Off the Road and into the Arena

We’re taking a little detour from our Dharma Bums journey to explore taiji competition – how the ancient Chinese martial arts have been organized as modern sport in the United States. No, this isn’t “push hands,” the play form of taiji fighting we’ve explored on this blog previously. I’m talking about the mastery and presentation of martial arts forms, on stage with other competitors, going for the gold.

Internal martial arts are now mixing it up alongside external forms like karate and Tae Kwon Do, with help from competitors like Dr. Melody Lee and her son Mickey, whom I met at Sifu Adam Mizner’s Heaven Man Earth workshop in July. They have created a unique teaching program, Sun & Moon Taiji One, that reflects their global experiences, including organizing the China Open Internal Martial Arts Championships. They have mastered Chen-style taiji routines that continue to win in competition.

While these competitions may not be everyone’s cup of tea (“I don’t like competitions,” Mizner says bluntly), they do serve to popularize the martial arts, particularly among students looking for alternative sports activity. It was a natural for Mickey but a complete makeover for Melody, who is a physician and research scientist by training. How they got to this stage is a remarkable tale of trial and error, like the scientific method, with ultimate discovery.

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Mickey and Melody Lee are front and center at Sun & Moon Taiji One with visiting Chen-style Grandmaster Zhu Tiancai.

A brilliant student in Korea, Melody’s immunology research in the late 1970s led her to laboratory jobs at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the National Institutes of Health in suburban DC, as well as a PhD in molecular biology from Cornell. But while she was working long hours in the lab studying retroviruses in the fight against HIV, “so focused on one little thing at a time,” she was missing the big picture, she said.

“Over the years I came to realize I was going about it all wrong. I was wasting time,” Melody remembers. Her epiphany came on vacation at the beach, when she finally took time to relax. “It was an enlightening moment, when I realized my entire hypothesis was wrong. When I returned to work, I knew I needed to make changes. I was starting over.” Chief among those changes was transforming a bookish, non-athletic academic into a champion martial artist. Melody threw herself into Tae Kwon Do as a way to relieve stress and reconnect with her Korean heritage.

In the meantime, Melody had married and given birth to Mickey, who was uprooted a few times in his early years, moving from Manhattan to Virginia and Maryland. He had turned to martial arts to defend himself against bullying – as an 11-year-old new kid in a Virginia middle school picked on because he was chubby and shy. Over the next few years, working through the rigors of Tae Kwon Do and regular swimming routines, Mickey lost weight and became a skilled martial artist. “It was the perfect sport for me,” he said. “I liked the idea of using my whole body, rather than just hitting something and throwing something.”

As a student at Georgetown University, where he founded the Tae Kwon Do Club, Mickey began studying other martial arts forms, including kungfu (wushu) and Yang-style taijiquan. Eventually, he settled on the style he adapted for winning forms titles in the years ahead – Chen-style taiji. Mickey and Melody both trained with Dr. CP Ong, who accompanied them on a trip to Beijing and Chen Village, considered by many to be the birthplace of taijiquan. They met the elder grandmasters at the village, the “guardians” of the Chen form, and Mickey competed in a regional tournament, winning silver medals in taiji form and straight sword (taijiquan) divisions.

Mickey and Melody both stepped up the competitions and performances as they learned, traveling across the country for tournaments. They performed together with a synchronized taiji program at the U.S. Capitol Classic in 2004, impressing the judges, and each has won national championships in forms competition, with and without weapons, listed here and here. Mickey’s Chen taiji routines have won world titles from the North American Sports Karate Association. In this video, Mickey and Melody perform the Chen form together at an event hosted by Dr. Ong:

 

For their performances, Mickey and Melody create routines using the basic Chen form, with and without weapons. The scoring is like gymnastics, rating performances based on three components – basic/technical, overall and degree of difficulty, sometimes with room for “charisma.” It’s a highly subjective system that’s open to bias, but Mickey and Melody consistently score high marks for their steady performances, and for their steady hands in organizing events. They decided not to add push-hands competitions in the China Open partially because of the difficulty in scoring, with its different rules and how they’re enforced, Mickey said. Plus, there are headaches with falls and possible injuries. “We’re not so interested in play fighting,” he said.

Garden Foodie

Melody and Mickey pose at a favorite restaurant in Falls Church, Va.

Besides taiji performance competition, Mickey and Melody are keenly interested in food – nutritious and flavorful eating – so much so that they have adopted “Martial Foodie” as a social media identity, adding healthful eating to their martial arts training program. For Mickey, who not only battled childhood obesity but also a bout of food poisoning and ongoing allergies, balance in eating goes hand in hand with balance in taiji. “I learned to listen to my body,” he said. “Sometimes you get the wrong signals from the brain, feeding impulses instead of a healthy body. If you make the right choices, your body will be happy.”

The Martial Foodie advice boils down to this: Eat lightly, balanced and nutritious. That means fruits and vegetables, plus milk and butter, and natural and clean, organic meat. Eat food that satisfies and don’t count calories. Eat small amounts and enjoy every bite. Easy, right? Melody and Mickey eat one meal in the middle of the day and otherwise may eat fruit or grain snacks, but very little. “You should have discipline and a sense of self-defense with eating,” Mickey said. “Like in meditation, be in the present moment.”

That’s sound advice for any foodie, martial or not.

 

Taiji Transformation

Four days of intense training with Adam Mizner gives new meaning to the idea of building a “taiji body,” my goal since a seven-state 2016 tour studying the internal martial art. The teachers I met along the way, whom I’ve likened to New Dharma Bums after the Jack Kerouac classic, showed me that, to fully realize the potential of taiji, I must first transform my body. I drew up an exercise regimen based on their advice, but I see now it was not nearly sufficient to the task.

