On the Cat Walk

Shifu Rose Oliver of Double Dragon Alliance Center, Shanghai, China, modeling, front and back, our Black Bamboo Pavilion t-shirt.

Rose Shifu conducts workshops sponsored by Magic Tortoise Taijiquan School, at several of DrJay's longtime students' schools along our east coast, as well as here in Durham-Chapel Hill.

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Two Fishes: Poetry and Taijiquan

Many of us have very personal experiences for how the practice of taijiquan has impacted our daily lives.  There are many connecting threads between practicing the art and the many other facets of our lives.  The longer we practice, the more tightly these bonds weave and the more we are able to identify and appreciate the impact of taijiquan on daily life and daily life's impact on our practice of taijiquan.

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Because taijiquan is such a solitary practice, we very seldom hear about this personal journey from our fellow classmates, teachers, and peers.  However, sharing these impacts and perceptions strengthens us all, allowing us to experience our art form and our daily lives in new ways through new eyes.

Below is an exceptional example of this type of exploration.  The gift of this essay exploring a very intimate internal experience of two areas coming together in a life deserves great consideration.  Not only will it allow you to hear about another practitioner's experience of the art form - it will allow likely awake in you those areas in your own life where you feel the fingers of taijiquan tickling on a regular basis.   

Thanks to our resident poet, Debra Kang Dean, for allowing us to share this with you.  And for giving us a glimpse into her personal practice and experience of taijiquan!

Two Fishes

by

Debra Kang Dean

Between 1997 and 1999, I undertook intensive study in Wudangshan 108, a taiji form, with Almanzo “LaoMa” Lamoureux of the Magic Tortoise Taijiquan School, commuting over a hundred miles each way from Greenville to Chapel Hill for eighteen months—first one, then two, then three times a week—and, after I had moved to Massachusetts, making periodic week-long visits to North Carolina. I had been writing poetry in earnest for ten years, and though I was exercising regularly before I began practicing taiji, I could not shake off the feeling that I was becoming a sort of “talking head,” a creature of language only, and that I was losing my connection with what had been the source of my poetry—in other words, the left brain activity seemed to have subdued the right brain and was making me a little crazy.

Wudangshan 108 is both complex and beautiful, and these are the qualities that drew me to it the first time I saw it performed. I knew only that I wanted to learn and be able to do the form well, and I was fortunate that my late husband encouraged me to pursue it. Soon, in addition to attending classes and practicing, however, I was also reading books in an effort to understand Daoism and the principles underlying taiji movement. This full-immersion style had also characterized my ten-year engagement in poetry, and I confess there was a time when, though I was still writing, I had considered redirecting all of my energies to taiji. As fate would have it, however, within a two-week period in 1997, my chapbook manuscript won the Harperprints Poetry Chapbook Competition, and the editors at BOA Editions selected for publication the book-length manuscript I had been working on for seven years after receiving my MFA degree. I felt, in part, that I was being called back to poetry.

In 1999, I traveled to Missoula, Montana, to interview the late Patricia Goedicke, one of my poetry teachers. While I was her student and even much later, she repeatedly encouraged me to open up to the larger, Whitmanesque sweeps of language in my poetry. On that visit, however, when I came inside after practicing taiji in her back yard, she said, “Now I understand.” Unbeknownst to me, she had watched me practice, and she said that it looked as if I were making boundaries visible as I moved through the postures. I love this image because it reflects the way I think about writing poetry, too. While several of the taiji teachers I’ve worked with resist the idea of postures and substitute the word “movements” to emphasize the flow from one posture into another, I think of the brief pauses marking the postures as being like the place one has learned a line should break, and it takes practice to tune the inner ear to know such points of balance; as with poetry, that place determines the meeting ground of strength and weakness, of risk and expressiveness.

Many of the corrections a taiji teacher makes are attempts to impart a vision of the form as a whole and an occasion for students to learn without judgment what their limitations are—both of body and of mind—at that particular moment in their development. In taiji, one’s medium is the body, and form marks out a place for exploration and discovery. So for me taiji is not only an art of transcendence but also of immanence, which is precisely why I love it so much. Here one comes face to face with the miracle of the incarnation. How is it we come to inhabit these bodies? Over the course of my engagement with taiji, I have known myself as being in but not entirely of the body only a few times, and such experiences leave traces even in an often skeptical consciousness like mine.

