Q & A with people who teach Tai Chi.
Edited by Mae Waldron, Alison Odell, and April Hulvershorn
Edited by Mae Waldron, Alison Odell, and April Hulvershorn
Thomas Malone teaches in NYC.
Jonathan Stow teaches in NYC.
David Goodell teaches in Seattle.
It would be hard to overstate the health benefits of tai chi, even for those who are very ill. There is mountain of research demonstrating the positive effects of a regular practice of tai chi and the related art of Qigong.
Professor Cheng, my teacher’s teacher, was a great example of how tai chi can restore health. He was a brilliant young physician with a weak constitution. In the 1920’s he was dying of tuberculosis when, as a last resort, he began to learn and practice tai chi. After practicing for a few months, he stopped coughing up blood and his condition improved.
Once he became well, he stopped his tai chi practice. Before long he contracted tuberculosis again. He resumed his practice and regained his health. Again he stopped. Again he became sick.
Finally realizing that tai chi was the key to maintaining his health, he resolved to practice every day without fail. He became well again and enjoyed excellent health for the next 50 years. He later wrote, “Heaven sent me illness after illness to cure me of my indolence.”
How can this slow, relaxed series of movements be so beneficial?
Thousands of years ago the Chinese realized that the foundation of health is our vital energy, sometimes called “chi” or “qi”. It comes from the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the strength and vitality we inherited from our parents. The abundant, free flow of this energy throughout our body enables every organ, tissue, and gland to function optimally. When this energy is blocked, depleted, polluted, or agitated the organs that depend on it lose their ability to function effectively, opening the door to disease.
Tai chi works directly with this vital energy, restoring and cultivating an abundant, balanced flow. In my experience, nothing has a more enduring and deeply beneficial effect than the gentle, relaxed movements of tai chi. They calm the mind, relax the body, restore our flexibility and strength, and teach us to interact with each other in a gentle, supportive way.
Happiness, purposefulness, a sense of belonging and enjoyment of life with those around us help us find the courage and resolve to become well again. Practicing tai chi with one’s friends, especially the sensing hands practice that provides joyful, gentle supportive physical contact, is incredibly beneficial. Words cannot fully convey the feeling of relaxed, well-being that such a practice produces. –David Goodell
Patrick Watson, our school’s founder suggested starting to learn tai chi at age 4. I got a late start on my tai chi journey as I didn’t start learning until I was 9. I lament having wasted those five precious years!
I went to tai chi summer camp when I was 9, and I started learning the tai chi form. More importantly at that age, I got to play the tai chi kids’ games. The tai chi kids’ games were Patrick Watson’s unique contribution to our lineage. He designed them to transmit the principles of tai chi to children through what feels like play rather than study.
The principles began to permeate other aspects of my life while I was growing up. I can remember knowing to focus in my tantien when learning to drop in on a skateboard ramp and when playing sports in general. I also learned the virtue of relaxing in the face of adversity, such as during accidents or when falling down.
As I got older, in my teens and early 20s, experience taught me to go to my tai chi practice when I was in emotional turmoil. The practice would eventually calm me and ground me. At 19, I started practicing daily, and I gradually began to notice more global changes in my life. For example, in college and grad school I had experiences of gracefulness and ease in my everyday movements. I also noticed more ease in my relations with others. Friends would comment on this ease and ask me about it, and I would always attribute it to my tai chi practice, especially to push hands practice with a partner. All of the teachings of push hands can be applied to harmonious and successful human interaction.
Beyond all of these everyday life perks that come with the consistent practice of tai chi, there is a deeper level of mind-body-spirit integration that is not as easy to convey with words, and it comes from cultivating the meditative aspects of this art. This integration has given me moments of “living awareness” and “a way of being and doing” in life. At some point the boundary began to blur between where my practice ends and the rest of my life begins. Eventually, like with Professor Cheng, a seamlessness develops between the two, and every moment is enhanced by being in the tai chi state. –Thomas Malone
From a safety and balance perspective, tai chi principle has come through for me on multiple occasions, from having to navigate slippery surfaces or dodge projectiles to avoiding fights and riding crowd currents at concerts or in subways.