That’s the first thing I learned from Shifu Mizner, who emphasizes rigorous training to open the joints, tendons and fascia of the body, to make room for the qi that can energize you. For several hours each day, we worked to open our bodies, one joint or region at a time. Beginning with the hips and kwa (the inside of the hip socket that folds between the thigh and the groin), then the waist and lower back (the yao, which Mizner calls “the commander”), we left no joint or muscle unstretched.  We’re also pushed by our shifu (the Chinese honorific for teacher) to “eat bitter” in standing exercises, including interminable one-legged postures, enduring any pain or discomfort, willing it to dissolve. Observe, release.

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Adam Mizner provides hands-on instruction as he circles the floor with a portable microphone that allows him to broadcast the lesson room-wide.

Strict discipline is required if we are to take the full step into taijiquan, Adam tells us. No half-measures will work. “The path lies in sincerity alone,” he says repeatedly, reflecting his own sincere approach to the internal arts he teaches. The website for Heaven Man Earth, which Mizner founded in 2004, is open and transparent about the method and goals of the program. Adam’s personal journey began as a spiritual quest – studying Buddhism and Taoism in and out of monasteries, and even in caves in Thailand and Burma, where as a young man he would isolate himself to meditate and practice qigong. Today, he also teaches meditation and Dhamma, the universal law of Buddhism, as a “senior lay disciple of Ajahn Jumnien in the Thai Forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism.”

In our workshop in Washington, DC., Shifu Mizner’s final stop in a whirlwind tour through Europe and the United States, the focus was almost entirely on body transformation. Even the afternoon partner push-hands drills pointed to the body work we needed to play at a high level. Many were like me, looking for opportunities to touch hands with Adam, to see how quickly he took control of our bodies with his gentle touch. I was helpless against his fingertips, feeling but not yet understanding the power of the soft yin release in the body. “There are three reasons to practice taiji,” he tells us, “for fighting, for health and for the cultivation of the Tao. I think this cultivation is a worthy goal in and of itself.”

“Taiji is yinyang together, the harmony of the duality within nature,” Adam says, instructing us to harmonize shen (spirit) with yi (mind/intention), yi with qi (energy), and qi with li (force). Using these three internal harmonies in conjunction with the three external harmonies (feet with hands, hips with shoulders and knees with elbows), we are able to create jin (power), if we work hard enough. Mizner insists on using the Chinese words for the concepts in taijiquan, noting that they originated thousands of years ago within the Chinese culture and don’t have ready English-language equivalents.

“The dantien, where we sink the qi, is not a physical organ in the body,” Shifu Mizner said. “It must be developed from where you center and mobilize qi.” He uses metaphors to describe the terms and processes, referring to qi as a fluid and the body becoming “hydraulic” if we work at it. Unless we are able to clear blockages within the body through rigorous training, we will not be able to sink the qi and create internal power, he said. “Calm the mind, sink the qi and release with song. Then you can do taiji.”

Adam teaches a Yang-style taijiquan that can be traced to the grandson of Yang Lu Chan, the father of the most popular style of taiji. More directly, the Mizner method is related to Grandmaster Huang Sheng Hsien, a Chinese White Crane kungfu champion who “converted” to the internal martial arts after seeing a demonstration of its power. Huang studied with Cheng Man-Ch’ing in Taiwan, then spent decades in Malaysia perfecting the art that Adam cultivates today at Heaven Man Earth, using Huang’s short form and sincere focus on preparing the body. He demonstrates Huang’s “5 Loosening Exercises” (Song Shen Wu Fa) in this video:

At about 3:10 on the video, Adam begins a series of movements that made me sweat profusely during the workshop, with three repetitions each, first slowly harmonizing shen and yi and qi and li down to the feet and slowly drawing long jin up, then bending down for three individual movements loosening the kwa, the “belt” around the waist, and the space between the ribs, one side then the other. “One part moves, all parts move,” he repeats, getting us to focus on the single movements. I don’t remember working so hard in a five-minute exercise.

Through this “eating bitter” process I also learned, despite my convictions to the contrary, that I am capable of doing the “Asian squat,” a phenomenon that once amazed me along the streets of Saigon, Taipei and Bangkok. How do they squat with their haunches just above their heels, flat-footed, balanced between their legs? Was it a cultural or physical anomaly? Why do I fall on my butt when I try it? The answer, it turns out, is that I haven’t tried hard enough. If I turn my feet out at 45 degrees and slowly sit down toward my heels, hands between my legs for balance, I accomplish the squat, not yet comfortably but I’ll persist.

I also participated in “bone-setting” treatment, getting stretched and aligned by Adam’s senior student and assistant, Curtis Brough of Australia. I continue to work through structural issues with my computer neck and separated shoulder, and had hoped for Tui Na treatment, having read about Adam’s study and practice as a healer. Tui Na is an acupressure massage treatment that helps to clear blockages and open channels within the body. It is offered at some Heaven Man Earth workshops.

The participants in the DC workshop, pictured below, are among the fortunate ones who got to train with Shifu Mizner before he goes on retreat for a minimum year and a half. Battling illness and exhaustion at the end of his tour, he was ready to retreat and recharge. Heaven Man Earth students won’t miss a beat, however, since Mizner has created an online video training program called Discover Taiji. “Solo training is the most important,” he said.

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Adam Mizner with students at the Heaven Man Earth workshop in Washington, DC

Besides this step-by-step video series for online, Adam has built a network of Heaven Man Earth affiliates in Europe, the United States and Southeast Asia, where hands-on training is available from qualified teachers. Sometime soon, the U.S. workshops will be run by Brough, who is Adam’s most senior student. Also assisting in the Washington, DC., workshop was Ben Sanchez, from Los Angeles, and Patrick Reece, who offers Heaven Man Earth training in Philadelphia, with monthly visits to Washington.

