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Western vs. Eastern Learning

2012-12-20 4 min read Surfing marco

Today, surfing reminded me of my days doing Tai Chi.

OK, you say. Whatever. Hear me out.

My buddy and co-worker Dudley said I should do Tai Chi with him. I had seen them do it (since “perform” or “workout” don’t work too well) at the Jardin du Luxembourg one May morning, and it looked blissful. (Plus, twenty years later I manage to get a gratuitous reference to the Jardin du Luxenbourg in a blog post!). So I did join.

We had one wonderful teacher, a master of his art. Apparently, a routine consists of 32 moves, and he would explain one after the other. The whole routine would last something like 15 minutes. By the time we became Tai Chi masters, we would have achieved perfection in each of the moves.

I sucked. My suckage was total. I am glad I didn’t fatally wound anyone in the gigantic room, since I managed to always move in the wrong direction. It was comical. Dudley laughed half the time. I am sure he told his wife every night, because when she saw me for the first time, she giggled like a schoolgirl. When I meet his kids for the first time, they’ll giggle, too.

I didn’t really suck totally. But I managed to suck every class. How is that possible? It’s the way the instructor taught: he would start with sequence 1. Then we would repeat sequence 1 and add sequence 2. When we would have done that, we’d start with sequence 1, go on to sequence 2, then finish with sequence 3.

That way, we got to do sequence 32 at most once every class. I really had no idea what the last seven sequences looked like until the year was over.

Now, in Western-style classes things are different: you learn sequence 1. When you know how that goes, you move on to sequence 2. When you are done with that, you learn to tie sequence 2 to sequence 1. Then you move on to sequence 3, tie it to 2. Then 4, etc. That’s a very efficient process, and ensures that you learn all parts of your workout/dance equally well.

Instead, in Tai Chi (at least according to our teacher), you would mysteriously always be worse at sequence 32 than at sequence 1.

How does that matter for surfing? Because surfing is just like Tai Chi: until you know the first item in surfing, you cannot move on to item 2. If you don’t know how to duck dive, you’ll have a hard time reaching the lineup. If you can’t reach the lineup, you’ll always be stuck in small fry or whitewash.

Once you are in the lineup, you have to learn how to get into the waves. Until you do that, waves will either bury you or pass you by.

Once you know how to get into a wave, you need to learn how to pop up in good time and master standing. This part is all muscle memory – which really stinks, because it means you need to pop up hundreds or thousands of time just to learn how that goes. But until you do, you can’t do anything with a wave.

The rest is the same way: once you are on the wave, you need to learn to move your board; once you know how to move your board, you need to learn the different tricks; once you learned the different tricks… that’s your sequence 32!

Today reminded me of that. We had a big storm that dumped the catastrophic amount of 1 inch of rain on San Diego. Usually, the day after a storm is awful: bumpy, uneven, sectiony, catastrophic. To make things worse, the waves were supposed to be overhead. Overhead wind swell means lots and lots of paddling. I was not really looking forward.

But then we got into the water. The paddle out was horrible, with wave after wave washing over me and pushing and pulling in all directions. Twice I had some guy paddling in front of me, who was almost thrown onto my board when a wave washed by.

Then, the waves in the lineup. Ugly, for sure. But they were narrow, with shoulders that would get steep in the center, but had little punch on the sides. I knew how to handle them, and I knew I didn’t need to be afraid. So I took them. And I surprised myself, by having tons of fun, hopping on and riding down, moving on back up.

I am getting there. I am somewhere between 21 and 22, with another huge mountain of skill waiting to be conquered.

But it feels good!