Beginner’s Luck

By Phillip Majerus

We had just finished our Tuesday night practice when Sifu Bryant Fong announced that his annual Tai Chi trip to China would take summerpalace2place in early June. Mine wasn’t the only pulse that quickened as we gathered around to listen to Sifu describe the Chinese masters and the forms they would teach us. There would be a little time for tourist fun, however, this would be a Tai Chi experience and we would practice six to seven hours each day. That sounded intimidating. I wondered if our teachers would have the same infinite patience our Sifu had. But China, what an opportunity for a beginning student!

I walked home weighing my doubts against my desire to go. I had been studying Guam Bo and Yang 24 for over a year and was struggling to learn the movements of Chen 24. I had seen students begin and quit after a month or two. I knew it was frustration from the apparent lack of progress that got to them. Anxiety due to a slow learning curve was something I understood. I was constantly running up against my own physical limitations. My form was very jerky, and I was not flexible enough to perform kicks and turns smoothly. I searched my bookcase for the atlas and opened it to the map of the world. I found North America, then China. With my finger, I traced the arc from San Francisco to Beijing. It was a long way.

I was not alone in my hesitation to sign up for the trip. Other students voiced concern over scheduling time off from work, paying for the trip, and wondered whether they were fit for the workout it sounded like we would get. In the end, those of us who decided to go phillip_group1shared a desire, not only to improve our Tai Chi, but also to pursue other interests in Chinese culture. Some students had taken Sifu Fong’s Tai Chi lecture/demonstration class at City College and had developed an interest in the philosophy and health issues of Tai Chi. I had studied Chinese painting and poetry and planned to take in as much as possible of both. Several of us would be up at sunrise to take advantage of the diffused morning light to photograph and explore the narrow alleyways of Beijing, called Hutongs. Tai Chi was already motivating us in other aspects of our lives.

Fourteen hours after departing from San Francisco, with a stop in Shanghai for customs’ entry, our pilot made a perfect landing at the overworked Beijing airport. Tired and stiff, our group of eight disembarked the plane and hobbled down a steep portable staircase to the tarmac. I took my first deep breaths of air in China and as I looked around counted eleven construction cranes poised silently against the evening sky. The airport was undergoing modernization. I was jostled onto one of the buses waiting to haul us to the terminal. After collecting our luggage, we were greeted by the co-sponsor of the trip, Sifu Shaowin of Portland, Oregon, the l0-time Wu Shu champion of China, and his brother Shaowu. We would have many occasions to be grateful to Shaowu over the next two weeks. He coordinated our training schedule, selected the magnificent restaurants we ate at, and showed great skill at negotiating the narrow back streets and ceaseless traffic of Beijing in his van.

The next morning we were in the hotel lobby at 6:30 to meet our first teacher, Master Feng ZhiQiang. He was our Sifu’s teacher, making him our Tai Chi grandfather, or Si-gung, and it was a great honor to be able to study with him. He was quite an impressive figure at 70 years, tall and broad with dark bushy eyebrows and the big piercing eyes of an eagle. He is famous in China for the power and relaxation of his Chen style as well as his unbeatable application of Tai Chi principles to the art of attack and defense. I expected to find him intimidating, but he was so relaxed and comfortable with himself that he put us quite at ease. Many mornings, as we waited for the slow risers, he would laughingly indulge us with photo ops by striking alternatively pretty or fierce poses. When everyone had finally gathered, we followed Si-gun Feng to the park.

We passed through a gate and into another world. The Chi rolled over us like a wave and swept us along in its spirit. Men and women stood every four feet, like beads on a string, along the edge of a long stone pathway which curved all the way through the park. They were performing “White Crane Spreads Its Wings” in unison. Suddenly, a slow motion chain reaction rippled through the people lining the path and they switched to “Wave Hands Like Clouds” and I watched hundreds of hands float to the left and disappear like an undulating ribbon of energy around the hill. There were small groups practicing in the open spaces and individuals dotted on the hillside. As we walked further into the park I heard rock-n-roll music, and across a children’s playground of bright colored amusement rides, I could see couples smoothly swing dancing to “Rock-Around-The-C1ock”. At 7:00 a.m! Then I heard the strangest thing coming from the top of the hill. The air was punctuated with a sound that I can only call Tai Chi hollering; it was a loud “Ha-Ha” as breath was forcefully exhaled. As our group settled into a circle to begin our Qi Gong exercises, the “Ha-Ha” continued to reverberate throughout the park and I felt strongly the sense of Tai Chi community. The reason that Si-gung Feng took us to that park on our first day was so that we could experience the culture of shared Chi. He had given us our first lesson before we even began Qi Gong.