For example, on one occasion when I was 23, I was crossing an intersection on foot. I walked in front of a stopped car and saw the driver was looking down at something. I kept my awareness on the driver because I could feel something was about to happen. Sure enough, right as I was in front of his car, he started driving forward into me without looking up to check to see if he had a clear path.
Without having time to think, my body simply reacted to the incoming force of the vehicle and used that force to spin myself 360 degrees off to the side of the car, where I landed softly on my feet. The driver then belatedly slammed on the brakes and, from a state of shock, asked me if I were okay. I smiled and waved at him affirmatively and went on my way. It was actually an enjoyable feeling, because there was no tension, fear, or panic, and I never felt any impact from the car or when landing on my feet. It all felt smooth and seamless, and I felt a calm sense of being in control throughout.
There are many examples like this in the lives of the students and apprentices in our school. In fact, Patrick Watson described this sort of tai chi response in everyday life, as reported by his students, as proof to him that the teaching method in our school is working, because it is the transmission of tai chi principle that is the most important result. If you are practicing principle in your daily tai chi practice, then it will be there for you when you need it.
Professor Cheng even went so far as to say that one can be practicing tai chi principle 24 hours a day. Even while sitting, and especially under times of duress, you can practice the tai chi diaphragmatic breathing, while staying focused in the tantien. At night you can sleep in the so-called “sleeping Buddha” posture that Professor Cheng Man-ching recommended, and which we teach to our upper-level push hands students. –Thomas Malone
Tai chi has many similarities to sitting meditation. The most obvious is single pointed focus. When moving through the form, it is our intention to have the Yi (heart and mind) rest in the tantien. With our awareness concentrated in the tantien, we begin to explore our ability to move without disturbing either this awareness or our sense of calm. To paraphrase the Classics: even though a mountain may fall in front of us our countenance will remain unchanged.
Another similarity between sitting meditation and tai chi is awareness of the breath. ‘Let the form breath you,’ is a commonly stated phrase. If you maintain long, full, slow and relaxed breathing initiated by the tantien, completely filling and completely emptying the lungs, the form starts to follow your natural rhythm. I find this to be one of the best practices to maintain a meditative state while practicing tai chi.
It does take effort to learn the form, which, in itself, is part of training the mind to relax. Professor Cheng said, “The key to doing tai chi is easy, you just simply relax.” Simple, but perhaps not easy.
For me, the benefit of practicing my meditation while doing the form as opposed to during sitting, is that the experience more closely resembles what I am doing while moving through life. The benefits of the practice translate seamlessly into daily activities. –Jonathan Stow
“Push” might be a bit of a misnomer, or at the least, a limited translation. What we are doing in the “push of no push” is facilitating another’s desire to move in one direction without adding an ounce of our own intention into the equation.
When movement is initiated by our partner, we offer no resistance and seek unity. This happens before we even touch. If they are yin, we are yang. If they are yang, we are yin. We allow all of “them” and all of “us” to pass through us into the earth, effectively becoming “one”. When this happens we simply follow without intention. This is my highest understanding and best attempt to describe something that is inadequately conveyed with words. –Jonathan Stow
Anything is possible; however, you may find the experience of learning the sword form without first doing the solo form and push hands frustrating. It may also produce a less than rewarding relationship with the sword. Many nuanced skills that are learned in the tai chi form and push hands may be difficult to pick up in the more rapidly changeable sword form.
Consider the following analogy. If we think of a tree, the body is the root. The sword is the branch. If the root is stable the branch can grow as tall as the root is deep. It would be difficult to grow the branch first and then try to fill in the root underneath.
When we take up the sword and wield it effectively, its weight passes through us into the earth. For this to happen, we must first learn to get out of the way. Practicing the tai chi form trains us to deeply relax any tension we are holding in our body. It gives us the opportunity to have all of our movements coming from a concentrated awareness in our tantien so that effortless movement is realized.
Our exploration of the solo form opens the possibility of being able to maintain effortless movement and concentration when we are in contact with another person. In the sensing hands partner work, we are invited to not only relax our own bodies, but also to relax and release any pressure generated by engaging with another person. This ability is paramount to wielding a sword, and sensing hands gives us the opportunity to practice it with something (someone) that does not have a sharp blade. –Jonathan Stow