Needless to say, I do not wish to be “out of nature” as Yeats used the phrase in “Sailing to Byzantium”; rather, I wish to know the “dying animal” I am “fastened to” in order to go deeper into it—because it, too, is part of nature. Poetry and taiji help me to do this—poetry through motion in apparent stillness and taiji through stillness in apparent motion. In poetry, the body expresses itself through the mind, and in taiji the mind expresses itself through the body. Body and mind—these are my two fishes, another name for the yin-yang symbol, and it’s interesting to consider that a fish must move to breathe and so to live. With sight, where the two fields of vision overlap, we perceive depth; whatever it is I know as spirit is like that.

For a long time I thought I was drawn to taiji rather than zazen or yoga because I had been an athlete in my youth, that my body still craved motion, which is a partial truth. I have found that on the physical level, practicing a long form that has been engrammed can be almost as pleasurable as a five-mile run. At higher levels of practice, however, taiji, sometimes called “shadow boxing,” also requires using the imagination to bring to life a carefully choreographed set of movements known “by heart.” It’s said that a good practitioner will so shape the patterns of movement that an imagined other becomes visible to those who have studied taiji, and those who have not can sometimes recognize when a practitioner has put his or her whole self—body, mind, and spirit—into the effort by the seemingly effortless quality of movement.

Nearly fifteen years after starting to learn Wudangshan 108, I have come to believe that the solitary aspects of the practice of taiji and of poetry are different but complementary modes of meditation, one wordless and the other full of words, that regulate threads of connection, including the inhalations and exhalations of breath. In taiji we speak of silk-reeling energy, and in poetry the unit of attention or energy is the line, a word that can be traced etymologically to flax and, when it enters Old English, means “string, row, [or] series.”

In private lessons during my period of intense training in North Carolina, my teacher would often focus on one section of the form and then offer what sometimes seemed like a non-stop series of corrections, which I never found discouraging. Sometimes it was challenging, of course; however, because it was not simply a matter of changing the position of my hand, say, but of understanding it as a problem that might originate in my feet, I had to find my own way there. LaoMa told me on several occasions during these lessons that he wanted me to learn the form as taught to him by his teacher. By this means of transmission, taiji became for me more than exercise or just beautiful movement because, however imperfectly I might be performing it, I was learning to embody a form and becoming part of a human chain that went back to Zhang Sanfeng, who is generally credited with creating this art and to whom my teacher’s teacher traced Wudangshan 108. So I have come to see this form as a “songline.”

When I practice Wudangshan 108, then, even if just a small part of it, how can I feel alone? I am no longer strictly in the present but have, instead, brought something from the past into it. And yet, as if it were an inevitable outgrowth of Daoist thought, my teacher also told me that after I mastered the form—he is such an optimist!—I would almost be obliged to put my signature on it, which I think is not about originality but about engaging with the form in the light of the present, of which I am a part; in other words, I am to be not just a place holder but a meeting ground where what is essential in the form is carried into the future so that the line may remain unbroken. This requires learning from the wisdom of the body what is substantial and insubstantial at any given moment and how, because movement is change, one becomes the other for as long as this beautiful wave of postures lasts.

Surely the journey to mastery of such forms lasts as long as life does and may suffer many interruptions, as mine certainly has. It is so strange to be writing in anticipation of a visit to work with LaoMa later this summer. Though I have mostly kept a hand in taiji, in terms of time, I feel a little like a prodigal returning after a long absence. I know that in one respect, these are the sort of journeys that end only with death; in conventional terms, Dīng Hóngkuí, my teacher’s teacher, Patricia Goedicke, one of my poetry teachers, and Bradley P. Dean, my husband, are insubstantial now. And yet, for a moment, here they are, present.

When I do the whole of Wudangshan 108, I want to make my way and make visible my passage through a meeting ground that is also always precisely here. Writing poetry, I try to remember that the Chinese word for poetry is a composite of one character meaning both “word” and “speech,” and another meaning “temple”; I want to call into being that temple, whose true medium, beneath the words, is breath. Obviously, I don’t live on this plane; mostly, I just keep breathing. Because of those who came before me and left their marks, however, I can imagine it and try to keep moving, as best I can, with the hope that at some point, I will find myself standing on the threshold.