Si-gung Feng talked about the importance of being aware of your environment while you practice. He said he often practiced late at night when the air was cleaner and the city quiet. He said trees and mountains hold particular kinds of Chi and that practice in the country could give one powerful Chi. After the first day, we shifted phillip_feng1our morning Qi Gong practice to a place outside the Forbidden City, in the space between the high stone wall and the surrounding moat. It was a pleasant spot. As we stretched our legs against the wall, we watched people fishing in the moat with very long red or blue poles that reached nearly to the water. We began our exercises on the hard dirt near the stone wall, but after a short while Sigung Feng stopped and moved us closer to the moat. He told us that we should also be aware of how the Chi we create when practicing interacts with the place. In this case, he said, our Chi was bouncing off the stone wall and coming back at us. It would be better near the openness of the moat because our bad Chi could be easily dispersed and we could then draw in the good Chi.

Near the end of Qi Gong each morning we would buff the sides of our necks, rub the backs of our thumbs alongside our noses, circle our eyes in both directions with our fingertips, and massage the top outside of our ears and pull the lobes into Buddha ears. My face felt so alive and my mind was so clear, and it was only the beginning of the day.

On the fourth morning of Qi Gong I heard Si-gung Feng say something that changed the way I practiced and thought about Tai Chi. He said, “You must use your imagination to gather and move the phillip_group3Chi through your body” I suddenly realized that I had been using my linear mind to think my way through the exercises and forms. I was trying so hard to concentrate on doing the moves and breathing correctly that I blocked the natural flow of Chi through my body. It was the thinking that was making my movements jerky and my shoulders rise up to my ears in a perpetual shrug. Si-gung Feng explained that Qi Gong taught one to relax and not block the flow of Chi: “It will naturally want to find the right course. You should imagine the flow of Chi coming up from the ground through your legs up to your waist and out to your fingers”.

In addition to imagination, Si-gung Feng talked about “focus”. He said that one must learn to focus with the intensity one had when kissing the face of their lover. When I watched Si-gung Feng teaching us Chen Sword I could see the intensity of his focus. The strength of his internal Chi flowed unhindered through his body and was delivered in a burst at the point of his sword. When doing Chen, he said, your appearance must be as intent as a hunting eagle. So, I had learned two very important things; to imagine, or visualize, the flow of Chi through my body, and to focus my intention to the point of delivery.

While Si-gung Feng exemplified the wise old master, our instructor of “Compulsory Chen Hand form”, Sifu Ching Feng, was a man in the prime of life. His legs were like pistons and his hands vibrated with Chi as he demonstrated the correct postures and transitions. He had phillip_chin1a workman-like method to his teaching. Not surprising for a Sifu who runs his own studio and whose students are always among the top competitors in China. He believed there was only one correct way to perform a move and he taught it precisely. In the hot afternoons we met Sifu Chin in a quiet park where we would practice in the shade under a pavilion situated above a rock garden. I was amazed that in such heat he showed up daily in a white shirt and heavy looking blue slacks. I was in shorts and a tank-top and felt I was about to crumble from heat exhaustion. We did catch a glimpse of the lighter side of Sifu Chen one day when he showed up with a “Good Luck” fishing t-shirt on. When we discovered that fishing was his hobby it was easy to picture him casting with the steady and artful determination of a fly fisherman.

phillip_chin2In his desire to teach us correctly, he observed our practice and took note of our particular problems. At one point, to my initial embarrassment, he stopped and matter-of-factly corrected my posture; he centered my head, slapped my shoulders, pulled my elbows down close to my body, pushed my butt in, motioned for me to sit lower, centered my upper body over my legs, and finally shaped my hand into the “Tile Palm” with the little finger and thumb pressing in. Then he stood back and nodded his head, yes! And I felt right, centered and ready to move.

