Tying Shoes, Toaking and Tai Chi

I’m 28 now and around Christmas time I thought it was about time I learn to tie my shoes.

I don’t know how I stumbled on his site – I love how niche the internet goes – but according to Ian Fieggen, aka Professor Shoelace, for the best part of three decades I’ve been doing it wrong.

Instead of the orthodox reef knot, I have been securing my shoes with ‘granny knots’. The Professor goes into detail in this video, but to sum up, while former leaves your shoes securely fastened, the incorrect variation is prone to coming loose. A granny knot is easy to distinguish from the orthodox knot – its bow lies lengthways, instead of straddling the breadth of your foot.

Not wanting to go against the grain, I decided to address this issue and remaster the art of shoelace tying.

The first few months of reprogramming were the toughest. I had to really think through my method and, each time I stooped to fasten my laces, I resisted compulsive twitches, as ingrained muscle memory tried to reestablish control.

Muscovites are tardy folk and regrettably since I started working here, some of this attitude has taken root… and blossomed. I have the tendency now of leaving the house not a minute earlier than I’m in danger of being late. I usually make appointments on time, but by narrow margins.

A few weeks back, I was performing my usual 7am routine. Having lain in bed checking emails and playing Clash of Clans since 6 (evil, addictive game – must delete soon), I had ten minutes to make myself passable for inspection by the world.

My standard pre-door-exit to and fro involves packing my bag, getting dressed and trying not to slop too much tea down my unironed shirt. I do all on tiptoes, as I try to avoid stirring my good-natured, but conversation-happy Italian flatmate.

On this occasion, after closing the front door on Francesco mid-conversation and loping the seven minute walk to the metro, I sat down on a hard seat, out of breath but more or less on time. I then noticed my feet. The bows of both shoes lay horizontally across my foot.

Success! (If in a mad rush I don’t revert to old patterns, I think that’s mission complete.)

I tell this anecdote, not to bore you with details of my mundane, rather nerdy mission to tie my shoes in the correct fashion, but because it got me thinking: every time I’ve trained myself out of bad habit, success came through transformation rather than cessation.

Back in the day, I used to smoke. I’m not sure how addicted I was, but it was a routine. When, at the venerable age of nineteen, I decided to call it a day, I didn’t just stop cold turkey. I replaced smoking pit stops with another, more beneficial pastime.

The end of my smoking days overlapped with me starting Tai Chi. For those who aren’t familiar – or for whom it brings to mind aging hippies directing invisible traffic in the park – let me introduce the subject. Tai Chi Chuan is a form of qigong (‘breath/energy work’), a moving mediation. Originating in ancient China, it combines breathing and relaxed muscle change to enhance your psychophysical health. When you perform it correctly, Tai Chi’s movements also have martial applications.

Because I started qigong at a similar time to giving up smoking, at the times when I would have normally skinned up, walked outside and inhaled deeply, I just walked outside… and inhaled deeply. Instead of breathing in a cocktail of chemicals though, I would practise the latest exercise that Bruce (my teacher) had taught me.

The two activities – smoking and qigong – are similar in many ways. Both involve controlled, deep breathing and both are used for introversion time. They also form, traditionally at least, an aspect of spiritual practice for their parent cultures. However, while one remains beneficial, the other is a less desirable activity.

The lack of nicotine imbibed when I went outside for some qigong didn’t seemed to affect how addictive it was in the slightest. I exchanged one routine for the another. And I didn’t miss smoking in the slightest.

Maybe I don’t have a very addictive personality, and though I smoked a few times in the years following quitting (though nothing for 7 years or so), I haven’t experienced any desire to take up the habit again.

There were other factors involved, of course: two of my best friends stopped at a similar time (so no contrary peer influence); and within a year I would start a new phase of my life in China. But I still feel that swapping one habit for a similar, but less harmful routine is easier than an abrupt stop.

I’ve tried this in other areas of my life and had similar success.

In the martial and healing aspects of Tai Chi, we talk of making holes and filling holes. For martial this means creating space for an opponent to fall into. In healing, once we’ve got stagnant energy away from a sore spot, we refill that area with vibrant, fresh energy – energy which moves. If you create a space, something has to fill it.

Unless you find something healthy to plug a gap, you can be sure that the destructive tendency will reassert dominance.

Armed with this awareness, I need to design some transitional habits for my present nemeses: dairy and unconscious nose picking when I’m deep in thought. For the latter, I think the classical beard stroke might be more classy…