When I took Tai Chi, my martial arts instructor loved to remind me to, “Be the cheetah.” I always assumed he meant flexible and fast until one day he elaborated. “Cheetah is only fast when he has to be. Most times, he is slow. Because slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”
Huh. I went to the library and found a book about cheetahs (this was in a pre-Google world). I learned that cheetahs are indeed the fastest animals in the world, reaching speeds of up to 70 mph. But I was more astounded by the fact that their speed is not the only – or even the primary – reason they are such amazing predators. It’s true that they have incredible acceleration, able to increase their speed by 6 mph in a single stride. But cheetahs rarely run all that fast when they are hunting. Instead, they rely on their ability to decrease their speed quickly. They can literally slow themselves down almost 10 mph in every stride. This allows them to make tight, perfect turns to pounce on their nimble prey.
In other words, it isn’t really about being fast. It’s about the ability to pivot with precision. And to do that, they have to slow down first. Because slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
What a metaphor for existence. To quote Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast.” He’s not wrong. Did you know that our planet is rotating at a speed of about 1,000 miles per hour and orbiting around the Sun at a speed of about 67,000 miles per hour at all times? We are literally hurtling through space like a comet every moment of our day, yet we don’t notice this motion because the speeds are constant.
Most of us are equally unaware of how quickly we are moving through our lives, chasing one brass ring after another, our days endlessly filled with forward momentum that gets us nowhere. We start and end our days mindlessly consuming content without ever pausing to process it all. We live under a crushing weight of demands, both real and imagined. Our nervous systems are in a constant state of fight-or-flight, though we’re often running from time itself.
Because we’re moving quickly, we think we’re the cheetah. But we’re actually the unaware gazelle, running without direction, knocking down everything in our path.
In Ayurveda, this gazelle-like state of rushing without precision is known as a vata imbalance. Ayurveda is a traditional system of medicine from India that seeks to integrate body, mind, and spirit using a holistic approach. It emphasizes diet, movement, sleep, meditation, and deep breathing. Vata is a state of forward-moving energy. It helps us get out of bed and see to our daily tasks. But too much vata results in feeling stressed out, overwhelmed, impatient, unfocused, exhausted, impulsive, and restless. It results in a body that struggles to move well and a mind that struggles to quiet at all. Sound familiar? Yet these characteristics are deeply embedded in our culture, accepted and sometimes even celebrated.
We need to be the cheetah. Speed is useful occasionally, but only with smooth precision. We need to practice slowing down to speed up, to be more deliberate in each moment to know where we’re headed and when to pivot. Because slow is smooth and smooth is fast.