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.

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:

We Go to the Mountain

As promised, we are resuming the journey to the West, following the ardent steps of Jack Kerouac and his disaffected Beat Generation – still searching for our place in the cosmic order, dharma in the modern world. A new breed of “Dharma Bums” has risen in the United States around the Taoist martial arts, and particularly Tai Chi and Qigong, and they are pointing the way to new vitality, strength and inner peace available to all comers.

So come on along. For those who are new to this blog, you can catch up with this literary adventure by reviewing some preliminaries, including the original proposal that launched the unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign. I’ve always intended to forge ahead, no matter what the outcome of that project.

Without the Kickstarter funding, however, this month-long trip will be less extensive than we imagined at the beginning. It will be exhaustive nonetheless, and give us the opportunity to explore the modern applications of these ancient Chinese arts, as well as the fascinating people who teach and practice them.

 

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Poet in the Mountains, by Shen Chou (1427-1509)

On this first leg, we will go to the Mountain, which will bring good fortune according the I Ching, the ancient Book of Changes. That was the revelation for me when I consulted the oracle through the I Ching – hexagram 44, Nourishment, with the image of thunder or arousing at the foot of the mountain. I am cautioned to be careful with my words and with what I consume, which is valuable advice for a writer following in the footsteps of that wild and crazy Jack Kerouac. And I should seek guidance and help from others. Perfect!

A second hexagram, No. 9, Innocence, is the image of thunder or arousing under heaven and promises “supreme success” if I am true to my nature, and follow the spiritual path. Taoism is a spiritual path that connects the human body and mind to the universe, and I intend to stay on this path, finding other like-minded seekers.

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Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs at Naropa University in 1976.

The Mountain – in this case, Boulder, Colorado – is home to Naropa University and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, named by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and previously staffed by Beat legends like poet Gary Snyder, who was Kerouac’s muse in “The Dharma Bums.” Writer William Burroughs also haunted Naropa during its seminal years in the early to mid-70s.

Boulder is also home to my friend Lee Fife, a Tai Chi and Qigong instructor who is promising intensive practice in Tai Chi and sword forms, as well as meditation and insightful discussions into the evolution of Chinese martial arts, and the Beat Generation, in the United States. Lee teaches in his own studio, and at Naropa University.

On the way to that Rocky Mountain high, where Neal Cassady grew up and first hitched a ride with Kerouac, we will visit other hopping Tai Chi places and meet the fascinating people who are guiding the Qigong experience in America. Included among these is Bill Douglas, the founder of World Tai Chi and Qigong Day and World Health Day, who has devoted his life to spreading the good word about the health and emotional benefits of Tai Chi.

 

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World Tai Chi and Qigong Day this year made an appearance in Iran, one of nearly 80 countries that have observed this event, running annually since 1998.

Douglas credits Tai Chi and “breathing lessons” for helping him turn away from drugs and despair to find his true calling in becoming a missionary for Tai Chi, Qigong and Taoist meditation around the world. Perhaps no American has done so much to spread the gospel of Tai Chi and Qigong – in government auditoriums and hospitals, in churches, mosques and temples, and even behind prison walls – not only to Americans but to seekers across the globe.

There will be adventures beyond Boulder, as well, but not further West. We are saving the West Coast for another adventure, a second leg on our journey in search of the New Dharma Bums, sometime next year. Besides chronicling the story for the Tai Chi community through this blog, I also hope to expand the story through the media in the areas I visit. So many great stories, so little attention by the media!

Let’s start a new conversation. Breathe deep and let go. That’s lesson No. 1. Come on the road with the New Dharma Bums. I will blog several times a week beginning next week. Let us know what you think.

 

‘New Journalism’ Hits the Road

Picking up on the thread about Neal Cassady with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and the evolution of the Beats with the hippy culture of the late 1960s, we have a detailed account left by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe caught up with the Pranksters in 1964 as they awaited Kesey’s release from jail for marijuana possession – a year after the Pranksters took their wild cross-country bus ride for an ill-fated rendezvous with Timothy Leary and Jack Kerouac, and the manic Cassady at the wheel, forever tempting fate.

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Tom Wolfe in his element: Taking a literary approach to journalism.

