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.

15122992_1157080987703648_8125009518514327818_o

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.”

push

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.”

The Real (Long) Yang

As I mentioned in previous blogs, my Tai Chi training came from a school founded by students of Professor Cheng Man-Ching, who had studied with celebrated Master Yang Chengfu in China and eventually simplified the Yang long form from 103 to 37 postures. After practicing this short form for 28 years, I am comfortable applying the principles of Tai Chi within the flow of this exercise.

I expected to get out of my comfort zone during this trip, but I wasn’t prepared for how difficult it would be to maintain balance and focus learning new postures. My first experience came in Omaha, Nebraska, under the tutelage of Bruno Repetto, who learned the Yang long form in Seattle from Yang Jun, a direct descendant of Yang Chengfu and Yang Lu Chan, the creator of the Yang form, which is the most popular of the five major styles of Tai Chi.

While the Yang long form includes much repetition of the 37 postures I learned, many postures are completely different. For example, “Needle at Sea Bottom,” “Turn Body and Chop with Fist,” “High Pat on the Horse,” “Left and Right Tiger Strikes” and “Turn Body and White Snake Spits Out Tongue” left me somewhat twisted out of shape. It was clear that I would need much study to expand my Yang repertoire. You can watch Yang Jun perform the full 25-minute long form here.

img_0741

Yang long form instructor Bruno Repetto, right foreground, leads his class in the saber form in Papillion, Nebraska, near Omaha.

Repetto, a mathematician who helps to ensure that Union Pacific trains run on time, teaches Tai Chi for the love of it, and refuses to consider accepting payment, at least for the time being. “Maybe when I’m retired and moved back to Seattle, I can devote more time to it,” he said. “But I’m not going to make a living off this.”

Many Tai Chi teachers have struggled to make a living off the training, but as Taoist martial arts gain popularity, that could change. In Omaha, Repetto is competing with a number of teachers, particularly those who work with the Cheng Man-Ching form.

“Many students, when they see what I am teaching, are interested in the more complex form,” he said. “And I spend the time necessary to make sure they have the postures just right.”

Repetto was born in Peru, where his family moved from northern Italy in the 1800s. His expertise in mathematics applied to computer technology won him a scholarship in the United States, where he eventually received a PhD in applied mathematics and a job offer from Boeing. He moved his family to Seattle, where he became a U.S. citizen.

Although he had dabbled in judo as a youngster, Repetto knew when he saw a Tai Chi performance by Yang Jun that he had found his passion. “There really is no comparison, for me, between the external martial arts and the internal arts. Tai Chi helps you focus on health as well as your martial arts skills.”

While the sword form includes 67 different postures, the saber form postures are based on a 13-line poem. I stood clear as Repetto led his students through the saber form, which is a martial technique that includes cuts, uppercuts, slices and stabs. Yang Jun demonstrates in this video how the poetry is conveyed in a saber dance that is firmly rooted in the principles of Tai Chi.