 

 

                                                                                                                                          July 2012

More support for Tai Chi

Obviously, we don't need yet another reason to practice Taijiquan!  But it's nice to be backed up on the "it's just plain good for you" idea! 

Durham T'ai chi classes

Thanks to Gary Forbach, who sent this article our way.

Tai Chi May Help Prevent Falls

Practicing tai chi helps older people improve their balance and avoid falls, a review of studies has found.

Tai chi is a form of Chinese martial arts now practiced as exercise. It involves a specific program of graceful movements, accompanied by deep breathing and mental focus, that slowly move the center of balance from one leg to the other.

Researchers found 10 randomized trials analyzing the effect of tai chi on the incidence of falls or the time until an elderly person first has a fall. All studies compared tai chi to usual care or other treatments like physical therapy, stretching or exercise.

Stances! Trivia time

To quote LaoMa: BASIC, FUNDAMENTAL BUILDING BLOCK OF FORM!

Quiz time - how many of these can you name?  Can you name them in Chinese and English?  

Better yet - how many do you practice and do you know how to 'measure' them or make sure your feet are in the right spots?

Prove your vast knowledge - click on comments :-)

Bonus question:  Which one does LaoMa use in stance drill that isn't shown here.

Raise in Rank - Desiree Goldman

red sash ceremony Desiree Goldman

We are so happy to have Desiree join our group of Senior Students!  

Desiree started studying with LaoMa several years ago.  She knew herself well enough to tuck the knowledge and skills of taiji in her back pocket and focus on her hard style martial arts study.  After a few years putting the smack down on others, Desiree returned to our small group in November 2013 and continued her taijiquan studies.

tai chi push Desiree Goldman

On May 15th, 2017, she successfully tested in her regular Monday night class in Durham for her Senior Sash!  The entire form was well executed and all in order!  As we all know, her true study begins now.  

This is just the start of the really fun part of taijiquan and we are happy to have Desiree join our ranks with her knowledge and focus!

Congratulations Desiree Goldman!

taiji red sash award Desiree Goldman

MMA vs. Taiji Master?

For those of you not on Facebook or without a feed full of taiji videos, this short video has been making the rounds.  It's very short - 10 second fight!  

"A (short) video has gone viral on Chinese social media today showing a "fight" between a mixed martial artist and a Tai Chi "master." (http://shanghaiist.com/2017/04/28/mma-vs-tai-chi.php)

Take a moment and share your thoughts through the comments link below.  

Eight Gates Above!

Shŏu è bāguà, jiăo tà wǔxíng. (手 扼 八卦, 腳 踏 五行)
The hands move through the eight trigrams, the feet walk the five elements.

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We say this so much, we can practically say it in our sleep!  But how well do you know the eight gates?  Can you think of examples from your forms?  

As we've said before, definitions of the eight gates and their execution is something that is commented on over and over.  Sometimes people agree, other times they argue over who is right!

Regardless of where you stand in this particular fight, you can always learn something by watching others.  Here's a brief video demonstrating the eight gates.  While it's not in English, it is in a language we should be able to understand - taijiquan!!  So, take a moment and look at the examples given here.  What do you see?  Do you see taiji principles?  Are there any reflections of these in your form?  How can you see these gates done differently?

Asociacion de Wushu & TaiChi LONGHUQUAN - ARGENTINA
March 21, 2016 · 
The 13 postures are the foundation of Taijiquan.
These 13 postures were derived from the Eight Trigrams (the first 8 postures - energies) commonly known as "bamen wubu" (八门五步) plus the Five Elements (the last 5 postures - steps). The 13 postures are:
1. Peng (ward-off)
2. Lu (roll-back)
3. Chi (press)
4. An (push)
5. Tsai (pull-down)
6. Lieh (split)
7. Chou (elbow strike)
8. Kao (shoulder strike)
9. Chin (advance)
10. Tui (retreat)
11. Ku (look left)
12. Pan (look right)
13. Ting (center)

Shufa and Women's secret scripts

Women's Shufa

Nüshu is a 19th Century Chinese Script that women in a Jiangyong County used to communicate with each other.  The script is very distinct from the style we are used to seeing, very elegant long lines and is phonetic rather than symbolic.  As with lots of ancient arts, the ability to write and read it is dissappearing.

