Off the Road and into the Arena

We’re taking a little detour from our Dharma Bums journey to explore Taiji competition – how the ancient Chinese martial arts have been organized as modern sport in the United States. No, this isn’t “push hands,” the play form of Taiji fighting we’ve explored on this blog previously. I’m talking about the mastery and presentation of martial arts forms, on stage with other competitors, going for the gold.

Internal martial arts are now mixing it up alongside external forms like Karate and Tae Kwon Do in these tournaments, with help from competitors like Dr. Melody Lee and her son Mickey, both originally Tae Kwon Do performers who became champions working with Chen Taiji forms. They have created a unique teaching program, Sun & Moon Taiji One, that reflects their global experiences and interest in competition, and for the past two years have organized the China Open Internal Martial Arts Championships, part of the U.S. Capitol Classics, founded by their original Yang-style Taiji teacher, Grand Master Dennis Brown.

While these competitions may not be a regular Dharma Bum’s cup of tea, they do serve to popularize the martial arts, particularly among students looking for alternative sports activity. It was a natural for Mickey but a complete makeover for Melody, who is a physician and research scientist by training. How they got to this stage is a remarkable tale of trial and error, like the scientific method, with ultimate discovery.

Chen reunion

Mickey and Melody Lee are front and center at Sun & Moon Taiji One with visiting Chen-style Grand Master Zhu Tiancai.

A brilliant student in Korea, Melody’s immunology research in the late 1970s led her to laboratory jobs at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the National Institutes of Health in suburban DC, as well as a PhD in molecular biology from Cornell. But while she was working long hours in the lab studying retroviruses in the fight against HIV, “so focused on one little thing at a time,” she was missing the big picture, she said.

“Over the years I came to realize I was going about it all wrong. I was wasting time,” Melody remembers. Her epiphany came on vacation at the beach, when she finally took time to relax. “It was an enlightening moment, when I realized my entire hypothesis was wrong. When I returned to work, I knew I needed to make changes, to start all over.” That resulted in a new discovery,”  a previously unidentified host protein that protects retroviral DNA from autointegration.

Melody also was discovering the natural power of relaxation and exercise, beginning the work of transforming a bookish, non-athletic academic into a champion martial artist. Tae Kwon Do was a good way to relieve stress and reconnect with her Korean heritage, and teaching martial arts became a rewarding new outlet, she said, a way to “grow young” while helping others to good health.

In the meantime, Melody had married and given birth to Mickey, who was uprooted a few times in his early years, moving from Manhattan to Virginia and Maryland. With Melody’s encouragement, he had turned to martial arts to gain self-confidence and defend himself against bullying – as an 11-year-old new kid in a Maryland middle school picked on because he was obese and shy. Over the next few years, working through the rigors of Tae Kwon Do and regular swimming routines, Mickey lost weight and became a skilled martial artist. “It was the perfect sport for me,” he said. “I was uncoordinated with the ball sports, but I had a natural aptitude for martial arts.”

As a student at Georgetown University, where he founded the Tae Kwon Do Club, Mickey began studying other martial arts forms, including Hung Fut, a southern China style of traditional Kung Fu, and Yang-style Taijiquan. Eventually, he settled on the style he adapted for winning forms titles in the years ahead – Chen-style Taiji. Mickey and Melody both trained with Dr. CP Ong, who also hosted Chen Grand Masters Chen Xiaowang, Zhu Tiancai and Chen Zhenglei for hands-on training in the United States. Later they joined a pilgrimage to China’s Chen Village, considered by many to be the birthplace of Taijiquan, training at Grand Master Zhu’s school. Mickey competed in a nearby international tournament, winning silver medals in Taiji form and straight sword (Taijijian) divisions.

Mickey and Melody both stepped up the competitions and performances as they learned, traveling across the country for tournaments. They performed together with a synchronized Taiji form at the U.S. Capitol Classic in 2004, impressing the judges, and each has won national championships in forms competition, with and without weapons, listed here and here. Mickey’s Chen Taiji routines have won world titles from the North American Sports Karate Association. In this video, Mickey and Melody perform the Chen form together at an event honoring Dr. Ong:

For their performances, Mickey and Melody choreograph routines to music, using the basic Chen form, with and without weapons. Forms judging is by its nature highly subjective and open to bias, but Mickey and Melody consistently score high marks for their steady performances, and for their steady hands in organizing events. The China Open Internal Martial Arts Championship scoring is like gymnastics, rating performances based on three components – basic/technical, overall and degree of difficulty, sometimes with room for “charisma.”  Mickey says he may add push-hands competition to the tournament next year, although that will present a new set of challenges to implement a clear and fair evaluation.

Garden Foodie

Melody and Mickey pose at a favorite restaurant in Falls Church, Va.

Besides Taiji performance competition, Mickey and Melody are keenly interested in food – nutritious and flavorful eating – so much so that they have adopted “Martial Foodie” as a social media identity, adding healthful eating to their martial arts training program. For Mickey, who not only battled childhood obesity but also a bout of food poisoning and subsequent severe allergic reactions, balance in eating goes hand in hand with balance in Taiji. “Learn to listen to your body,” he said. “Sometimes you get the wrong signals from the brain, feeding impulses instead of a healthy body. If you make the right choices, your body will be healthy and happy.”