Mizner’s success in creating his global taiji presence so quickly is made more remarkable by the fact that he’s only 39 years old. He has students and acolytes nearly twice his age, many of whom are teachers themselves. Adam said he promised himself he would take a break when he turns 40, which happens in November. He’s off the fast track, but he’ll be back.

 

 

Back to Real Life

Since our last discursion, practicing with a real-life master of Chen-style taiji, I’ve been having fun with the novel I envisioned at the outset of the New Dharma Bums project, and the evolving form of it. Discovering a world turning as I go is the most enjoyable part of writing, the invention of imagined story, time and characters. It’s not like the news and exposition writing that paid my salary over the years, but a creative adventure in literature that is a reward itself. Or so it goes.

I’ll enjoy this writing adventure a while longer as I absorb new information and experience into it, and will share. Most immediately, I will take you on an excursion into the mind-body rap of Adam Mizner, a modern master of Yang-style taiji and of marketing the martial art. His Heaven-Man-Earth international training corps is growing into many U.S. communities, and in cities around the world.

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Shifu Adam Mizner sends a student flying during a taiji demonstration.

Adam’s visit to the Washington, DC, metro area in July is part of a global tour through Europe and across the United States. Originally from Australia, he trained in Thailand and throughout Asia, and now spends most of his time in southern Europe, creating an online training program that further expands his global reach. He promises to follow this globetrot with a long retreat, so I am pleased to be among the lucky ones to experience his touch.

Shifu Mizner’s touch is renowned for its internal power – being so soft and “empty” that it can send you flying across the room. If that seems counter-intuitive, imagine how it feels to push someone who deflects and absorbs your pressure and sends it back a thousand-fold. This is the internal power of taijiquan, which is expressed in the ancient classics as “Four ounces repel one thousand pounds.” Adam explains and demonstrates in this video:

 

The key is to relax your body so completely that you are sung (soong), a Chinese term explaining a level of relaxation that is largely unknown in western cultures. You don’t just lie back and relax into sung, you have to work at it. As a reward, in the martial art, you have the ability to “stick” and control an opponent, as Adam demonstrates.

This same sung that allows remarkable martial feats also is responsible for the health benefits that many seek through taiji. As we’ve explored in previous blogs, you achieve this heightened sense of relaxation with mindful breathing exercises, whether moving (qigong) or standing (zhan-zhuang). Adam promises to teach other methods to heighten the empty, yielding yin energy and combine it with the forceful yang energy to produce a “supreme ultimate” force. At the heart of the internal martial arts is qi, energy you sink into your center (dantien) and then mindfully flow through your body to repel an opponent.

But you really don’t know what it is until you practice with others in push-hands exercises. I have felt the sensation in others, in workshops or individually working with teachers across the country – including with another Australian, Mark Rasmus, a martial artist who taught meditation to the young Adam Mizner. But my push-hands experience is limited. I hope to work with Adam and other workshop participants to feel that sensation for myself, to be able to truly relax into sung, sink the qi and to feel the generation of internal power as a result.

In this, my 29th year of practicing taiji, I have much to learn. Stay tuned.

 

A Chen Warrior Tells All

 

In this blog, we’ve examined Taiji mostly through the lens of Yang-style teaching, which is my primary experience and the most popular style in the United States. The slow and gentle movements of the Yang style are easily accessible to people of all ages for general health and balance. While it’s also a martial art, this aspect is not as obvious as in the other four styles – and particularly Chen, which features both the soft and the hard martial applications.

I got an up-close view of Chen-style Taiji recently in a Washington, DC, suburb, where Grandmaster Zhu Tiancai led a group of 40 Taiji enthusiasts through a series of vigorous exercises, including the Chen form, push hands and applications. We also benefited from the translation of Chen Master and author C.P. Ong, whose book, Taijiquan: Cultivating Inner Strength, is an authoritative source on the Chen style and an excellent primer on Taiji generally.

Chen was the first school of Taijiquan, dating to the 1600s, when Chen Wangting developed the martial arts form in his native Chen Village. For more than a century, the elders of Chen Village kept the Chen family secret until Yang Luchan, the father of Yang-style Taiji, was invited into the village to learn in the early 1800s. Today, Chen is chasing Yang for influence. Grandmaster Zhu is one of four “Jingangs” (Guardian/Warriors) from Chen Village who travel the world to preserve and expand the reach of Chen-style Taiji.

Dantien

To demonstrate the movement of qi in his dantien, Grandmaster Zhu Tiancai invites Billy Greer of the Jing Ying Institute to place his fist on the area just below his navel while he pushes hands with Jing Ying student Mary Anna Cirlot.

Students attending the Washington-area workshop came from all across the country, some expressing concern that, at 75, Grandmaster Zhu might not be back this way again. My friend Ray Abeyta, who hosted Zhu many times at his Texas School of Tai-Chi and Healing in El Paso, skirted Hurricane Harvey to fly in to see his old friend.

“Grandmaster Zhu is a national treasurer in China,” said Abeyta, who has visited Chen Village and competed in push-hands tournaments in that country. “He is humble, grounded and generous with his family art, and he is deservedly well-loved and respected. I’ll be passing along greetings from all of my students who worked with him over the years.”

Indeed, Grandmaster Zhu’s face lit up when he saw Abeyta, and drew him to the front of the class several times to demonstrate different postures and moves. Zhu is a slight man with thinning jet-black hair who looks decades younger than he is. The vitality you see in his appearance is magnified when he is in motion, as he literally pulses with qi energy as he moves. “In …. Out … in …. Out …. In …. Out,” he commanded during drills, two of the few English words he uses, cuing the all-important breath, which is another word for qi.

