-strengthening exercise that entails bringing the knees and hips up, the ribcage down, rotating the pelvis, squeezing the glutes and remembering to breathe. Three sets of these twice a week and suddenly Im feeling well.

But it doesnt become a writer to feel well. I was going to say there is no record of anyone going round to Kafkas place and finding him on the floor doing the dying bug, but I realise that might have been because they found him on the ceiling. Scott Fitzgerald drank himself to death; Dylan Thomas, whom its impossible to imagine exercising his abs, did the same. Marcel Proust couldnt get out of bed, he felt so rotten. Sylvia Plath couldnt bear to go to bed, she felt so rotten. O, horror! To live another year in this misery, Dostoevsky wrote to his brother in 1838. I suffer the torments of hell, he wrote again, six years later. I cant claim to have read every letter he wrote, but I have yet to come upon him saying that he is off to Gorky Park to be a tai chi tiger.

There must be exceptions. Jane Austen is said to have liked dancing. Dickens walked long distances. And Hemingway reconciled the physical demands of an outdoor life with a succinct prose style. Its only a shame he had to go and turn his shotgun on himself.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/08/howard-jacobson-personal-trainer-tai-chi

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