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.

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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.

 

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.”