Qi, the subtle breath, is the magic potion that stirs the inner cauldron. All Taiji is focused on the quest for inner strength (neijin), which is cultivated through qigong exercises and meditation, along with the Taiji form and push-hands practice. Throughout the exercises, Grandmaster Zhu constantly reminded the students to sink qi/energy to the “dantien,” a metaphysical position about three-fingers’ width below the navel, the “cauldron” from which internal strength is expressed, usually through the hands and fingers.

At one break in the workshop, Grandmaster Zhu gathered everyone around him, promising through his interpreter, Master Ong, to tell the “secret” of Taiji. “If you want to know the mystery of internal strength, just relax. That is the secret. If you relax and breathe, you can sink the qi to the dantien. And now you know, the mystery is gone.” The students laughed, as they all strained to relax. It is the first bit of instruction every Taiji student hears, to relax – fangsong – but actually achieving this essential first step to Taiji is not easy.

Many of Zhu’s Chen exercises include fast-motion repetitions of the slow-motion form movements – the expression of power through fajin, or explosive force. Yang stylists practice fajin without the fast strikes, again using the internal power to repel opponents with what appears to be little effort. The quick punches, strikes and stomps give Chen its martial character separate from the other styles.

The fast and slow synthesis of the Chen style can be seen in the following demonstration by Grandmaster Zhu. Unlike other styles, the internal energy is expressed directly as Zhu moves from one posture to the next, particularly on the fast strikes, which also are generated from the dantien:

I stumbled through the Chen form, which I’ve never practiced, and it was clear that Grandmaster Zhu was not happy with any of his students on the first round. He stopped the exercise to demonstrate the essential four cardinals jins, or power – peng (push up), lu (roll back), ji (press) and an (push down). Unless you are cultivating these jins when you do the form, you are just going through the motions, he suggested. As we worked through the second and third rounds of the form, we became more emphatic in using these jins.

As C.P. Ong notes in his book, one of the oldest verses about Taiji was written by Chen Wangting, preserved from the 17th century. The first two lines of the poem, “Song of Boxing Canon,” reveal the distinctive feature of Chen style:

Charging, retreating, back and forth, all can plainly see,

I fully rely on coiling is the basis of all my combat techniques.

It is this coiling, spiraling power cultivated in Chen-style Taiji that makes it unique. Chen stylists enhance this technique by practicing chansi, or “silk-reeling,” referring to the motion of pulling silk from a cocoon without breaking it. Grandmaster Zhu demonstrates the Chen silk-reeling exercises here:

Editor’s Note — Throughout this blog, I’ve been using different romanization systems — the Wade-Giles system I learned many years ago, and the Pinyin system that is the most prevalent today — based on the literature I’ve been reading.  As a result, I’ve been mixing the two systems — Tai Chi (Wade-Giles) and qigong (Pinyin), for example. From now on, I intend to use Pinyin, the official system. Thus, you will learn more about taiji and luoxuan (coiling) in future blogs.

 

Finding Your Way

I’ve cast a wide net with these blogs, covering weekend seminars with Tai Chi and qigong masters, connecting in Florida with teachers and students of the virtual Kwoon community, and spending a month on the road visiting devotees of the Taoist martial arts in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Arkansas. It’s been a great ride, and it’s not over. Over the mountains I must go, to the West Coast, where my story actually begins. I’ll tell you more about that another time.

But let’s take a pause to answer the big question, the one I get most often from friends and blog readers: How can you, with some or no knowledge of Tai Chi, learn how to gain better health, strength and balance through this ancient Chinese practice? It’s not like yoga, with classes all over your city or county – including at gyms and sports clubs. You have to work to find Tai Chi classes, but it’s worth it.

Tai Chi and related qigong practices is yoga’s martial arts cousin, both concentrating on internal energy, breath work and chi, called prana in yoga. Both are beneficial to your fitness, improving balance and relieving stress. But Tai Chi has applications outside the body, in healing as well as in self-defense. It emphasizes dynamic fluid motions rather than holding static postures. My friends at Energy Arts describe the difference simply: “In Tai Chi you relax to stretch; in yoga you stretch to relax.”

While yoga classes are more accessible, Tai Chi is poised for a surge in popularity as more practitioners arise around the world. Some of the best Tai Chi masters are emerging right now – in countries outside of China, which has created a national brand of graceful Tai Chi called wushu. As a writer of the popular story, I am not a teacher. But I share the knowledge and I tell the stories of those who make this journey, particularly the new masters, the new Dharma Bums.

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I prepare to engage in Tai Chi sensitivity training, Push Hands, with Sifu Michael Paler, left, in his studio in Colorado Springs last November. Paler recently launched an on-line training program. (Photo by Julie Paler)

During my journey, I’ve met many teachers, some who were inspired to lead – like Bill Douglas, the Kansas Tai Chi evangelist who was assured by a Taoist monk in Hong Kong that he would be a teacher, something he had never considered. Today he leads a global movement, not only a local practice but also World Tai Chi and World Healing Day, observed the last Saturday in April each year – in countries all over the world. This year, on April 29, Douglas was in Tunisia.

Douglas began his practice when a neighbor asked him to show her the exercises he was doing in his back yard. Finding a good teacher is not so easy in most places. You want to make sure your teacher not only is accomplished (ask for the lineage and experience of the teacher), but also someone who is passionate about teaching the skills and benefits of Tai Chi. Individual, personal training is the best way to learn this art form – for either health or martial applications.

I first understood how important hands-on training is when I took a weekend seminar with Mark Rasmus, an Australian whose home base is Thailand. He demonstrated how sensitivity to others, sensing their center through gentle, yielding touch, leads to the ability to get them off balance and send them flying. After nearly 25 years of study, this was my first experience with the martial aspects of Tai Chi. Rasmus hopes to make another tour of the United States, but in the meantime, you can learn much by checking out his teaching videos on YouTube.

