T’ai-chi is one of the most marvelous gifts I’ve ever happened into, and probably I will never be able to thank my teacher, T.Y. Pang, enough for the path he showed me. Little did I know that, when I simply followed a little flyer for exercise classes, hoping just to relieve a dreary Bellingham winter, that I was being introduced to an infinitely deep practice by a true Grand Master. I have now been asked to teach for several years in Bishop and Mammoth, and I can only hope to convey in an amateur way to students and readers a germ of the health and awareness that masters like Mr. Pang have developed in the Chinese tradition.
We start by simply standing, and breathing, letting our awareness gather in the way we stand. We notice the way we shrink a little on exhale, and expand a little on inhale. When we bring the crown of the head upward a bit more, we come closer to easy, effortless balance in standing. With each breath we make little adjustments to our pelvis, knees, shoulders; any joint that isn’t aligned well will tell us that it’s working more than necessary, straining. With practice we learn to stand in effortless alignment, our weight and attention spread evenly through the body, left and right , to the full press onto both the balls and heels of both relaxed feet, and to the full, soft extension of the spine and head; all nicely erect without any strain.
When we are ready then, we start the form (Yang-style, long form as taught by Mr. Pang is what I know) by shifting weight to the left side of the body, and we let that weight sink and root into the ground. That allows the right side to open out, and from there the form unfolds. Back to step left, then a larger opening steps back out right, sending roundness out through the shoulders and to the wrists. We move by putting the spine in charge of our structure, and the expansion and contraction of breath in charge of our energy. Each turn of the spine initiates a spiral of motion and energy both down through a leg and out to the arms. Our job is to let the motions unfold out and draw in with the out and in of the breath, using the least amount of effort to keep the whole structure intact and integrated, and the movements continuous and fluid. The form progresses through the subtleties of the “single whip,” where we draw a spiral into the right side of the body, letting it pull the fingers onto the right thumb and into the right leg, then shoot that rootedness over into the left side of the body, holding a slight majority of focus and weight on the right. And so on through “playing the pipa,” the “white crane opening his wings….”
With practice, our awareness focuses more into the center of the body. We put the spine in charge, building strength and mobility into the core of our structure, and sending soft, aligned awareness out to the periphery. We listen for awareness of strain to tell us when and how to shift to a more effortless movement, that, not coincidentally, is more aligned and effective. That is all, and through “108 movements,” that is plenty.
T’ai-chi originated as a martial art of course, and it is still good training should you ever have to confront an opponent. But Mr. Pang (who was a student in the direct lineage of Yang Lucan, the originator of the Yang form) always says, we practice now not to fight, but because in the modern world our minds need rest and our bodies need exercise. The mechanical and strength principles of core empowerment and mobility as taught in Pilates, for instance, are I believe essentially similar to those in T’ai-chi, but in T’ai-chi there is no machine to work against or to guide you. When we simply have our arms, legs, and torso on our feet on the ground there has to be much more focus on your own intentions as the origination of each movement. In this way people feel that T’ai-chi is a “spiritual” practice, and that is true only in the sense that it helps to enhance your spirit to be balanced, energized and aware. We drain our intention out of our day to day stress and into the basic structure that evolution through our ancestors gave us, a column of vertebrae on two legs. We are the only animal to live erect like this, and it is a wonderful structure that makes so much accessible. With T’ai-chi I have come to grasp that to do something extraordinary, we put extra focus on ordinary things.
I write this blog today because recently I’ve had two reminders of how effective T’ai-chi is to enhance health and vitality. Before teaching a class at Snowcreek in Mammoth I was reading and working on my computer in a dim room, and my middle-aged eyes were having a hard time reading the text. After an hour-plus of teaching, I went back to the computer and the book in the same dim light, and I could read much more clearly. Second, I’ve gone crag climbing again recently, and though I’ve only climbed a few short times in the last year, I was able to climb well, including leading, on 5.11 pitches. Years ago it would take me a full couple of months or more of reasonably intensive climbing and arm strengthening to climb well at that standard. Any enhanced abilities I can only appraise to my T’ai-chi practice. Benefits do accrue, yet to keep the practice growing, it’s important to practice simply, without expectations for anything but following the practice to where it leads.
At this time I teach at 10:45am on Wednesdays at Flowmotion Pilates in Bishop, and at 9am on Thursdays at Snowcreek Athletic Club in Mammoth Lakes. Thanks to Adrienne Racz for taking this picture of me.
- Yoga, Tai Chi and Meditation – Foundations for Wellness (wakingtimes.com)
- Tai Chi – “Simple Exercises” (taichilongproject.wordpress.com)