All this hard work meant, of course that we had to replenish ourselves with wonderful “long-life” noodle lunches and relaxing evening banquets. We also had some time to visit attractions such as the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.

One morning we got up very early to make a trip to the Great Wall. The t-shirt hawkers and trinket sellers initially made me suspicious, but the wall itself was awesome. The rugged mountain setting with its great jutting rock faces and pine trees was a dramatic natural setting for this man-made wonder. We could see for miles as the wall wound itself from peak to peak and finally disappeared from sight. We also got a hint of the toil that went into building it when we saw a group of workers trudging up the pathway each carrying a single large stone for the restoration work on the wall.

Our thrilling excursion made us about twenty minutes late for our appointed meeting time with Sifu Yang Shih-min and our first Bagua lesson. When we arrived he was walking the circle and practicing phillip_yang1palm changes. He was tall, lean, dressed in black, and quick as a whip. I soon learned that quick footwork and whip-like action are the standards of Bagua, but right at that moment he was a little annoyed with our tardiness. “Ok”, he said, “You’ve had your time to play, now its time to work”. “Uh-oh” I thought, “this is trouble.”

And work us he did. He began by teaching us to walk an imaginary circle with a sliding step. He then added arm and hand positions to our circle walking. Later he would add the complex palm changes to our lessons. It was very difficult to maintain the proper body alignment while performing the demanding sliding step. By the end phillip_group6of our first lesson I was worn out and felt like I had done a sit-up marathon and my hips ached. Although I had known that the translation of Gung Fu was “to work”, now I had come to understand why. Sifu Yang came to respect our desire to work and even developed some sympathy for our struggle to learn. He told us that his teacher had taught him only four palms in his first year of study. We were on an accelerated schedule and it was no wonder our heads sometimes seemed to spin with all the new information we were given.

Forty-two Compulsory Sword Form was taught by Sifu Ping Zhang-yu. Sifu Zhang was our only female instructor and her style was rigorous and demanding. She had a sharp eye for mistakes. More than anything else she said I needed to relax and turn my waist so the sword could follow correctly. Sifu Zhang performed with such grace and agility that one was tempted to stop trying to follow and just stand and watch. It is an intricate form with kicks and spins that make it very demanding to perform well and it is even spiced with a few Chen-style moves.

At one of the dinners we honoring our teachers, I learned something of the way Tai Chi can carry over into your daily life. Dancers from a local school performed at the restaurant to help support their studies. They did a bamboo pole-clapping piece that demanded audience participation. The clapping poles were held just off the ground. You had to jump through three sets of them and then back phillip_group2again. I tried to become very small and unnoticeable in my chair, but they dragged me up to the stage. I was clipped on the ankles by two of the three poles as I went through the first time and to avoid that fate on the way back I escaped the remaining two with a leap. Sifu Zhang was next; she looked at the rhythm of the clapping poles then jumped right in and sailed merrily across and back without a hitch. She explained that I was wrong to wait until the poles were completely open to jump in. It was a trap, she said, because they were about to close again. You had to jump in just when the poles hit because, of course, they must then open again. This reflected the Tai Chi principle of responding to an opponent at the precise moment that they had reached the extension of their force and were at their weakest.

Near the end of our trip we visited the Tibetan Lamisary “Yonghegong” that houses an 18-meter-tall sandalwood Buddha. In one of the gift shops I happened upon four, small, country-style Ming Dynasty bowls. Each of the four had the calligraphy of one of the seasons written on it. I was immediately reminded of Si-gung Feng’s humorous story of “a student’s excuses” for not practicing:

-in the Spring it is too nice out
-in the Summer it is too hot
-in the Fall it is too pretty
-in the Winter it is too cold

I couldn’t resist the little bowls that would remind me forever of my trip to China and the lessons I had learned.

I came back determined to practice every day. I knew I had been very lucky to experience the birthplace and culture of Tai Chi. Being immersed in the energy of Tai Chi for sixteen days made a beginning student like me see that there was hope for real improvement. I had gained an understanding of imagination and focus, and had four new forms on which to practice that understanding. Each one of our teachers were striking individuals. Each had a mastery of form, but that form was flavored by their personality and being. I hoped that one day, with hard work and good instruction, I would be able to add some flavor to my own Tai Chi.