I can recommend several teachers in the Washington DC Metropolitan area, and throughout the United States and world, depending on your interests. Some are expert in Ba Gua and Hsing-I, and other martial applications. There is a wealth of information online, and a vibrant community of Tai Chi enthusiasts eager to turn other people on to this art. Besides the many groups on Facebook, others write well-circulated blogs, including Qialance by Angelika Fritz, who also connects other bloggers from her home in Germany.

If you are unable to find a reliable teacher close to you, or classes are too far away to attend, I can suggest several on-line training resources, based on the recommendations of teachers I trust. If you are a beginner, in particular, you should check out the on-line training unveiled this year by Michael Paler, who teaches the Yang style form and Old Six Roads tradition at his studio in Colorado Springs.

Another excellent resource, especially for those with some experience (or even a lot of experience, as his expert students will attest), is Adam Mizner, a young Australian who recently moved his teaching practice from Thailand to the Czech Republic. But his Yang style martial arts lessons are available anywhere in the world with Internet through his Heaven Man Earth training program.

Finally, for those more interested in the health and healing aspects of qigong and Tai Chi, I recommend Bruce Frantzis and his Energy Arts combine. Frantzis teaches around the world – I spent a weekend with him in Maryland learning Taoist breathing and the Dragon and Tiger qigong exercises – but his lessons are also available online.

If you prefer hardcover illumination, I have written about literary classics that will give you a keen understanding of the philosophy, if not the practice. To fully grasp the power of the internal martial arts, you have to reach out and touch someone.

Back to Jack

When last we pondered Jack Kerouac, we were contemplating a trip to the mountains of Colorado, and a school, Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, dedicated to extending the literature and spirit of the Beat Generation. Until recently, I was planning a return engagement, as a graduate student. But we are taking a different course as the trip resumes.

Although he inspired many writers of his generation, and their children, Jack Kerouac withdrew from the creative well of the Beats as he hurtled toward his death of liver cirrhosis in 1969, at the age of 47, a victim of his own excess. In the end, he didn’t want anything to do with the literary movement he helped create.

In his final years, Kerouac was bitter, hateful and largely incoherent, even in prime time TV appearances, here on William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line, along with Lewis Yablonsky, a professor who had written a book about hippies, and Ed Sanders, a poet, political activist and leader of The Fugs, a hippy-dippy protest band. Kerouac was out of his element, a bit out of his mind:

That same year, in an interview with Paris Review, Kerouac railed against the left-wing bent of the Beat movement, dismissing the “community” of Beats led by Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti by questioning their politics and lifestyles. All those being lined up by the media as Beat Generation artists were different people, he said.

“They are very socialistically minded and want everybody to live in some kind of frenetic kibbutz, solidarity and all that,” Kerouac said. “I was a loner. (Gary) Snyder is not like (Philip) Whalen, Whalen is not like (Michael) McClure, I am not like McClure, McClure is not like Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg is not like Ferlinghetti, but we all had fun over wine anyway. We knew thousands of poets and painters and jazz musicians. There’s no ‘Beat crowd’ like you say … What about Scott Fitzgerald and his ‘lost crowd,’ does that sound right? Or Goethe and his ‘Wilhelm Meister crowd’? The subject is such a bore. Pass me that glass.”

“That glass” helped Kerouac’s escape from the public spotlight that exposed the “confessional” nature of his writing. As he told Ted Berrigan in that 1968 interview, “It’s our work that counts, if anything at all and I’m not too proud of mine or theirs or anybody’s since Thoreau and others like that, maybe because it’s still too close to home for comfort. Notoriety and public confession in the literary form is a frazzler of the heart you were born with, believe me.”

There it is: the fragile ego behind the bravura of Jack Kerouac. He put himself out there, and he’d taken it on the chin. He was like the battered prizefighter bobbing and weaving against the rat-a-tat-tat attack of an opponent that sticks him every time. He was tired and giving up on writing, which he said he never really liked to do anyway.

51XNA5oKR5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Kerouac previewed his end of days in the brutally honest biographical novel, Big Sur, as he grappled with alcoholism and the nature of friends and relationships, with the constant party of his life but also deeply alone, there at Ferlinghetti’s cabin in the wilderness along California’s rugged Pacific coast. For all his meditation and brooding melancholy on this trip, Kerouac finds solace and inspiration in nature, reflecting truth and light in the words he chooses, or the words that spill out of his mind. Take a minute to read this paragraph from Big Sur out loud. The punctuation will come to you:

“It’s as familiar as an old face in an old photograph as tho I’m gone a million years from all that sun shaded brush on rocks and that heartless blue of the sea washing white on yellow sand, those rills of yellow arroyo running down mighty cliff shoulders, those distant blue meadows, that whole ponderous groaning upheaval so strange to see after the last several days of just looking at little faces and mouths of people – As tho nature had a gargantuan leprous face of its own with broad nostrils and huge bags under its eyes and a mouth big enough to swallow five thousand Jeepster stationwagons and ten thousand Dave Wains and Cody Pomeroys without a sigh of reminiscence or regret – There it is, every sad contour of my valley, the gaps, the Mien Mo captop mountain again, the dreaming woods below our high shelved road, suddenly indeed the sight of poor Alf again far way grazing in the mid afternoon by the corral fence – And there’s the creek bouncing along as tho nothing had ever happened elsewhere and even in the daytime somehow dark and hungry looking in its deeper tangled grass.”

There was something happening here in Jack Kerouac’s brain that defied the caricature of the person we saw in his demise, on TV or in the obituary reports. He took refuge in the work of authors long dead, dismissing his own work as unworthy of the literary tradition he loved, finding little hope in the literary movement that embraced him. And yet he sparkled on the page, and still does.

This sad demise of a literary giant leads me to ask: What if Jack Kerouac didn’t drink himself to death, sitting alone in front of the television at his mother’s house? What if he carried on, in the best of the Beat tradition, to chronicle the personal and cultural transformation that he and his generation were undergoing.

