The Extraordinary Tai Chi Journey of Phil Londal
Beginning tai chi practitioners often don’t anticipate how consistent tai chi practice can become a grounding feature of their lives and help get them get through hard times. While many Gu Feng club members have experienced this phenomenon, perhaps none have done so in quite as dramatic a fashion as Gu Feng Tai Chi Club member Phil Londal.
At a regular Sunday class on May 10, 2015, Phil stood before the group to say goodbye. He explained that he was moving to another part of the country and that he would no longer be able to practice with the club on a regular basis. He also talked about his personal tai chi journey. By the time he was finished many of those listening had moist eyes.
Phil started his story by explaining that approximately 15 years earlier he was shopping when a bizarre accident occurred. He noticed someone look up in alarm and then recalls waking up in a hospital. Something had fallen on him. As a result he suffered a very profound brain injury. His memory wasn’t working. His balance was impaired. His mind was not clear. He was very much disabled.
As part of his attempt to rehabilitate himself, Phil decided to start practicing tai chi with the Gu Feng Tai Chi Club. He sensed that the mind/body skills of tai chi might help him and in fact the practice did seem to assist in his recovery somewhat. Yet after years of practice, he still couldn’t remember the names of other students with whom he was regularly practicing. His balance remained impaired. He was not in a good place.
About five years before his goodbye talk, Phil sought treatment from a famous medical specialist in California. That doctor suggested a very risky experimental procedure. If Phil agreed to go forward, his brain would be hyper stimulated in order to jump start it. That would be accomplished by placing Phil in a hyperbaric chamber for approximately 40 sessions while his brain was subjected to extremely powerful stimulants. Then, the doctor explained, Phil would be kind of crazy. It would take an extended period for Phil’s brain to be retrained so that it could work properly again. The doctor predicted that the process would be very unpleasant.
Phil accepted the challenge and received the treatment. As the doctor had predicted, Phil went crazy. He had weeks without any sleep at all. He imagined himself screaming, only to realize that he was actually screaming. It took five months for him to get through the worst of it.
Phil reported that there were only three things he was able to do consistently during the most intense part of his recovery. He was able to go to the grocery store. He was able to make his doctor’s appointments. And, he was able to regularly attend tai chi practice sessions.
Phil explained that the consistent tai chi practice helped him put his brain back together. Eventually his balance improved. His mind cleared. He was able to sleep again. He was back.
A main theme in Phil’s goodbye talk was how much Tai Chi principles and practice helped him during his difficult journey of rehabilitation. Mindfulness training, the stable presence of the tai chi group in his life and the positive club atmosphere were all extremely important to him during his recovery. During the most difficult moments in the hyperbaric chamber, Phil recalled the old Chinese saying often recited by lead instructor Laura Ting: Plant beans, get beans. Plant melons, get melons. This concept “you get out of an endeavor what you put into it” helped Phil persevere through the most challenging parts of his journey.
The audience for Phil’s May 5th goodbye talk knew him as an intelligent, articulate, funny, caring and fully functional human being. He was the one to whom the club turned to do a host of technical and other tasks. He ran sound systems. He took club photos. He was always ready to reach out to those who needed assistance. In fact, most of those listening to his goodbye talk had no previous idea about the difficult road that Phil had traveled.
Due to his brain injury, Phil was not able to progress rapidly when he first joined the club. However, with dedication and perseverance, the level of his tai chi practice and his recovery progressed hand in hand over a period of 10 years. Phil explained that during that time he received strong support from the club’s teachers and from other students. For that he expressed great appreciation. Wherever you are, club instructors will meet you there, he said. He was effusive in describing how much members of the Gu Feng instructors’ group (also called the core group) care about all club members in ways that extend far beyond issues of tai chi technique.
Professional opportunities and family issues caused Phil to move out of this area and he will no longer be able to practice with the club on a regular basis. However, the inspiration he has provided will remain.