While Wolfe was not on the bus, literally or figuratively, in that drug-fueled mad dash across the country, he was an eyewitness to later trips as Kesey hosted the Hell’s Angels and Grateful Dead for parties, and met the infamous Owsley Stanley, grandson of a U.S. senator from Kentucky and principal LSD manufacturer on the West Coast, providing enough acid to supply a running series of Kesey “acid tests,” and finance a run by the Dead into the music consciousness of the era. Wolfe documents all the craziness.

Among the cultural collisions occurring during this period was the intersection of the “New Journalists,” and Wolfe was foremost in this category of reporters using the techniques of the novel, with the author becoming a player in the story. As the Hell’s Angels were preparing to invade the Pranksters’ encampment in La Honda, California, for a party, Wolfe and Kesey met with Hunter S. Thompson, who was imbedded with the Angels working on his own New Journalism account, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, just the beginning of his “Fear and Loathing” reports. My favorite, a Thompson article for the now-defunct Ramparts magazine, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” deconstructed here.

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Hunter S. Thompson chronicled the saga of Hell’s Angels,  Kentucky Derby and Presidential  Campaign Trails, among other American vulgarities.

For his part, Wolfe went on to write The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, both made into movies, and continued to report from his elitist, socially conservative point of view, criticizing the styles of modern art and architecture, for example. One of his earliest works, Radical Chic, pillories Leonard Bernstein in reporting on a fundraising gala for the Black Panthers. Most recently, Wolfe, now 85, has sought to debunk well-researched theories of Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky in “The Kingdom of Speech,” introducing his own rather preposterous theory about the origin of language.

With the “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” Wolfe seemed to fall in love with his chief protagonist, Ken Kesey, whose muscular prose and personality were pure poetry in Wolfe’s telling. It was Kesey’s first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the follow-up publication of Sometimes a Great Notion that drew him to the Pranksters and Kesey’s release from jail. Wolfe’s critics accuse him of deifying Kesey, making him a Christ-like figure in the evolving counterculture. While Wolfe clearly was a fan of Kesey the author, he swears he never drank the Kool-Aid.

Fifty years later, the story is different. People have moved beyond the psychedelic craze and, while drug abuse may be rampant in some communities, we are seeing the revival of natural approaches to improving human strength and balance. That is the story of Tai Chi and Qigong in America, and it is compelling. The New Dharma Bums are leading a spiritual and cultural quest for mind-body balance, for new Taoist sensibilities, yin and yang, building harmony within and out. They are also teaching a serious martial arts form, an intense mind-body exercise, providing a clear answer to the nagging question of balance.

My plan is to write about the promise of Tai Chi and Qigong in America, telling the stories of teachers and students who are opening new channels of energy and vitality. This strikes me as a grand adventure in New Journalism, and I look forward to becoming part of this story.

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New Journalist Michael Byrne, stepping into single whip, ready to help push Tai Chi into the mainstream

Thanks to all those who have supported this journey, either via the Kickstarter campaign or joining in the conversation on this blog or the Facebook page or group. I welcome all insights, such as the recent message from a hardwired Deadhead who wanted to make sure I understood just how close Neal Cassady was to the Grateful Dead. The band celebrated his memory in the eminently jammable “Cassidy,” which also referred to a love child of the Grateful Dead family, as explained by the lyricist.

Here’s how “Cassidy” went down at New York’s Radio Music Hall on Halloween, 1980.

 

 

The Professor

We interrupt this journey to present an important milestone recently produced by a Kickstarter campaign, a fine documentary film about the man who helped popularize Tai Chi Ch’uan in the United States. It began in the turbulent ‘60s when martial artists and hippies invaded a studio in New York’s Chinatown in equal parts, all interested in drawing from the power of Tai Chi.

Cheng Man Ch’ing was 63 years old in 1964 when he uprooted his family from Taiwan to inhabit that New York studio and teach Tai Chi, the “soft” Chinese martial art he had mastered during a lifetime of study. Over the next decade, until his death in Taiwan in 1975, Cheng effectively kick-started the American quest for better health, strength and balance through Tai Chi and other Qigong (energy work) exercises.

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Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s students in New York recall his humanity, his “genuine” nature.

Cheng’s legacy is the subject of The Professor: Tai-Chi’s Journey West, a new documentary that provides an intimate and affectionate view of the Tai Chi master, through the eyes of many of his students. The video also uses the opportunity to explain and promote the Taoist martial art.