I am imagining a Jack Kerouac who survived, even thrived, and is now telling stories of the Information Age – not Kerouac, per se, but an adventurous Beat spirit that infuses a new “Dharma Bums” quest. This literary light has been my muse in writing this blog, and in planning to pick up the thread that Kerouac let die out there on the road many years ago. Stay tuned.

 

The Tai Chi Body

Back home, recharging from my November journey to the Rocky Mountains and back, I am encouraged to build a Tai Chi body – a very different physical specimen than the one I’ve been inclined to build in the gym. Forget the weights. Stop flexing and relax. No six-pack abs required. Relax the breath into the abdomen, hollow the chest and sink the tailbone.

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Brush knee, or perhaps the Vulcan greeting. I come in peace.

What kind of warrior is this? “Soft in the middle,” like Paul Simon’s Al? Yes, and soft in the arms, too. Relax the shoulders and hips, loosey-goosey. Relaxing inwardly, I am soft enough to take and/or redirect a blow, if it comes to that. But who wants to fight such a gentle man? That is the warrior I aspire to be through Tai Chi, the internal martial art.

Tai Chi masters are seldom imposing physical figures. Most tend to be small – even diminutive, like Professor Cheng Man-Ching. Working out for them may be quietly sitting, or standing in one position for an hour. Or pushing hands with partners who help, and whom they help, to improve balance, flexibility and root. In this video, Wu Tai Chi Master Qiao Song-Mao demonstrates the awesome power generated from inside the body with seemingly little external effort.

Mastering Tai Chi means relaxing your external muscles, but also getting in touch with your internal organs. The power of Tai Chi comes from the inside, by relaxing deep into your being while channeling vital energy (qi), strengthening the connective tissue (fascia) and developing the torqueing capabilities of the body’s rotation, which are accentuated through the circular motions of the Tai Chi forms.

Thanks to my generous hosts and teachers along my road to discovery, I have exercises now that will help me condition my body for Tai Chi, and all the benefits that entails, including the silk-reeling exercises used especially in Chen Tai Chi to train the body’s torqueing ability. I’ve also learned new sets of warm up exercises and standing postures, as well as subtle changes in my form and Qigong exercises.

Besides the hands-on instruction, I now have a two-disc DVD on the Yang long form, with Michael Paler of the Tai Chi Association of Colorado Springs demonstrating each move. He is really good! The 108-posture long form repeats many of the movements I’m familiar with through the Cheng Man-Ching 37-posture Yang short form, but the mix has been confusing to me. Now I can follow along, eventually expanding the time I spend with a single run-through of the form from 8 to nearly 25 minutes.

Next up is organizing push-hands practice among the Tai Chi players in my area, although the weather is somewhat inhospitable for outdoor play. So, I will focus on building a new soft body, stepping up my Qigong exercises. I am working to sink the energy (qi) to the vital center of the body, the lower dan-tien, and channel it through the meridians for healing and strengthening the internal organs, circulatory system and connective tissue.

So much to do, and so little time! Based on lessons from my recent Tai Chi tour, I’ve developed a workout regime that only takes an hour and 20 minutes a day, and can be divided up throughout the day. Morning exercise works best for me because it helps me focus. Notes: The Bear Posture is a specific Standing Post (Zhan Zhuang) exercise. “Circular Breathing” is Qigong focused on a particular breathing pattern. The walking distances here are from 2 to 4 miles:

Sunday (1 hour, 20 minutes)

  • Warmup Stretching/Qigong (10 minutes)
  • Form (8 minutes)
  • Bear Posture (7 minutes)
  • Circular Breathing (4 minutes)
  • Walking (45 minutes)
  • Qigong (6 minutes)

Monday (1 hour, 20 minutes)

  • Warmup Stretching/Qigong (10 minutes)
  • Form (8 minutes)
  • Walking (45 minutes)
  • Standing post (5 minutes)
  • Silk reeling (5 minutes)
  • Qigong (7 minutes)

Tuesday (1 hour, 20 minutes)

  • Bear Posture (7 minutes)
  • Circular Breathing (5 minutes)
  • Form (8 minutes)
  • Walking (60 minutes)

Wednesday (1 hour, 20 minutes)

  • Warmup Stretching (10 minutes)
  • Walking (60 minutes)
  • Qigong (2 minutes)
  • Form (8 minutes)

Thursday (1 hour, 20 minutes)

  • Dragon and Tiger Qigong (9 minutes)
  • Form (24 minutes)
  • Bear Posture (10 minutes)
  • Circular Breathing (9 minutes)
  • Silk Reeling (8 minutes)
  • Meditation (20 minutes)

Friday (1 hour, 20 minutes)

  • Warmup Stretches (10 minutes)
  • Form (8 minutes)
  • Walking (45 minutes)
  • Standing post (10 minutes)
  • Qigong (7 minutes)

Saturday (1 hour, 20 minutes)

  • Meditation (20 minutes)
  • Circular Breathing (5 minutes)
  • Form (16 minutes)
  • Walking (30 minutes)
  • Bear Posture (9 minutes)

Snow Day Option (1 hour, 20 minutes)

  • Meditation (20 minutes)
  • Dragon and Tiger Qigong (9 minutes)
  • Bear Posture (8 minutes)
  • Form (16 minutes)
  • Silk Reeling (7 minutes)
  • Meditation (20 minutes)

Heal Thyself

All along the road in my search for the Tai Chi revolution I’ve found people who are eager to help me overcome physical weaknesses, ready with advice and helpful criticisms of my structure, postures and form. Some corrections have been repeated a few times over, by different teachers, suggesting that I have a ways to go to improve my Tai Chi. But I believe I am on track for a breakout, thanks to these brilliant teachers and friends.

