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.

Hands Across the World

On the last Saturday of April each year, people all over the world come together for a graceful dance, flowing through Tai Chi and Qigong forms in a mass demonstration of good will and health. World Tai Chi and Qigong Day, founded in 1998, has spread to 80 countries, embraced by people of different beliefs, languages and cultures. The theme, “One World … One Breath,” celebrates the energy gained with proper breathing through Qigong while also speaking to the power of the Taoist martial arts as a vehicle for peace.

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Bill Douglas leads the first World Tai Chi and Qigong Event at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

This global event is the brainchild of a small-town Kansas boy, Bill Douglas, and his Hong Kong-born wife, Angela Wong Douglas, whom he met when they were students at the University of Kansas at Fort Hays. Bill began studying Tai Chi to counter the stress of family and work life in Southern California, including the sudden loss of his infant son and mother. His father, a combat infantry sergeant for nearly three years in World War II, suffered from classic post-traumatic stress disorder, before it got that name.

The whole family was in shock, said Bill, who found relief in a Yang-style Tai Chi form he practiced at every opportunity, including at work in his Los Angeles office. He eventually made his break from that office after a trip to Hong Kong to visit Angela’s family. There, a Taoist monk, consulting the oracle of the I Ching (Book of Changes), told him he would be a teacher. Douglas had never considered the possibility, but suddenly saw his new path forward.

Back in Kansas, his private Tai Chi classes grew quickly, fueled by word of mouth, and he began packing church basements and community halls. He wrote articles that attracted contract offers from local government and hospital administrations, and also an invitation from the McMillan publishing house to write The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Tai Chi and Qigong. The book was praised for helping make Tai Chi and Qigong principles accessible to those who don’t know Chinese culture.

I had an opportunity this week to participate in the Taoist meditation class Douglas runs for the University of Kansas Medical Center Turning Point Center for Hope and Healing, an hour and a half of sitting meditation and standing Qigong exercises with students of all ages. As Douglas explained in a report for the Kansas City public television station, medical research has shown that Tai Chi can ease chronic pain and reduce ailments related to stress:

Douglas originally pitched the idea for a World Tai Chi and Qigong Day in a speech to the National Qigong Association and was encouraged by Master Li Junfeng, a famous wushu coach who had abandoned the sport to promote Qigong and Taoist meditation as global resources to bring people together.

“He told me that if I go ahead with the idea of worldwide day dedicated to Tai Chi and Qigong that I should do it for love, or don’t do it at all,” Douglas recalled. With that encouragement, Douglas began contacting instructors from around the world and organized a seminal event in 1998 on the south lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City.

Douglas did all the promotion for the first several years, spending thousands of dollars for phone and fax outreach around the world, and developed a website, of which he is the webmaster. He also followed up his Tai Chi book with four other self-published books, including two novels, and he’s working on another one, The Gospel of Science. In addition, he also produces a weekly newsletter distributed electronically. I will have more about his books in a later blog.

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Angela Wong Douglas joined husband Bill in reviving Tai Chi and Qigong training she abandoned when she was a young girl growing up in Hong Kong.

After working with World Tai Chi and Qigong Day participants in Israel, Egypt, Iran, Cuba and other countries, including personal appearances, Douglas is convinced that the events rise above the level of health education. They provide “a shining example to the world, so that we can see each other through a different lens than the one the media shows us,” he said.

His vision of breaking down the walls among the world’s people is consistent throughout his work and words. “With World Tai Chi and Qigong Day, we see on a visceral level that these are people just like us,” he said. “They have the same feelings and challenges as us, the same hopes, the same fears, the same dreams, the same love for their children.”

The ultimate goal, Douglas said, is to convince governments around the world that Tai Chi and Qigong should be taught in schools, giving young people a framework for living healthy lives, both physically and emotionally. “We know Tai Chi and Qigong improve people’s brains and their health, improve their balance, give them more energy. Studies have shown there are many benefits of Tai Chi.”

Douglas is proud that he has “become an evangelist” for Tai Chi, and is looking forward to next April’s event, when he will travel to Tunisia and celebrate with practitioners there. Tunisia has special meaning for him because it is one of the beachheads his father fought to secure in World War II. For Douglas, the benefits of the Taoist martial arts include the establishment of common bonds and a road to peace, as the 2016 World Tai Chi and Qigong Day video suggests:

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.