In Balance

I first came to see Gregory Fong in order to study Tai Chi; I had been feeling out of sorts – a
disconnect between my body and soul which I knew was unhealthy – and I recalled that my previous
experience with martial arts had been a good remedy for this situation.
After my first two classes, I thought to mention to Sifu Fong that I was a diabetic. I was in what
I thought was pretty good physical shape, and very aware of my blood sugar at all times, but there is
always the possibility of hypoglycemia, which can occasionally cause seizures. Amidst a new group of
people, I felt someone should know, just in case.
Upon learning of this, Sifu began to ask me questions about my condition. He told me that if I
had been diabetic for 30 years, then I had 30 years of damage to undo before moving forward. This was
a daunting way to put it, but I like a challenge. It was a type of engagement I had never once heard
from my western medicine doctors, who seem solely focused on prevention, usually with no reference
to actually improving health.
I had been a Type I Diabetic for 30 years at this point, diagnosed as a young child. My blood
sugar levels had always ranged all over the map, from extremely low to very high. I did, however,
frequently test my blood sugar and had, over the years, developed a very good internal sense of where
that number was, even without testing. Once every three months or so, I would see my endocrinologist,
who would run a blood test on me called a Hemoglobin A1c. This test provides a number that is
essentially an average blood sugar for the past 120 days, suggesting what type of overall control a
patient is in.
A normal, healthy person would have a number between 4 and 5.6. From 5.7 to 6.4 represents
an increased risk of diabetes, and 6.5 or higher indicates diabetes. (It should be noted that with Type I
diabetes, lowering one’s levels below 6.5 does not mean that you are no longer diabetic.) For diagnosed
diabetics, the closer to normal one’s A1c is, the less chance of complications.
For most of my adult life, my A1c results had been in the 7 to 8 range, usually on the upper
side. When I first came to the class, I had just been to my doctor and my test was an abysmal 8.2 –
higher than it had been in a couple of years. It all made sense, I was in school and under quite a bit of
stress, which, for me, raises my blood sugar as much as actual sugar. When I can camp and be in
nature, away from modern life, my blood sugar resolves to almost normal within the day and stays that
way, with little to no work from me. But of course, this lifestyle is not a full-time possibility for me at
the current time.
Sifu immediately had me begin the practice of standing meditation, or Zhan Zhuang. This
involved standing in place, in a certain posture which he carefully adjusted. The idea (as I am just
beginning to understand it) is to move internally, while externally you are mostly still. To an outsider, it
appears simple, but it was to become one of the most challenging exercises I have ever done. Sifu
asked that I practice the pose for 20 minutes a day, and that I not miss a session. Naturally, I did miss a
few, but I held firm overall.
The process eased tension throughout my body, and, during class, when Sifu would routinely
ask me to stand for 40 minutes, I would afterwards be overcome with an intense feeling of well-being
and somehow more energized, despite the physical exertion.
Three months later I visited my doctor again. When he pulled up my A1c on his computer, he
laughed in disbelief. It was reading 6.9. To the layman, this is not a significant drop from 8, but in
terms of this test, tenths of a percent are large. A good drop from my previous 8.2 would’ve been, say,
7.8. I couldn’t remember – ever – being at less than maybe 7.3, and even that had been awhile ago. My
doctor decided that it was probably a mistake, and we ran the test again. I was as surprised as he, I had been particularly stressed out at school, and not taking the best of care of myself. I actually thought,
going in, that my test would be higher than the previous 8.2. But once he gave me the number, I knew
instantly that it was from my Tai Chi practice. I knew the retest would come back the same.
After it did, indeed, register 6.9 again, my doctor asked what exactly I had been doing. I
excitedly told him about my Tai Chi class and my standing. He listened and basically told me to keep at
whatever it was I was doing. I’m not sure if he could believe it was solely due to this one activity, but I
knew better – nothing else had changed in my routine.
I told Sifu of my results and I don’t know if he was surprised, but he was encouraged. He told
me to continue standing, but wanted me to do 40 minutes a day now. Also he said that, when possible,
he would like me to visit a friend of his, who is a doctor of Chinese medicine. Sifu said that he believed
my diabetes could be brought totally under control, possibly even cured, but that I would probably need
a regimen of herbs and naturopathic medicines to work on my organs from the inside.
Shortly after this, I began having to leave town for work. This became more and more frequent,
and eventually I stopped attending class and following my standing regimen. I did not return to class
again for many months.
When I was tested by my doctor again, shortly before my return to class, my number had again
jumped back to 8.2. I was not surprised, but I felt severely disappointed. Sifu welcomed me back to
class, though he had plans for me. My first assignment was to stand 40 minutes daily, in addition to our
class twice a week. If 20 minutes a day had brought me to 6.9, what would 40 do?
When standing, 40 minutes does not initially feel like twice as long as 20 minutes. It feels much
longer. But gradually, I adjusted. It can be difficult, in our fast-paced, modern lives, to find 40 minutes
to do something that is very trying physically. I have come to learn a lot about discipline through this
practice. But, as Sifu reminds me, unlike some people, I do not have a choice. Anyone interested in
improving their health will have to work hard, and those who are sick to begin with will have to work
twice as hard. As Sifu sagely advises us, you can pay now, or you can pay later.
As I write this, I am soon to take my A1c test again. I have been working hard to better my
health, but I’ll be honest – I can do more still. After decades of being taught that simply maintaining
yourself until you inevitably fall apart in a horrible fashion is the best you can hope for, it is odd to
encounter someone who takes an interest not just in helping you, but who genuinely wants to try curing
you – why not? You’d think the natural response would be to jump at the opportunity, but not always.
Over so much time, an identity develops around being “sick.” And it can be a bit scary to have one’s
identity threatened – even if it’s for the better. I admit to finding some resistance in myself at the
prospect of being truly healthy, much to my own surprise. I have come to think that this is one of the
faults of western medicine – in its clinical outlook, its scientific assurance, it overlooks the possibility
that something outside of its purview might, in fact, turn every fact it knows upside down.
I’m not sure how the number will be this time – my hectic lifestyle continues, but so does my
practice. As I am guided along by Sifu, I see how the horizon grows ever wider through this approach.
It may or may not “cure” me, but that isn’t really the point. It has given me an unasked for hope, both
through how I feel and by watching the progress of my fellow students – many of whom are dealing
with health issues much more trying than my own. I am extremely grateful to have found such an
inspiring teacher and supportive community. It wouldn’t surprise me to be told that simply being still
and listening can keep you alive.
- June, 2012