Healing after Divorce with Tai Chi

Even after her divorce was final, the stress—and the pain that accompanied it—remained. Could an unfamiliar, eastern martial-arts discipline be the answer?

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- Posted on May 20, 2015

Mikki Davis has found that tai chi integrates very well with her faith.

Tension mounted in my shoulders. My back ached. Every joint cried out in pain. It felt like I hadn’t slept at all. Relax, Mikki, I told myself as I climbed out of bed for work. But it was no use. My mind and my spirit were in even worse shape than my body.

Robbed. That’s how I’d felt ever since the divorce. My life as I knew it had been stolen from me. I’d been a pastor’s wife, married to my high school sweetheart. Together we’d planted and pastored churches around the country, raised three wonderful sons and made our home here in Oklahoma. Then one of our churches was shut down after attendance dropped. My husband snapped. He couldn’t cope with failure. He walked away from God—and eventually walked out on me.

Even now, years later, the rejection, anxiety and depression hadn’t faded. The stress caused my chronic fatigue syndrome to flare up. I tried vitamins and supplements with no relief. Exercise of any kind was too painful. I worked at a pharmaceutical company, but I was on antidepressants and pain medication just to get through each day and was making so many mistakes I feared losing my job.

All I had left was my faith. Even that left me with doubt. My husband’s leaving had destroyed my trust...not just in men, but in God’s plan for my life.

READ MORE: 12 ALL-NATURAL WAYS TO BE STRESS-FREE

Before I left for work, I opened my Bible. I turned to a verse that always spoke to me, Ephesians 3:20–21, and smoothed out the page, crinkled from dried tears. “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory....”

More than all we ask...I definitely had some questions. Lord, if I’m not Mikki the pastor’s wife, who am I? What am I supposed to do with my life? Will this pain and stress ever go away? I wanted to believe his power was at work in me, but I just couldn’t feel it.

“Mikki, I’m worried about you,” my coworker said when I got to the office. “I know you’re hurting, but maybe it would do you good to get out and meet someone.”

“Nope,” I said. “Not interested.”

“What about one of those online dating sites? You could always sign up and just see what happens.”

I shook my head. “No, thanks. I don’t need any more stress.”

That night I crawled into bed, my body still aching and my mind still in overdrive. I kept thinking about what my coworker had said. “See what happens.”

The next morning I woke up early and signed up for a personals site. I kept it simple. I mentioned I was a Christian, that I loved my three sons and my grandchildren. I didn’t check my profile for messages much. I couldn’t bear to be rejected again.

One day I noticed I had a “wink” from a user named Juztmeee. I clicked on his profile. Tall. Handsome. Warm hazel eyes. Worked for an educational software company. Like me, he was divorced and had three grown sons. Most important, he was a Christian. But one thing gave me pause. One weird thing. At least to me. There was a photo of him in a white martial-arts uniform.

“I’m into Tai Chi,” he’d written in the caption. Tai Chi? I’d seen it practiced at the park. It seemed so strange and eastern, so un-Christian.

Yet now, staring at the wink (and at his hazel eyes) I did something decidedly un-Mikki. I winked back.

A couple of hours later, there was a message in my in-box. “Hi, there. My name is Bill. I’d like to get to know you better.” He asked me about my relationship with Jesus Christ.

“He is the Lord of my life,” I responded. Then I got right to what I was wondering about. “I’d like to know more about Tai Chi,” I wrote. “What is it, exactly? How did you get involved?”

Bill explained that Tai Chi was originally developed in ancient China as a martial art for self-defense. With low-impact, carefully orchestrated movements, it evolved over time into an exercise practiced more for health purposes. Bill practiced Wu style Tai Chi, which had a “form,” or set of movements, with 108 moves. He’d gotten into it 10 years earlier, after hurting his back and researching alternative healing treatments.

Tai Chi, he said, alleviated his pain and his symptoms of Crohn’s disease too. “I was diagnosed a long time ago, when I was in the Army, but I’m better than I’ve been in years. I’ve never felt so at peace,” he wrote. “Or closer to God.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of that, but I couldn’t deny that we hit it off. E-mails flew back and forth. Bill wanted to know about my life, my faith, my struggles and fears—deep things. And when I asked him questions, he didn’t just dash off something he thought I wanted to hear. His replies were long and thoughtful, and most of all, they were genuine. I found myself opening up to him in a way I hadn’t to anyone since my divorce.