Cheng was a man of tiny stature but giant accomplishments, a healer practiced in Chinese medicine, a poet, painter and calligrapher. His American students towered over him, but he easily dispatched them in “push-hands” exercises. The film includes many original clips showing the Professor in playful exercises with his students, from teaching brushstrokes to swordplay.

“The Professor” is the Kickstarter brainstorm of filmmaker Barry Strugatz, who quickly collected $35,000 from more than 300 donors to get the film off the ground. Many of the contributors were key to the story, Cheng’s students. Those who participated in the film all had fond memories and stories about lessons learned, even today.

“I think the devotion we felt, and the communication we had came from the fact he was a genuine person,” said former student Myles Angus MacVane. “His genuine reality came through so that communication was not a problem even though he spoke a different language.”

Cheng student Ed Young, who grew up in China interested in martial arts, but not Tai Chi, became a Cheng and Tai Chi devotee in New York, also serving as Cheng’s translator during the daily six-hour lessons that covered the Yang-style form, push hands and sword form, with time out for Chinese medicine and calligraphy. “He came to the United States to teach Americans, and he taught everyone,” Young said.

Another student, Ken Van Sickle, who joined director Strugatz as a producer of the new film, described his odyssey from karate to other martial arts, seeking “something with a philosophy and meaning.” When he walked into Cheng’s studio and saw him gently launching people into the air during push hands exercises, he knew he had found his place.

The former students described how Cheng insisted that they relax their bodies to properly practice Tai Chi, concentrating on balance and structure, and to never use force. “In an interview with the Daily News, he stressed the importance of listening,” recalled Bill Phillips. “I didn’t realize until later that he was talking about listening with your hands, not your ears.”

The Professor had the power to “sense your balance just through touch,” MacVane said, “to unbalance you by yielding.” Because he was so “soft” in his approach to martial arts, some of his contemporaries in China “didn’t think he had the ‘real stuff,’” Van Sickle said.

“When he came to the United States, Cheng was much more interested in the health aspects of Tai Chi, rather than the martial part,” Van Sickle said. “He understood that the ‘real stuff’ was the stuff that helped you live longer, that gave you vitality. He regarded Tai Chi as his most important accomplishment because it let people achieve good health on their own.”

Although the Professor periodically traveled back to Taiwan (the local Chinese men’s organization locked out Cheng’s students during one such visit), his students said they had a sense of foreboding in 1975 when he left the final time – in a hurry to get back and finish his book on the I Ching. Their fears were realized when he died unexpectedly in Taiwan.

His students have worked hard to carry on his work – some taking the martial arts track and others focusing more on internal energy (Qigong) and health. One of Cheng’s students in Taiwan, Robert W. Smith, co-wrote with Cheng a basic text in Tai Chi Ch’uan, and helped to popularize the practice with schools in Washington, DC, where I studied, and in North Carolina.

“The Professor” succeeds as a documentary but also as an introduction to Tai Chi and the Taoist principles that underlie the martial art. You are taken through the 37-posture Cheng Yang form, push hands and the Yang sword form, as well as such principles as qi (life force) and the Tao (Way).

Only one nit I would pick with the filmmakers is the decision to open the piece with an interview with Bruce Lee, the “hard” martial artist movie star who applauds the rise of Tai Chi among the masses, who perform the exercise on rooftops all across China. Although he bows to those people using Tai Chi “to take care of their bodies,” his was not the best introduction to the story, in my opinion.

I recommend “The Professor” for anyone interested in Tai Chi and Chinese culture, including practitioners seeking other views on the Way. You can order the DVD here. Check out the trailer:

The Journey Continues

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them. That only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” – Tao Te Ching

The ancient Taoist wisdom as expressed by Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Sun Tzu and other Chinese philosophers contains an abundance of caution, with “do nothing” a common option. Patience as a remedy runs through the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching, the Book of Changes. The concept of wu wei, not acting, is elemental to Taoism, and to the Taoist martial arts. We yield, stay soft, apply four ounces of force to overcome a thousand pounds in seeming effortless power through Tai Chi, Hsing-I and Bagua.

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“Stop trying to leave and you will arrive. Stop seeking and you will see. Stop running away and you will be found,” Lao Tzu advised.