Most recently, under the care of Wu Tai Chi stylist David Lenkovitzki, my own bone and skeletal problems were the starting point for study – and special attention to my warm-ups, stretching and opening the spine and connective tissue. He had several recommendations, and ideas for me to chew on. I know more now about how the Wu style fits in with Yang, Chen and Sun, and how it’s different. But the most important lesson, in Northwest Arkansas as in other stops along the way, is the healing power of Tai Chi.

In a beginners’ Tai Chi class at his studio in Rogers, Arkansas, Lenkovitzki pulled out his anatomy and skeletal charts to demonstrate proper body alignment, explaining to a new student, a man in his 50s, how to take pressure off his bulging disc and relax his stiff neck. He cautioned him not to do too much, but to keep working at it.

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“We’re going to start at the beginning,” David Lenkovitzki said as he pulled out his anatomy charts to show the proper body alignment to new students.

The man’s wife, who had brought him to his first class, explained that she used a cane when she started learning Tai Chi. “I don’t use that any more, I cut back on my medications, and my balance is much better.” Another student in the class credited Tai Chi training from Lenkovitzki at the city’s Adult Wellness Center with helping him deal with Parkinson’s Disease, reducing the tremors as well as the medication.

This theme has been consistent throughout my tour, beginning with Bill Douglas in Kansas City, where his “Tai Chi Meditation” classes at the University of Kansas Medical Center have given people new hope and, in some cases, a new lease on life. Beth Rosenfeld, who runs Rocky Mountain Tai Chi in Boulder, Colorado, along with husband Lee Fife, overcame severe injuries from an automobile accident just a few years ago, and leads Tai Chi form and sword classes with grace and power.

Etha Behrman, a former student of Michael Paler at the Tai Chi Association of Colorado Springs and now with Ray Abeyta of the Texas School of Tai Chi and Healing, overcame crippling fibromyalgia through years of Tai Chi practice, and now feels much less pain. Behrman, who has a doctorate in physiology and neuroscience, credits Tai Chi for strengthening her body, and is studying how to heal connective tissues with simple exercises, using a method called MELT.

Paler has several students who testify that Tai Chi has helped them overcome health issues. Tom Parker has had two hip replacements and practiced Tai Chi throughout. “The doctor was amazed how much stronger Tom’s bones were between surgeries,” Paler said. “It was harder cutting through for the replacement.”

None of this surprises Lenkovitzki, who has his own testimony. “Tai Chi helped save my life,” he said, recalling how he came to this country, to Los Angeles, suffering from PTSD after fighting in three wars in Israel. “I was in a dark place, where I didn’t really think life was worth living.”

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David Lenkovitzki performs the Wu Tai Chi form at his studio

Fortunately, he met Rock Ng and got in touch with his lost mind-body, lifting the depression over years of practice. He also relished the challenge of Wu Tai Chi, with its explicit martial applications and close-in combat movements. (Learn more about Rock Ng from his student group here.)

When Rock moved to Hawaii after five years teaching Lenkovitzki, he advised his student to go find other students and teach. Thus did Lenkovitzki move his computer software consulting business (have laptop will travel) to Rogers, Arkansas, setting up a Tai Chi and Yoga studio with his wife, Pamela Porch, a yoga and Pilates instructor. “I’m also certified to teach Kundalini Yoga, but it’s not my thing,” Lenkovitzki said. “Tai Chi is my thing.”

They also teach at the Adult Wellness Center, a massive seniors’ activities facility situated adjacent to a retirement community in Rogers, where Tai Chi, Yoga and Pilates compete with workout equipment, a swimming pool, pool tables and walking trails, among other fun. Some members there later become regular students at the studio.

Besides his interest in the physiological value of Tai Chi, Lenkovitzki also is intrigued by the metaphysical aspects, “life at the margins of what we see,” he said. He makes sure he carves out time each day to meditate. I got an opportunity to feel the wow at the end of a yoga class, when Pamela invited me in for the gong closing.  I wish I could conjure up those exquisite 10 minutes whenever I want to, but for my readers’ edification I offer a 15-minute version, from a YouTube search. Click, close your eyes, breathe deep …

Practice Makes Perfect

I am bombarded with books and links and wisdom written down, sometimes only in Chinese, but with illustrations. Along my route in search of the New Dharma Bums, I am sifting through mountains of information, making a list of everything I must read. So much to learn. And, then, eventually I must practice.

I started my Tai Chi journey 28 years ago with a book of basic postures and descriptions, Cheng Man-Ching’s Yang style short form, as told by his co-author, Robert W. Smith. Smith is an important part of my Tai Chi experience, since he also founded my Tai Chi school in Bethesda, Maryland. This weekend, in Ft. Worth, Texas, I pushed hands with Justin Harris, who actually studied with Bob Smith – and with Patrick Cheng, son of Professor Cheng Man-Ching. It turns out that Harris’s own journey also cycled through Bob Smith’s literary light.

“Bob Smith wrote books on Bagua and Hsing-I, and the history and methods of Chinese boxing,” Harris said. “He was a Gold Glove boxer, a former Marine. He was a real fighter himself.” Besides his textbooks, Smith wrote fiction that parodied martial arts fantasies and shared his actual adventures in a biography, “Martial Musings.” He also served as a CIA agent stationed in Taiwan, where he spent six months pleading with Cheng Man-Ching to take him as his first American student.

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At Ft. Worth’s Botanic Gardens, a panoply of styles and intentions, from White Crane to Bagua to Zhan-Zhuang. Shifu Justin Harris pushes at right rear.

Harris is the go-to guy in Ft. Worth, Texas, if you’re looking for instruction in internal martial arts – from Bagua to Hsing-I to White Crane, and for any style of Tai Chi, although he’s more likely to favor Sun-style Tai Chi because of its connection to his Bagua and Hsing-I training. He is still expert in the Yang styles, and knows some Chen and Wu-style exercises. He even teaches a form of the Old Six Roads, demonstrated to me by one of his students. And he took the time recently to train in Brazilian jujitsu, earning a black belt.