“Out of the thousands of scripts that are gender-specific to men, here we have one that we know is gender-specific to women,” says Silber, who has been researching Nüshu since 1985. Yi was one of the last remaining writers of Nüshu, a fading script that only women knew how to write and read.

Stemming from the southwestern Hunan Province county of Jiangyong, a small group of women in the 19th and 20th centuries practiced this special script that no man could read or write. The writing system allowed these women to keep autobiographies, write poetry and stories, and communicate with “sworn sisters,” bonds between women who were not biologically related. The tradition of Nüshu is slowly vanishing, but at one time gave the women of Shanjiangxu freedom to express themselves.
— http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/nushu-chinese-script-women

Read the full article here.  

Effective Practice revisited

After our last post, one of our students brought a podcast that touches on how our brains learn to our attention.  Bill sent us a link to a Bulletproof episode that contains an interview with Anat Baniel.  She talks about nine steps that can be followed for peak brain and body performance.  

The podcast is longer (about an hour) but the last half may be interesting to taiji practitioners.  She outlines a few of her steps and talks about how they are effective.  Around minute 31, she begins to talk about mindfulness in movement.  Allowing time to observe the body and what it is doing provides time to process and react.  

Variations are also a part of her system.  They allow the brain to work on movements and allow change to happen within an action, slowly and over time.  Changing movements can help you focus on the task at hand because you do things less automatically.

She also talks about slowing movements down to allow the brain to wake up and process. Keeping a slower speed can help the brain process and change the motion in a way that wouldn't be possible at higher speeds.

Reducing force is another step of hers.  She argues that the greater force a movement has, the more force is needed for the practitioner to register the need to change and slows the ability to respond.  

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While I'm paraphrasing much her her information, it is an interesting conversation that is not about taiji at all.  Baniel works with movement to treat neurological problems and rehabilitate injuries.  Yet, if you listen, you'll hear a great argument for many of the basic practices in taijiquan!  

(I would suggest picking it up around minute 31 if you want to take the time! :-)

Thanks Bill!!!  We're happy to find new things through our students and our conversations on here!

(Link: https://blog.bulletproof.com/nine-essential-steps-peak-brain-body-performance-anat-baniel-394/)

Effective Practice

Knowing how to practice and what to practice is really important in advancing any skill you are trying to learn. An interesting TED Ed video, forwarded by one of our students (thanks!!), has some great points to consider while constructing your practice for any skill.  

You'll notice a little taiji thrown into this.  Can you pick out taiji's favorite advice in this list?  

All of these apply to our practice!  Tells us what helps your practice or how this might influence your habits moving forward.

How To Practice Effectively, According To Science

Practice is a physical activity, of course, but it's also hard mental work — if you're doing it right. A new video published by TED Ed gets down to the scientific nitty-gritty of what good practice looks like, and what it does to your brain. (Think axons and myelin, not "muscle memory" — muscles don't have "memory.")
As Annie Bosler and Don Greene, the creators of this TED Ed lesson, point out, this advice can apply to everything from music to sports. They define effective practice as "consistent, intensely focused and target[ing] content or weaknesses that lie at the edge of one's current abilities." That's another way of saying: Don't waste your time practicing the stuff you already know, just to fill up those minutes.
More of their specific advice, with each point bolstered by research:

Read more here: http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/03/06/518777865/the-most-practical-tips-for-practicing-according-to-science

Movement practice to create change

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It seems this year is a time to talk of change!  The new year brought the typical new year resolutions but, for some, it also brought a mindset towards enacting change in wider communities.  Some movements for change involve using various physical movement practices to help enact and create change in ever widening pools of interaction.  There are examples of techniques like this being used for physically empowering women and children, bringing communities into harmony with each other, and building teamwork. 

One specific example of this is the "Move to End Violence" group.  Norma Wong has a discussion of their stance and physical practice here: http://www.movetoendviolence.org/blog/discussing-stance-and-physical-practice-with-norma-wong/ 

Practices such as this provide a window into exploring how your practice of taijiquan influences not only your physical life but also your mental reaction and experience of life and the experiences around you.  

Possible thoughts to explore, discuss and consider?