Thus, I’m only slightly disappointed that my Kickstarter project failed to launch me on a nationwide trip in search of the “New Dharma Bums,” and the Tai Chi and Qigong revolution quietly taking place in communities across the country. I will be able to tell this story in due time – in fact, I’ve already been writing about it as I prepared for a trip, spreading the word about how the modern rush to the ancient Taoist martial arts is reminiscent of the earlier quest for enlightenment by the Beat Generation’s Dharma Bums.

Having explored the literary traditions, I don’t intend to end my journey here. I will persevere, making some limited trips that will allow me to gather information and continue both the blog and a New Dharma Bums book in the end. You can still follow the blog here, and I will have updates periodically that I will post on my Facebook page, which I urge you to “like,” and where you can post any suggestions or commentary.

To my friends in the Tai Chi community, thanks for your support and encouragement — and for invites and offers to assist with training and additional insights into the art we know and love. As I proposed, I can help promote your work through the blog or additional outreach to local media. Tell me about your community, and your training program. Tell me about your journey.

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The end of this road is a new beginning. As Lao Tze wrote, “a good traveler has no fixed plans.” My eyes, ears and mind are all wide open as I prepare to be swept away with the natural flow of life. I hope to see many of you along the Way.

 

What I Bring to the Table

I think most of my Facebook friends who teach and study Tai Chi and Qigong don’t know what to make of me, and my search for the New Dharma Bums. In truth, I haven’t been very clear, since the journey has not yet taken shape. But my ultimate goal is to promote the Taoist martial arts in America, focusing on the practices in communities today that are helping people cope, get healthier and find inner peace.

That’s the story that will help Tai Chi grow and prosper here, why an ancient Chinese martial art gets any play in the U.S. media today. The health and emotional benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong are being documented every day, and local reporters are taking notice. It’s not the competitions, or the refinement of fighting skills, that will make Tai Chi and Qigong a cultural and business success, even though that’s exciting enough for many practitioners.

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More seniors and community centers are looking for training in Tai Chi and Qigong to improve fitness and balance.

The martial aspects are essential to understanding and experiencing Tai Chi (and Hsing-I and Bagua), and we can’t ignore them. In my blogs, I explain the importance of martial training to structure, rooting and focus, and how Tai Chi masters astound with their martial abilities. But I also want to show Jane Doe and Joe SixPack that this is something for them, and maybe even for Aunt Mabel. You don’t have to be Chuck Norris to benefit from the practice.

Here’s what I know based on decades of work in public relations, surveying audiences and seeking to meet their needs: You want a message that connects to the general public. If you want to win friends and influence people, to grow your business, you first need to pique their interest, to show them what’s in it for them. Connect your work to their needs and interests.

With this project, I’m offering my services to promote the work of Tai Chi teachers in their communities, and even nationally. I can be a communications utility wherever I go; you can plug me in. So, while I am meeting new people and learning from them, I expect to apply my journalistic skills to promote their work, including:

  • Wherever I visit I will analyze the media market, review previous reports, and gather the contact information for the primary reporters/editors.
  • I will send a press release out ahead of each visit, and follow up with personal calls. I will tweet and send Instagrams.
  • I will help teachers create events to draw in allies in the community, to help them tell their story.

Regular push-hands exercises in the park, for example, can be opportunities to connect with the wider community, including health advocates and organizations. For local TV news, you’re offering interesting visuals and an educational message. Before long, you might be filling the park with new students and those who would recommend you.

My career in public relations has involved selling ideas rather than soap products. For nearly 30 years I worked with unions to promote worker rights and economic justice. It was a labor of love right up to the time I retired from the business this year to pursue another love, Taoist martial arts and philosophy. They both involve helping the little guy gain power and equilibrium.

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From my Kickstarter video, stepping into Single Whip.

I’ve focused on writing a blog and eventually writing a book about Tai Chi in America, and haven’t talked enough about the communications assets I bring to the table. As I near the end of the Kickstarter fundraising campaign, and nowhere near the starting blocks, I ask you to consider how I can help you. We should talk.

I recognize that very few people teaching Tai Chi and Qigong today are getting rich from the practice, and some tell me they have resorted to teaching for free, or for next to nothing. Many have regular jobs that pay the bills, and their martial arts practice is a sidelight – something they do for the pure enjoyment of it. That is part of the story, too.