He creates training programs for the city of Ft. Worth, and the YMCA, combining martial arts with fitness. “I teach seniors how to do push-ups, and we do it over a year and a half. You tailor exercises to fit the need, the abilities.”

Harris is only 40 years old, with long hair gathered in a ponytail down his back and a ready smile. He is an imposing figure, at about 6-3 and 300 pounds, but his gentle nature is evident from the first moment you meet him. As a teacher, he takes time for everyone, assigning them exercises as he moves from student to student in his Saturday “free-for-all” get-togethers at the Botanic Gardens in Ft. Worth.

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Justin Harris, left, works with Barret, a senior student, on a Bagua posture.

We had 10 players spread out across the manicured lawn, surrounded by a path of flowers still colorful and fragrant in November’s western breeze.  Two were practicing White Crane Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese martial art form that some believe is the precursor to karate. Most were practicing Bagua, walking in circles or repeating circular movements in the internal martial art that seeks to outflank an opponent.

As for me, Harris suggested that I walk a mile doing “brush knee,” right leg over left leg, each step requiring a nice long, balanced pause. Seriously, he does that – walks a mile or more using a particular Tai Chi posture. I walked across the lawn, one slow step after the other, gathering my brush knee energy, left over right. It was good. Thanks, Justin, I needed that.

Another leg of the journey. Let’s take a step back and clarify the differences among Tai Chi, Bagua and Hsing-I as they’re applied to martial situations. Check out this demonstration by Richard Clear, who teaches in Tennessee:

The Top of the Mountain

Ray Abeyta and Michael Paler are tough guys who survived the mean streets of El Paso, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, respectively. They learned to protect themselves with martial arts. Then they learned to dominate with Tai Chi.

Ray is a Vietnam veteran from a family of boxers, and he reveled in martial arts contests as a youngster, and still does. Michael had to fend for himself in cold, unforgiving Buffalo, discovering he could do it pretty well. Both gravitated toward Tai Chi, Paler when he was a teenager, Abeyta after the war and a series of roughneck jobs in El Paso. Today, they are pursuing their dreams in the mountains of the U.S. Southwest – Paler in Colorado Springs and Abeyta high above his old Air Force base in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Both also are disciples of Imperial Yang Family Tai Chi, a mysterious branch of the most popular style of Tai Chi that originated from the Palace staff during the Qing Dynasty in the early 1900s. It is characterized by its intense internal work (neigong) and powerful energy release. Here’s how the Imperial Yang school evolved, according to an account by Grandmaster Wei Shu Ren, who carried on the family tradition until his death in 2013:

Master Yang Jian Hou, son of Yang style founder Yang Lu Chan, was summoned to train the royal family and, along with his son Yang Chengfu, used the palace staff to absorb the blows. No one absorbed blows better than Wang Chonglu and his son Wang Yong Quan. After years of pushing them around, the fearsome Yang Chengfu rewarded their courage with lessons in the Yang family secrets, not shared with others.

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Michael Paler leads his class at Tai Chi Colorado Springs in the  Old Six Roads form. I am following along from the back row. (Photo by Julie Paler)

Paler and Abeyta teach the Imperial-style “Old Six Roads” form, along with the Yang long form. I had the opportunity to participate in classes for both at Paler’s Colorado Springs Tai Chi studio, plus push hands play. The Old Six Roads seems distinctly different from the Yang form, with shorter and more compact movements within the larger postures. Paler’s students have plenty of questions, which he answers and illustrates on a giant digital whiteboard. And we do it again.

For decades, Wei Shu Ren traveled China and South Asia to teach and compete. He quickly won over Australian martial artist John Fung, who became a sixth generation disciple of the Yang Imperial style. Fung introduced Abeyta and Paler to the Imperial forms, and to the Wei family. He has pledged to carry on the tradition of his teacher, who dispatches him effortlessly in this video.

On the website he created, Fung describes the essential “Shen-Yi-Qi” fundamentals that underpin the Imperial style, designed to “unite the mind and body to maximize function and harmony.”

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Pushing hands with Ray Abeyta at his New Mexico mountain retreat. (Photo by Etha Behrman)

As Abeyta demonstrated to me, those three centers of the “mind-body” can generate immense power when working in unison, along three rings of countercircular action. Imperial Yang Tai Chi includes sets of Qigong exercises to strengthen each of those dynamic centers. It’s also important to cultivate the “Eye Spirit,” as described by Wei in his book, since it gives you the power to push beyond your opponent, Abeyta said.

Seemingly effortless Herculean powers are the stuff of legend in martial arts, brought to life with old video footage. The most common technique used to dispatch opponents with internal power is called fajin, which requires much internal work to open the fascia in the body, so that the attackers’ force can be absorbed and sent back to them. My friend Justin Harris demonstrates an easy touch with fajin here, pushing hands with fellow Tai Chi traveler Gurinder Singh. I’ll have more from Justin in the next blog.

It’s important to remember that you don’t have to be a big person to dispatch, or disable, an opponent using internal martial arts. Today the Imperial Yang Family Tai Chi tradition is carried on by Wei Shu Ren’s three daughters, and the youngest, Wei Xi Lan, still packs a wallop at 65, as you can see in the video below. Fung accompanied Abeyta and Paler, and several of their top students, to Beijing to train with Wei Xi Lan last year. Besides getting certified to teach the form, they had a good time:

Now back on their home turf, high in the mountains, Abeyta and Paler are working on building up their own internal power as they continue teaching. “Shifu Wei said it would take a few years of working on our skills before we can master this Tai Chi,” Abeyta said. “I expect we’ll be ready next year when we bring her to the United States to work with other students.”