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.

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 …

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.”