Every morning, thousands of people gather in Hong Kong’s beautiful public parks to practice tai chi, qi gong, kung fu and dance. Some practice alone, others in large groups; some exhibit a slow, quiet energy, fixed by their own concentration, while others are chatty and gregarious.
Most, if not all, are old.
My favourite group meets at 7:30 in the morning in a little park on the east side of Hong Kong Island. They practice tai chi together with an instructor: a man, probably in his late 60s, unassuming in khakis and a T-shirt. They begin by moving in unison through the twenty-four forms, after which he begins to teach. Frequently, the focus is on one minuscule motion: the transition of weight from one foot to the other, or a turn of the waist measuring only a few degrees.
It’s amazing. Inspiring, even. However, the source of my awe isn’t the teacher’s depth of knowledge—though he is clearly a master—but the behaviour of his students. No one shuffles impatiently waiting for the next move. No one cares about feeling the burn, or losing belly fat. They are content to listen—and content to repeat, over and over again, that one small moment in time in an effort to understand it.
They shift their weight, they move with care, and, every morning, they learn something.
In the West, to “get old” means to deteriorate: to wear out, to break down. It’s easy to think of time as an agent of erosion, like waves wearing down a cliffside. We rarely stop to consider that time is also how the cliff was built.
The Western mindset by no means a universal truth. When I watch Hong Kong’s elders, agile in a way that only comes from daily movement, the word “deteriorate” never once comes to mind. The Eastern version of “old” seems to recognize something we Westerners don’t: strength is temporal. Pursuing a balance—instead of a maximum—means cultivating knowledge, through strength, every day of your life.
So, here is my training advice, no matter what your sport or event: get old. Work diligently; be patient; pay attention. Start getting old this very minute. Like the qi gong master’s tiny movements, there is an abundance power in this simple idea—because choosing to get old means choosing how you get old.
The performance of a single day will never be as impressive as a long life lived well.