Then Bill asked me to meet him at a coffee shop. I was nervous. What if we didn’t connect the way we did online? But I saw him and felt a flutter of excitement. He was even cuter than in his pictures. I’d thought Tai Chi was Bill’s greatest passion. As we talked, though, I discovered that even greater was his passion for God. He was an usher at his church, active in his singles group, and read Scripture every day.

We shared our favorite verses and got so wrapped up in conversation that we totally lost track of time. Like two teenagers. The baristas had to kick us out because they were closing for the night. When we parted, he said, “I’ve found that God puts people into my life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. I’m looking forward to seeing what he has in mind for you.”

Wow! The end of my marriage had left me overwhelmed with distrust. Now I was falling for this guy on our very first date! Unbelievable, right? There was just one explanation that made sense to me: God was at work here, a power within me! Only he could open my heart so fully again.

That’s why I didn’t hesitate when Bill asked me on a different kind of date. “Mikki, will you come with me to Tai Chi class?”

“Sure,” I said, curious to see what this stuff was all about. But when we walked into the kwoon, the training room where the class was held, I was hit with misgivings. Seven people in black uniforms with sashes of different colors stood in rows. They looked strong and fit. It was intimidating. Bill took my hand. “Just do what you can,” he said, “You’ll be fine. I’m right here.”

The class started with slow stretching exercises. I managed to do them. The breathing exercises that came next were a challenge. I pushed through. Then the class began the form, shifting gracefully from a crouching position to a slight twist, moving their arms forward and up over their heads. My arms didn’t bend that way!

“You’re doing great,” Bill said. “Keep going.” Many movements had interesting names like strum the lute and grasp the bird’s tail. I tried to keep up. At the end of class, I was stiff. The next morning, surprisingly, I didn’t feel more sore than usual. If anything, I was able to get out of bed with a bit less pain.

I kept going to Tai Chi with Bill. Each time, he’d talk me through the forms, gently moving my hands, arms or feet into the correct position. Once, during a particularly difficult movement, he gently shook my wrist. “Deep breaths, hon. You can do it.”

“I can’t,” I whispered.

READ MORE: A HUSBAND'S HEALING PRAYER

“Inhale Christ’s love,” he said, demonstrating. “And exhale your stress.”

I’d never thought of it that way. I tried again. Inhale. I thought of how God had brought Bill—and joy—into my life so unexpectedly. Exhale. I breathed out, expelling the stress and pain that had built up in me.

No wonder Bill was so passionate about Tai Chi! I could feel God’s power working within me, like living and breathing my favorite verse.

Fifteen months after we met, Bill and I were married. With every Tai Chi class, I grew stronger, more flexible, more balanced. More at peace. I joined Bill’s church, First Baptist of Moore, Oklahoma, and after the service, we’d practice Tai Chi at a nearby park. We practiced everywhere together—in the kwoon, on a gravel road out in the country, on the beach, on the side of a mountain (a balance test for sure), on a train in the Andes after a Tai Chi retreat.

Through Tai Chi and Bill’s patience I actually learned to relax! Moving in sync like this was a kind of intimacy I’d never experienced before with another person. It was part of worshipping God together.

One day Bill confided, “My dream is to start a Tai Chi class at church. And for you to teach with me.” I was all for it. I wanted other folks to know that practicing our faith and practicing Tai Chi flowed together, that it could help keep them physically and spiritually fit.

Like Bill, I earned my white sash, the highest level. With our classmates from the kwoon, we formed the Central Oklahoma Tai Chi Club and taught classes at our church. That’s right. A bunch of Baptists doing martial arts!

With Tai Chi, a strict diet, cranial-sacral massage and a lot of prayer, I finally got off all my painkillers and antidepressants. If I missed a class, my body stiffened up again. But as long as I kept up with Tai Chi, my pain was practically nonexistent. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if God hadn’t plopped you into my life, Mikki,” Bill said to me after class one day. I knew exactly what he meant.

We’d been married for four years when Bill was diagnosed with endstage lymphoma, which had grown in an old Crohn’s adhesion. In only nine weeks, he was gone. God blessed me by letting me hold Bill as he passed into eternity, but once again, life as I knew it was shattered.

This time, though, I knew how to pick up the pieces. I went to church and taught Tai Chi. My first class without Bill, I wasn’t sure I could get through it. But with each movement, each breath, I felt God’s presence within me, the love, peace and joy Bill helped me rediscover.

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