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.

AdamMizner

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.

 

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.

Push hands

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.