Sunday, December 14, 2008

Changed by Tai Chi

by Julie Li

"When the student is ready, the teacher will appear."

Having heard that tai chi was beneficial for the elderly,I signed up with my 73-year-old mother for an introductory 8-week adult ed course at Peter Kwok's Kung Fu Academy in Emerson, NJ. That was a year and a half ago and I haven't looked back.

I had always been curious about tai chi, but had no real idea of what to expect. Faced with the typical frustrations of a beginner--"What? There's a short form too?!"--the first six months were especially challenging.

I wasn't completely naïve however: I knew there would be a learning curve, especially at my age and less-than peak physical condition. What I didn't anticipate was how much I would be changed by tai chi. The things I've lost have been tangible --some unwanted pounds have disappeared--but what I've found has been even more valuable: increased confidence and patience, newfound mental and physical strength, and a core of inner resources I didn't know I could possess. In addition to opening these doors within myself, tai chi has also connected me more with my husband's family and culture--we joke that because of my interest in martial arts and Taoist philosophy I am now more Chinese than he is. One special moment I will never forget is doing tai chi with my mother-in-law and her siblings at a family reunion last year. They were eager to see what I had
learned and I was nervous to show them. But their enthusiasm at even my rudimentary knowledge of tai chi was obvious as they followed me through a shaky demonstration of the Guang Ping Yang long form. What came next was even more of a surprise, when, after we finished, they bowed and expressed their thanks, affectionately
calling me "master."

Equally as important to me as experiences like this are the very people who make up my martial arts family. There is a real sense of community at my school, and I don't think my "tai chi friends" know how much they have come to mean to me. I do know that while we may have only a limited knowledge of each other, the connections are meaningful, and, I hope, longlasting. Each one of my teacher-sisters and teacher-brothers has been just that--a patient and supportive teacher who has in their own way opened another door. This kind of accepting and nurturing environment doesn't happen by accident. Our teacher, Master Randy Elia, embodies the Chinese expression, "Teacher for a day, parent for life," and the knowledge, enthusiasm, and encouragement he shares with us so freely is infinite and inspiring.

Still a beginner with a lifetime of practice ahead, I know I have only begun to scratch the surface of what tai chi has to teach me. I look forward to the journey and, although my kicks may not be as steady years down the road, I know my spirit will only continue to grow stronger.

Julie Li is a Board Member and Membership Coordinator for the GPYTCA

Monday, December 8, 2008

Book Review: T'ai Chi Ch'uan For Health and Self-Defense: Philosophy and Practice

By Nick D'Antoni

Following up on the “Back to Basics” theme of the 2007 conference, I’ve been spending most of my taiji reading time exploring my collection and re-reading some of the books that I came across fairly early in my studies.

I’ve tried to approach each of these old friends as though meeting them for the first time and it has proven to be a very interesting and rewarding experience. I could go on about that and the whole notion of cultivating “beginner’s mind”, but instead what I thought might be fun, and perhaps more useful, would be to call attention to some of these older taiji texts. As I was re-reading one particular book my old copy was literally disintegrating in my hands, cover falling off and pages coming unglued from the spine, edges crumbling. I was holding it carefully together with a rubber band. Needless to say, I was pleased to discover that it is still in print, and I ordered a new copy so I could check out any changes. I received a pleasant surprise when what arrived at my local bookstore ended up being a brand new copy that is nearly exactly as
it was. Even the covers remain essentially unchanged! Of course the price has gone up from the $4.95 printed on my old copy. But I think the book remains a bargain at the current published price, $12. What I’ve written in this issue is more of a synopsis and recommendation than a review, and there are a couple more recommendations slipped in at the end. So, with that said …

Master T. T. Liang’s book is an important and relatively early English language taiji publication, and one I think should be in nearly every taiji player’s library. It is densely packed with information presented in clear language and a format that makes it accessible to both the beginner and advanced student. In his chapter on “The Essentials of T’ai Chi Ch’uan” Master Liang describes an ordered method for the process of learning taijiquan that moves from careful study of the principles until mastery is achieved, then moves on to the specific techniques, and finally, once mastery of the techniques in abstract is accomplished, one is able to combine the principles and techniques to apply to practical use. One can clearly hear echoes of other notable early teachers in the outline of this method. (For example, Cheng Man-Ch’ing comes immediately to my mind with his three levels of development each of which is further subdivided into three levels.) This underlying progression should guide and inform the student in her/his approach to all the material in his book and he gives us a lots and lots of content to think about and to study in practice. Master Liang begins with a brief discussion of fundamental principles, a short “personal view” or philosophy, and an outline of a “Complete Set of T’ai Chi Exercises.” A good portion of the book is devoted to translations with commentary of classic taiji texts: “T’ai Chi Ch’uan Classic”, “T’ai Chi Ch’uan Treatise”, “Mental Elucidation of the Thirteen Postures”, and “Song of the Substance and Function of the Thirteen Postures.” Each text is presented in a series of short sections in which the translation is followed immediately by Master Liang’s explanation and illustrative commentary.

Elsewhere, he presents thorough discussion of fundamentals and essentials along with some very understandable
explanations of more advanced concepts. Also included is a translation of the “Song of Pushing Hands”, a short section of “Stories of the Masters”, a chapter on the meaning of the Five Elements, some philosophical points of similarity between taiji and Lao Tze, and a chapter consisting of bits from several other short documents reflecting on elements of taijiquan.

While re-reading this book, I found it impressive to recall that these are some of the earliest detailed translations with detailed commentaries ever published directly in English by an accomplished taiji master.
And though some of these texts have now been translated and commented upon many times, T. T. Liang’s remarks remain powerfully relevant. His commentaries contain insights that are sometimes unique and often enlightening and inspirational. I hope you will take my recommendation and get a copy, or go back and make a thoughtful rereading of it if you already own it. I think you’ll find it worthwhile.

©1974, 1977 by: Master T. T. Liang
Edited and with a Foreword by Paul B. Gallagher
publ: Vintage Books
ISBN: 978-0-394-72461-4