The Martial Foodie advice boils down to this: Eat less quantity and more quality.  This means organic, free-range, grass-fed meats, dairy and eggs when possible; seafood that is from clean sources, and produce that is organic, pesticide-free when possible. Enjoy full-fat milk and butter, meat and fish with fat, vegetables with fat, such as avocados. The key, as they always say, is portions. Melody and Mickey eat one meal in the middle of the day and otherwise may eat a quick snack, fruit or maybe a poached organic egg. “You should have discipline and a sense of self-defense with eating,” Mickey said. “Eat in moderation, and smaller amounts, and also eat not to get sick, as self-defense. Raw garlic, for example, is a natural antibiotic.”

Eat consciously, our Martial Foodie advises. “Like in meditation, be in the present moment.”

That’s sound advice for any foodie, martial or not.

One final look at Mickey’s winning Chen-style Taiji form, in a video from a 2012 tournament in Chicago:

Finding Your Way

I’ve cast a wide net with these blogs, covering weekend seminars with Tai Chi and qigong masters, connecting in Florida with teachers and students of the virtual Kwoon community, and spending a month on the road visiting devotees of the Taoist martial arts in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Arkansas. It’s been a great ride, and it’s not over. Over the mountains I must go, to the West Coast, where my story actually begins. I’ll tell you more about that another time.

But let’s take a pause to answer the big question, the one I get most often from friends and blog readers: How can you, with some or no knowledge of Tai Chi, learn how to gain better health, strength and balance through this ancient Chinese practice? It’s not like yoga, with classes all over your city or county – including at gyms and sports clubs. You have to work to find Tai Chi classes, but it’s worth it.

Tai Chi and related qigong practices is yoga’s martial arts cousin, both concentrating on internal energy, breath work and chi, called prana in yoga. Both are beneficial to your fitness, improving balance and relieving stress. But Tai Chi has applications outside the body, in healing as well as in self-defense. It emphasizes dynamic fluid motions rather than holding static postures. My friends at Energy Arts describe the difference simply: “In Tai Chi you relax to stretch; in yoga you stretch to relax.”

While yoga classes are more accessible, Tai Chi is poised for a surge in popularity as more practitioners arise around the world. Some of the best Tai Chi masters are emerging right now – in countries outside of China, which has created a national brand of graceful Tai Chi called wushu. As a writer of the popular story, I am not a teacher. But I share the knowledge and I tell the stories of those who make this journey, particularly the new masters, the new Dharma Bums.

Push hands

I prepare to engage in Tai Chi sensitivity training, Push Hands, with Sifu Michael Paler, left, in his studio in Colorado Springs last November. Paler recently launched an on-line training program. (Photo by Julie Paler)

During my journey, I’ve met many teachers, some who were inspired to lead – like Bill Douglas, the Kansas Tai Chi evangelist who was assured by a Taoist monk in Hong Kong that he would be a teacher, something he had never considered. Today he leads a global movement, not only a local practice but also World Tai Chi and World Healing Day, observed the last Saturday in April each year – in countries all over the world. This year, on April 29, Douglas was in Tunisia.

Douglas began his practice when a neighbor asked him to show her the exercises he was doing in his back yard. Finding a good teacher is not so easy in most places. You want to make sure your teacher not only is accomplished (ask for the lineage and experience of the teacher), but also someone who is passionate about teaching the skills and benefits of Tai Chi. Individual, personal training is the best way to learn this art form – for either health or martial applications.

I first understood how important hands-on training is when I took a weekend seminar with Mark Rasmus, an Australian whose home base is Thailand. He demonstrated how sensitivity to others, sensing their center through gentle, yielding touch, leads to the ability to get them off balance and send them flying. After nearly 25 years of study, this was my first experience with the martial aspects of Tai Chi. Rasmus hopes to make another tour of the United States, but in the meantime, you can learn much by checking out his teaching videos on YouTube.

I can recommend several teachers in the Washington DC Metropolitan area, and throughout the United States and world, depending on your interests. Some are expert in Ba Gua and Hsing-I, and other martial applications. There is a wealth of information online, and a vibrant community of Tai Chi enthusiasts eager to turn other people on to this art. Besides the many groups on Facebook, others write well-circulated blogs, including Qialance by Angelika Fritz, who also connects other bloggers from her home in Germany.

If you are unable to find a reliable teacher close to you, or classes are too far away to attend, I can suggest several on-line training resources, based on the recommendations of teachers I trust. If you are a beginner, in particular, you should check out the on-line training unveiled this year by Michael Paler, who teaches the Yang style form and Old Six Roads tradition at his studio in Colorado Springs.

Another excellent resource, especially for those with some experience (or even a lot of experience, as his expert students will attest), is Adam Mizner, a young Australian who recently moved his teaching practice from Thailand to the Czech Republic. But his Yang style martial arts lessons are available anywhere in the world with Internet through his Heaven Man Earth training program.

Finally, for those more interested in the health and healing aspects of qigong and Tai Chi, I recommend Bruce Frantzis and his Energy Arts combine. Frantzis teaches around the world – I spent a weekend with him in Maryland learning Taoist breathing and the Dragon and Tiger qigong exercises – but his lessons are also available online.

If you prefer hardcover illumination, I have written about literary classics that will give you a keen understanding of the philosophy, if not the practice. To fully grasp the power of the internal martial arts, you have to reach out and touch someone.