Why do you practice Tai Chi? Do you know? Do you remember? Why do you still practice it now? When was the last time you asked yourself these questions and stepped back and took a serious long look at your own practice? These questions plague less now then they did when I was first asked them over three years ago.
Sifu Stanley Israel was one of Professor’s six senior students in the New York Shr Jung. My teacher, Sifu William C. Phillips was friends with him and, because of that, Stan used to come down to our school, sometimes every week,after his retirement to see his friend. It took me a long time to get into Stan’s good graces (which is another story), but once I did, he never ceased to ask me questions that would make me probe my deepest feelings and experiences with Tai Chi.
One night before dinner, Stan asked me, “Avi, why do you do this every week?” I thought he meant eat at the same Chinese restaurant, so as I began my diatribe about why I preferred their duck to their competitors, he cut me off and said, “No. Not that. Why do you practice Tai Chi? Think before you answer and tell me when you know.” So I thought about it on the way to eat. I had been practicing for a little more than 4 years then and, other than that it had become an enjoyable ritual for me and I enjoyed the comradery and competitions, I was bereft of an answer. When I told Stan this, he said that that was unacceptable as an answer. He then asked me, “Why did you start practicing Tai Chi?” So I searched my mind for the time I first heard about Tai Chi from a college friend. I had recently had to give up power lifting due to a shoulder injury and I was looking for something else to keep fit. I thought of martial arts and asked some friends I knew that did it what I should study. I was not interested in self-defense at the time, just a way to get a good workout since I could no longer hit the iron as hard as I wanted and I wanted an exercise I could do forever. One fellow suggested Tai Chi. After I graduated, I started practicing at the school closest to my house which, luckily, was founded by Master Phillips. As I related this story to Stan, a familiar smile appeared on his countenance. I knew it well. It was the one he’d get when he was about to zing me with a round of intellectual push-hands.
“So,” he said, “as a workout.” “Sure”, I replied, “but Tai Chi can give a person much more than that.” “Really,” said Stan, “What can Tai Chi give a person? What are its goals of practice?” This was a set-up question. Stan knew I read a great deal about the art and he knew I’d give a text book answer: “It can give a person the strength of a lumberjack, the pliability of a child and the peace of mind of sage.” (I remember smiling here: like I had just given the right answer on a test.) “Okay, Avi. Where did you hear that from?” “The Classics, I think,” was my retort. “Good. You’ve done some homework in this area then?” “Homework? What do you mean?” I queried. “What I mean is, have you evaluated your own practice based on these goals? Is whatever you are doing giving you these results? Because if it’s not, then something is wrong. Either Tai Chi is a fraud, the Classics are wrong, your teacher is wrong or you are doing something wrong.” I was dumbfounded. I had never thought about “my practice”. I had let comments and compliments from my teacher and school brothers and the medals I won in competition be my guides. I had never really evaluated myself – and certainly not in reference to these goals.
Let’s consider each of them. Peace of mind was something I have always had. I’m one of those Type-B personalities. I don’t take a lot of things seriously, but I have to admit that Tai Chi has tempered my emotions and studying Taoism with it have given me greater ways to be a peaceful person. When I told this to Stan, he said that any meditative practice from Zen to quiet prayer could instill peace of mind: that basically, it was not special to Tai Chi. My flexibility had improved as well (though I have always been physically active and hence stretched a lot). Again, Stan said that many practices from Yoga to external martial arts or just plain playing sports could improve one’s flexibility. And so we come to strength. As a weight-lifting addict from ages 13 to 20, I thought I knew quite a bit about strength. At the time, I had won a couple of push-hands competitions against people over 15 lbs. heavier than myself. I was playing with people over 200 lbs. and moving them with ease. So I thought I must be getting strong as well. As I related this to Stan, he told me that what I was describing was not what is described in the Classics. It doesn’t say that Tai Chi allows you to push people a couple of pounds heavier than you. It says it gives you the strength of a lumberjack. Stan was quick to point out that other things can give you this strength, like weightlifting. Yet Tai Chi is superior over other exercises because it can give you all three. He asked me to imagine what being that strong would be like in my mind and then evaluate if that’s what I was getting. The sad answer was no.
This brought us back to what then, was wrong. Was it Tai Chi or was it me? This is the point of this essay: If you are not getting all three of these results, then something is wrong. As I said to myself, “It’s either me or Tai Chi.” Let’s look at what could be wrong.
Perhaps Tai Chi is a fraud. If you are a dedicated practitioner or “true-believer,” this is absurd. Could it be the Classics? To the vast amount of folks who do this and spend a tremendous amount of time thinking and reading about it, that is also absurd. What about my teacher? If your form looks better than your teacher’s or you can push him around like a toy, then this could be something to think about. Since most of us, including myself, can’t make this claim, we need to look further. What about my teacher’s method? If you are in my family of Professor Cheng’s lineage and are training with an instructor certified by Cheng, and you believe in Cheng’s method, then this is also a fruitless worry. So what’s left. Me. I must be wrong.
If you’re not getting what you want from Tai Chi, accept that the blame lies within. Your teacher has not failed you. The “teaching” has not failed you. You have failed. You aren’t taking your teacher’s corrections to heart. You aren’t endeavoring to follow the principles in the way you move or push or spar. Once you know you are to blame, you can start to improve.
So, how can you get fixed? A friend in business once told me that if you keep on doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep on getting what you’re getting. If your results aren’t satisfactory, shake things up a bit. Go to a competition and get pushed around – or push others around. Go to as many seminars by teachers of the same – or even different styles and see what’s out there. Find out what others are doing that your school doesn’t know. For example, do they practice the chi kung Professor described in his books? Do they only do form and not push? Do they show silly applications or serious ones? Do they understand that Tai Chi is first and foremost a martial art, and that martial arts involve punching and kicking people with tremendous force? Such problems, unfortunately, abound in our far-reaching family. Many people who claim to have studied with Cheng only did so for a very short time or were never officially approved to teach. Others have modified Cheng’s teaching to suit their own understanding, yet teach it as if it was Cheng who taught them that way. Do yourself a favor, visit neighboring schools. Go to meets. Find as many people as you can who were there and get what you can before they disappear and take it with them. Sometimes you have to listen to the same corrections from different people before you can hear them. Whatever you do, don’t give up on Tai Chi – or yourself. You just have to find out how to do it right. Good luck. Remember what Professor said, the most important thing is perseverance.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of Stan Israel, who tirelessly forced people to confront their views and misconceptions of Tai Chi and changed my life because of it. I miss my friend, teacher, and culinary companion and think of him every day.