I was bitten by the t’ai chi bug on the day I watched a demonstration by two men moving very strangely in an old church in Manhattan in the late 1970s.
I had never seen this before: two grown men moving powerfully, lightly, and slowly, separately yet together. The unison of their movements was complete, and each contraction and expansion of arms and torso and legs flowed into the next. They turned and shifted as one, their concentration palpable in the room.
I told myself, I have got to learn how to do that. So I did.
I was so keen on it, I can even remember bargaining with God. “Please don’t let me die before I learn this, God.” Apparently he heard me.
I learned the short Yang form popularized by Cheng Man-ch’ing, who taught for a number of years in New York City. The fellow I learned from was a student of “The Professor” as many of his students called him, and of one of his senior students. The guys who put on the demonstration were also senior students of the Professor, who died in 1975, just before I became interested in t’ai chi.
Cheng Man-ch’ing was an accomplished man, an old-style Chinese poet, painter and Chinese medicine doctor, besides being extraordinarily skilled at t’ai chi ch’uan. You can get a sense of the man, the form, push hands and sword form from this archival video. When I watch him, I always get a sense of a penetrating softness, ordinary as rain, and as hard to avoid.
So what’s this t’ai chi stuff anyway? Is that dance, or Chinese yoga… How can moving slow be any kind of martial art? And the name t’ai chi ch’uan means Supreme Ultimate Fist or Boxing? Come on!
I will explore more of the martial depth of t’ai chi, and especially the Cheng Man-ching form, in another post. Practice of The Form (I’ve always thought of it capitalized) and, after a while, push hands, the gentle two person exploration of balance and posture, are incredible methods of training, if approached as a long-term study.
Tai chi without the martial aspect is pointless waving of arms, or some kind of lovely dance, but it is not tai chi ch’uan. Knowledge of the martial meaning of the movements keeps them true, even if The Form is practiced primarily for health, which is so important, or as a kind of moving meditation.
Over the years, I learned long Yang form, various sword forms, a stick or flute form, 48-movement Combined (mostly Yang), Wu tai chi, both original Chen forms, pa kua (or ba gua), hsing-i, a variety of push hands, and at the same time kept learning and practicing aikido and western fencing. I kept myself busy. I became a kind of tai chi bum, playing tai chi and making friends in New York, San Francisco, and Vancouver parks and studios.
In the martial arts world, and especially t’ai chi, there are as many sects and factions and promoters of their way to the truth as you might find in Christianity, say, with the Mormons and the Presbyterians, the Methodists and the Catholics and the Baptists. It can be confusing. Everybody is always so sure their way is the only right way, although certain common principles do apply.
I always remember the well-known tai chi master I met in a park in San Francisco. He came over to a couple of us independents who had sat down on a bench near where his class was practicing.
He was very friendly and we were very respectful. We asked him a couple of questions about his style. He asked us similar questions about our background. We were proud about all the different forms and styles we thought we knew. He shook his head. “The best form is the first one you learn. You stay with it. It will teach you everything if you practice hard. Don’t practice a lot of different ones.” At the time, I thought he was being too severe, but I think now, there’s much wisdom in what he said.
At a certain point I realized that I didn’t have enough time in the day to practice everything I learned as it all deserved to be practiced, and still go to work and have relationships.
So in the tai chi and other Chinese internal arts realm, I cut back severely a number of years ago. I’ve returned to that first form I learned so long ago with new appreciation for its simplicity, softness and depth. That radical softness always reminds me of the aphorism: which lasts longer, the tongue or the teeth?
In conclusion, I thought I’d offer some of the more useful tai chi resources I’ve found on the Web. There’s a lot out there from the Pentacostals and the Episcopalians and the Amish, so to speak…
There’s Lee Scheele’s extensive compendium of tai chi resources.
Inner Balance Tai Chi provides a more selective list of tai chi sites.
Another index of resources is Michael Garofalo’s website, Cloud Hands.
On this site, you can watch videos of different styles, although you have to download the free Realplayer to watch them.
There’s some decent video and description of push hands at this Patience T’ai Chi Association site.
For more videos on Cheng Man-ch’ing form specifically, including more clips of the Professor, take a look here.
There’s a good article on t’ai chi posture and body alignment on another Every Day Tai Chi page.
For an informative discussion of the relationship of the Alexander Technique, a relatively modern system of postural correction, and t’ai chi, see Stacy Gehman’s article.
There’s an interesting and useful article on combat t’ai chi by Peter Lim Tian Tek here. That same author provides many other useful references on his Taijiquan Resource Page.
One tai chi and ba gua teacher whom I’ve come to appreciate from his web material is Australia’s Erle Montaigue, although he is highly critical of any shortened t’ai chi forms such as the Cheng Man-ch’ing.
He’s got a down-to-earth no-nonsense approach and a wealth of knowledge and is generous with what he knows, although one may not necessarily agree with everything he says. He’s got all kinds of articles on t’ai chi and related matters available for download, although sometimes they are a promotional device for the DVDs he wants to sell.
But he does provide all of his basic push hands video material and all of the authentic Yang long form on video for free download, as well as other free publications.
[Note — February, 2011: Sad to learn that Mister Montaigue died recently. See this blog…]
I tried to find an informative blog or two on tai chi, but most are diaries of practice rather than knowledgable or thorough description of methods or techniques.
But I did find this one, where this Chinese fellow obviously is quite experienced, and I picked up a pointer or two: The Secrets of Tai Chi Chuan.
Note on image sources:
The photo of the Professor is from Greenhouse Holistic.
The Tai Chi and Chi Gong Ruler image is from Michael Garofalo’s site.
The mountain and t’ai chi scene is from a San Diego Tai Chi site that’s no longer up.