Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Skating Monks!

By Lisa Maliga

It was a fairly typical public session for a weekday afternoon at the skating rink in Los Angeles, California. A few home-schooled adolescents were training for their next competition. A housewife in new skates struggled with her back crossovers, and two men in burgundy sweats and rental skates remained shakily upright. Men in their thirties with close cropped black hair and dark skin were not that unusual a sight in Southern California. But before they had changed into their skating attire they’d been wearing burgundy and gold monk’s robes. 

That morning the Tibetan Buddhist monks had been involved in their practice of chanting mantras and later having their morning cup of milky Indian tea. The monks wore the Tibetan Buddhist version of a three-piece suit; the robes consisted of a long skirt, gold and maroon vest and a separate cloth winding around the upper body sari-style. Hanging around Tibetan lamas was something I was accustomed to as I visited the center frequently. Yeshi and Tenzin were of Tibetan descent and had been raised in Bhutan and India respectively. Studying in a South Indian monastery, exposure to any type of skating had been via satellite. When the tangka [religious] painters got to America they knew who the names of Olympians Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski. Tenzin, the younger monk, had been given a pair of inline skates but had only tried them out on the bumpy driveway with no instruction. Yeshi, the senior monk with a doctorate in Buddhist studies, had never been on any type of skate before.

Their standard attire wasn’t conducive to skating, so the resourceful monks brought along suitable athletic apparel in their knapsack. I’d never traveled anywhere with monks but the trip to the rink was entertaining as they described all the sites they’d seen in Southern California. They had visited Magic Mountain, Disneyland, Universal Studios, and had pictures of the Hollywood sign. Lakers fan Tenzin had seen his favorite basketball team play twice at the Staples Center, once viewing a game from a box seat. 

The security patrol car in the parking lot had stopped near my car where I was unloading my skate bag, and the uniformed guard stared at the two robed Buddhist monks. On or off the ice, men just didn’t wear skirts, even in Southern California. After my pals changed into their burgundy warm-ups, they were able to watch a senior level pairs team run through their long program. The coach with the gold blades was the two-time Olympic pairs champion and I informed them of this fact.  Meanwhile, Timothy Goebel was warming up. Tenzin and Yeshi were very impressed with the high quality of skating and Yeshi joked: "I could do that!" when the man lifted the girl above his head in a star lift.  More comments were made, with Tenzin remarking that: "I can do a triple Axel." I smiled. I knew that he would skate well but probably wouldn’t even complete a bunny hop.

As it was a weekday afternoon so there weren’t too many skaters. Once we changed into our skates, we went over to the entrance and Tenzin was the first one on the newly resurfaced ice. The comments about doing triple Axels faded quickly from his memory. The young man was attempting to keep his feet beneath him and the blades pointed due north. His knees stiffened and I had to hold his hands. Once he got to the first corner I helped Yeshi onto the alien surface. An aesthetic type, I wondered how long the senior monk would last and if he wouldn’t be happier sitting in the bleachers drawing pictures of Buddha. His body was almost in a state of rigor mortis and I was worried that he’d fall and not be able to get up. I left him to hold up the railing while I skated over to coach Tenzin. As I was gently leading Tenzin I felt it…that instant before the inevitable fall. His knees locked, his feet slid forward and continued to do so until his rear end made contact with the ice. There was a torrent of laughter. In unison the monks’ amusement filled the rink. The word icebreaker was apt! Soon Yeshi experienced his first fall and remained on ice in a seated half lotus posture, too baffled to get up. 

Progress was slow, as swizzles, two footed skating, which required a lot of knee bending, wasn’t understood by either artist. Tenzin interpreted bending his knees to mean his waist even though his comprehension of English was fluent. My goal was to have them glide on the ice rather than hobble about as many beginners did. I decided to have them do a scooter like move with one foot straight and the back foot slightly turned out with the blade doing the pushing. This method worked for them and they began to make quicker progress than before. Their concentration was keen. Falls still elicited laughter from the fallen and the friend. Tenzin’s blades slammed into the wall and he did a half belly flop.  Yeshi completely lost his balance when his hips and feet had an internal argument. 

Tenzin greeted each lap around the rink with enthusiasm and a sense of accomplishment.  Yeshi used his advanced yoga training to imitate his teacher and his skills surpassed that of the younger and more athletic Tenzin! He was able to balance so well on one foot that he began to do a modified spiral. This was to skating what the arabesque was to ballet or the scale to gymnastics. One leg was extended behind the skater so it was parallel to the ice. Rarely did beginners attempt such a move unless they had extensive athletic training.  I wondered if Yeshi was an incarnation of a former world championship level figure skater! 

For over two hours the "ice babies" frolicked on the cold surface they’d grown to love.  An advanced level teen commented on their progress, stating that most first time adult skaters never let go of the railing. And like any successful novice, they spent some time in the uncrowded center ice area.

Although I was their teacher, I learned more from them. I was shown how mindfulness of one’s surroundings allowed a person to excel in an unfamiliar activity. The monks harmed neither themselves nor any other skater. They didn’t attempt moves that were too difficult, yet they tried to perfect what they’d been taught. When I told them that the session was nearly over, both were genuinely surprised. Not once had the men looked at the clock.

No matter what path one follows, effort is always necessary. But enthusiastic effort was what the practitioner was encouraged to cultivate. The monks skated for the first time that day demonstrated the latter point perfectly. With sincerity and effort they tried something new and succeeded.

As they cast a final, seemingly longing glance at the rink, I asked if they wanted to skate again. Athletic Tenzin didn't seem too sure, but Yeshi, the intellectual artist-turned-skater, did!

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