The point is that too few Americans are aware of the power and scope of the Taoist martial arts, and I want to change that. I want to put Tai Chi and Qigong into the national discussion about health and vitality, particularly for older Americans looking for ways to stay active and fit. The New Dharma Bums, the blog and the tweets, could help in this regard – especially when combined with a local media strategy.

A New Dharma Bums national tour would be good for Tai Chi. It would expand public interest, and the market for teachers and practitioners. Make it happen by contributing here.

Applied Wisdom

Picking up our previous thread, we were at a crossroads  looking for the Way across America that tells the Tai Chi and Qigong story, at both the mastery and the mass levels. The road map is beginning to take shape, although we are still trying to summon the resources. We have a deadline.

Meanwhile, my preparation includes more literary adventures, reading and viewing the latest creations that promote the art of the Tao, both martial and meditative. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed reading Jennifer St. John’s Ten Zen: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times, and I offer a review here. But first, I have a clarification for a previous blog.

I am surprised and pleased to report that Gary Snyder, the poet who inspired the Japhy Ryder character in Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, is not the last of the living Dharma Bums. In fact, an original, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and Beat publisher at San Francisco’s City Lights, is alive and well, at 97, and writing his memoirs. Ah, the stories he might tell!

Ferlinghetti inspired many aspiring poets and philosophers, including Jennifer St. John, who is both a Tai Chi master and a corporate consultant, principal of House of Taiji and The Fusion Group, LTD, co-located in Weston, Florida. She was so impressed with Ferlinghetti’s unconventional poetry that she chose as her University of Washington senior project a performance arts piece based on his work.

I never met Ferlinghetti, although I wandered his City Lights bookstore looking for a Kerouac volume (Visions of Gerard, found it!). But you’ve got to love his irreligious take on American society, and life in general. Here he is with his “Loud Prayer” in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film, “The Last Waltz.”

St. John’s martial arts journey began when she was 8 years old, bullied coming home from a birthday party. To defend herself, she turned to judo, karate and Kung-fu, and then Aikido before finally finding her home with Tai Chi (taiji). The change to internal martial arts came just after she moved her business to South Florida from New York City. She sought out Sifu Ron Hoffman, who influenced many martial artists in south Florida with his Temple-style Tai Chi, taught by Master Waysun Liao and with further training at a Taoist monastery in Taiwan.

“Ten Zen” is an eloquent synthesis of knowledge and insight that St. John has gathered over the years, as she has applied Taoist philosophy in advising corporations about leadership and management. Like other “Zen stories,” these each conveys a moral – deep truth about life. St. John extends each story with a discussion about the lessons, which you might apply individually, in your home, or at work.

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As St. John tells it, “Ten Zen” began as a single story, “Learning is Letting Go,” about a man who has gathered all the things he has learned, each another stick in the bundle he laboriously carried through the village. He would not relinquish any of the sticks “that represent a lesson I learned along my path since childhood.” However, through good fortune and design, the man loses his entire bundle of sticks and learns a valuable lesson about letting go of the past.

The 10 stories are easy to digest, helped by the editing and design touches by the “editorial team” at The Fusion Group. But they’re also fun to read, as St. John infuses each chapter with life and character. In “When the Master Calls, Go In,” she introduces her story by setting a colorful scene at the “Temple of the Perennial Wisdom”:

“Zen Temple. Massive Formal Gate. Much traffic, dusty itinerant priests arriving from far away. Muscular warrior monks practicing martial skills in the courtyard, and the “kat, kat, kot” sound of martial practice with wooden staves in furious contact. Nuns in gray shirts and tightly wrapped pant legs carry out the business of the temple, their shaven heads indistinguishable from their brothers, but for the softer, delicate, more fluid grace of their carriage.”

It is easy to be carried along by the fluid grace of the stories, but also a pleasure to return and reread, for the language and for the lessons. I am still trying to get in touch with my “Kitchen Tai Chi,” after reading “In the Great Hall,” the final story. Apparently my Tai Chi should enable me to move “smoothly, silently, gracefully at work – moving from wok to kettle to cauldron in a beautiful demonstration of ‘Moving Meditation and Kitchen Tai Chi.” This may take more meditation and much practice on my part..

This slim volume would be a valuable addition to your Zen/Tao collection. You can order it here. You can also get a sense of how St. John applies Taoist principles to workaday complications of corporate life by checking out her blog, “Cornerstones.”