  • How does connection with breath affect your taiji practice?  Do you use the focus on that breath to center you mind in other places in your life?
  • How does practicing a relaxed yet alert physical state influence your physical presence through the rest of your day?  Can you feel any influence of the alert relaxation in your mental reactions to situations around you?
  • Does practicing slow deliberate movement forward, back, left and right help you be more agile in your daily movements?  Do you find yourself more willing to explore different directions in your view of the world around you?
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All or none of these things may apply to you and your practice!  What other things do you feel influenced by your practice.  Do you feel the outside changing the inside?  

How has your practice changed you?  Is it stronger legs?  Better balance?  A relaxed, amused approach to the jerk down the hall? Join us in the discussion by posting a comment below!

Taijiquan and Shufa are Brothers

Taiji practitioners often wonder why they should practice the art of Shufa.  This video provides a great visual exploration of the interaction of these two art forms and will let you see how they play complement each other.  This is a longer video so I would suggest you watch the first bit and then pick it back up around the 3:45 minute mark.

While this is mostly performance art, you can see the influence of each art from in the other.  In the first part, you will see his physical interpretation of the characters on the wall behind him.  Each character is created through a combination of building blocks that are strung together to create a fluid and balanced character.  These building blocks, called 'strokes', are created by using a combination of pressure between the brush and the paper and whole arm and body movements that control the brush.  He generally interprets the long strokes with sweeping taiji movements.  You can see the pressure points and dots expressed as "fa" or sudden movement.

Starting around the 3:45 minute mark, you can see him use taiji movements to control brushes and create characters on a large piece of paper.  He uses a larger brush (about mop size) and a smaller brush on the end of a long pole.  If you visualize a sword or other weapon, you can easily see how having a good command of using whole body to manipulate an object can be helpful.  Being finely attuned to applying various degrees of pressure with your whole body is particularly valuable.

What do you see in his movements and his control over his brush in the second half?  Can you see the fluidity and balance of the strokes reflected in his movements?  Does it help you envision the movement of the brush that was used to create the characters you see on the walls?

Inspiration - Low

While we focus primarily on our training with taijiquan forms, we can draw inspiration from everywhere in the martial arts community.  In all forms, stance work is a primary piece of the puzzle and leg strength can be a big part of that training.

Primarily, we see taijiquan performed in relatively high stances.  However, as a student progress in their studies, they may train lower, being sure not to compromise their structure or form.  Working lower will give you increased leg strength and stamina.  

What do you see happening in this video?  Does it inspire a new focus in your own practice?

Celebrating the Fire Chicken Year - 2017!

Everyone gathered this new year to celebrate the arrival of the Fire Chicken Year!  It was done in high style (as always).  Black Bamboo Pavilion co-hosted the event with Magic Tortoise.  Students, friend and family were treated to a wide variety of demos and tasty treats. 

New Rank for the New Year

Wanda Neu is our newest Red Sash Senior!!  She completed the form on Dec 26th with a small but heavy hitting audience!  Even though she completed the form quickly (typical for new seniors!) she completed every posture and had every count!  Every count in each posture is an extremely difficult thing for all of us to remember and rare for a new red sash.  Wanda is a great example to the rest of us!

Wanda has every right to be as proud of her accomplishment as we are and as proud as her husband is - as you can see!!  

Congrats Wanda.  We look forward to many more years of refining our form together! 

Another Internal Martial Art

LaoMa’s experience with Wing chun go back to VA beach with a teacher who today is a teacher of other teachers or masters, Duncan Leong.  LaoMa's experience with Duncan and “Doc” Savage, who was a student both LM and Duncan,  was similar to what you see in this video.  Wing chun is a more internal art than a hard style art. 

The accompaniment has some thoughts from Bruce Lee in it.

What do you see in this compilation of applications?  Do you see similarities to taijiquan?

Taijiquan Center Stage

The Chinese culture is very rich and varied.  Many arts inform other arts - inspiring new interpretations and ideas across the spectrum.  Chinese theater has a history of including and drawing from the martial arts.

Here is a new (to us!) perspective on taijiquan.  Anything is worth a minute to consider. While this centers on Chen style taijiquan, all taiji shares movement principles so it's of interest to all. Take a second to share your thoughts and comments below!  

Scott Park Phillips explains the cultural history of Tai Chi (Taijiquan). This is the first in the CRACKING THE CODE series: "Taijiquan as Enlightenment Theater." Presented at the 9th International Conference on Daoist Studies, forthcoming as an essay in Daoism and the Military, from Three Pines Press.