Thursday, December 1, 2011


I'm often asked what it takes to be a "master" of Tai Chi.  Some people take the title 'master' to simply refer to rank or achievement among one's peers.  In this hierachical universe there can be many masters.  How many graduate students become Masters of Arts or Sciences?  In the martial arts there can be a master of an individual school or a particular style.

Even though many of his peers and students believe him to be a master of Tai Chi, my teacher of 35 years, eschews this title.  He remains humble and often tells us that his knowledge is small compared to his teacher's and practitioners of the past.  It often seems as though he's measuring his knowledge against the virtually limitless potential of the art as a whole which could certainly engender an attitude of humility.  If the term master has any meaning beyond rank, athletic prowess or self-promotion, it's coming to the realization of how little you know, thereby retaining your beginner's mind.

Monday, November 21, 2011

More on Change

Change is reality of our existence and attempts to resist change are always unsuccessful and produce great suffering.  Learning to relax makes us better able to flow with change.  Since every situation is different, we concentrate on principles rather than techniques.

Relaxation is hampered by two types of tension: resistance and grasping.

Culture and Context

A few days ago I received an email from a person wanting to know if he could teach classes in Chinese language and culture at my taijiquan studio in Kansas City. He wrote that learning the language and culture was crucial to one's taijiquan development. 

I wrote back and said that, while I had a keen interest in Chinese philosophy and culture, my teacher (Chinese to the bone) never stressed that learning these things was essential to developing a deep understanding of taijiquan. Naturally, some background was necessary, but it was more about basic principles and perseverance in practice. It was about learning to relax-whatever the language or culture 
I have met many taijiquan players in my nearly thirty years of experience-a handful of whom had some deep knowledge of the essence of the art. A few were well-versed in Chinese language and culture, but most were not. As a result, I never felt there was a necessary correlation between comprehension of taijiquan and facility with the Chinese language or familiarity with Chinese culture. Conversely, I know one Chinese gentleman whose knowledge of classical Chinese language and philosophy is extremely erudite, but hasn't the discipline to practice taijiquan daily. Even though he has been practicing for many years, his understanding is still largely conceptual. 

Not all of the cultural accoutrements that come with Eastern mysticism-or Western science for that matter-are necessary or helpful. Some things deservedly need to be shed as they are more baggage than benefit. It is good to know the roots of the art that you love and practice, but it is also important to recognize and inhabit your own cultural milieu and not fret if you haven't mastered the intonations of the Chinese language. I am not saying that learning to speak Chinese or studying Asian culture is without value. It can be very intellectually satisfying in many ways. My point is that the wisdom of taijiquan is no longer tied to any one country or culture.

Many of the Eastern contemplative arts, including taijiquan have become, like Western science, part of world culture. We should be grateful for the generosity of those Chinese taijiquan teachers who gave of their time and talent to build a cultural bridge that propelled taijiquan onto the world stage. It was a selfless thing to do, and therefore an essentially taijiquan thing to do, because it necessitated letting go. When you allow your child to go out into the world you have to accept that they will forever be changed. It was a very forward-looking, "modern" stance to take, not typical of the traditional Chinese world view . This modern stance emphasized the belief that taijiquan was too important and wonderful to be constrained by any one culture and that it must continue to evolve if it was to thrive.

Taijiquan truly does transcend the boundaries of language and culture. As the Denma Translation Group said about the wisdom of Sunzi's Art of War: "It is a natural flowering of common human faculties present in all of us." 

This article appeared in the Winter 2004 Issue of Taijiquan Journal (Vol. 5, No. 1)  Seven years after penning it, I am still in agreement with the sentiments presented.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Thoughts on Centering

We often use the word 'center' and it's different variants to describe a certain state of mind/body/spirit.  Over thirty years ago I chose Center States Tai Chi for the name of my Tai Chi 'center' which wasn't simply about being geographically positioned in the heartland.  What does 'center' mean?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Tai Chi: A Multi-faceted Art Form

When I began studying Tai Chi, before it received very much media attention, I learned that it was a multi-faceted art form.  A health exercise, a meditation, and a martial art.  It was profound, something you could study for many lifetimes and still glean more benefits and insights.  As it came to be a more familiar practice in the West and began receiving more media attention, this broad, multi-faceted art form was reduced to an exercise for the elderly.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Follow-up: Sensing Hands vs Push Hands

When I asked teacher what the literal translation of t'ui shou was, it was, in fact, "push hands", even though the word used for "push" in our form is an not t'ui.  Apparently they're synonymous.  Then without any prompting he said that some people preferred "sensing hands".  When I asked him what he thought about that it was largely a non-issue for him, but he said it might be all right as an alternative translation and understood the emphasis on sensing.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sensing Hands: Push Hands Re-framed

"If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things."  K'ung-fu Tzu

This was a portion of the explanation that K'ung-fu Tzu (or Confucius as we know him) gave to his disciples on his principle of 'rectification of names'.

I think about this with regard to our practice of t'ui shou or what is commonly called 'push hands'.  There has been a move over the years by some notables in our lineage to change the translation to 'sensing hands'.  And while it may not be a very good literal translation of t'ui shou, it may more accurately express the intention of this valuable practice and be 'more in accordance with the truth of things'.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Injuries & Focus

The good thing about some injuries is that they foster greater presence.  I've been dealing with a rotator cuff strain for the last two months.  Although frustrating at times, my concentration strengthened a great deal as I moved through the postures in the form and other physical exertions in my daily life.  When practicing push hands it made me conscious of using too much strength and offering too much resistance.  Not to say that having these kind of minor injuries is a good thing, but they are often valuable teaching tools.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Something's There!

We were talking in class about presence of mind when you raise your arms in the Beginning Posture.  I demonstrated that my arm was difficult to push down but at the same time wasn't full of tension.  Teacher used to say to us: "Something's there!"  My understanding is that 'something' is presence of mind, awareness, attention, or simply 'mind'.  It has great potential but is not manifested as internal strength until it receives pressure, i.e. someone pushing on my arm.  Tai Chi is unique in that way.  It looks like nothing (no strength), but 'something' is there.  Though that something doesn't become apparent until it reacts with external force.  The image of steel wrapped in cotton.  Soft outside, solid core.

This relates to one of the first lines in Tai chi Chuan Ching (Tai Chi Chuan Classic by Chang San-feng).  "The ch'i should be excited, the shen (spirit) internally gathered."

It should also be said that in correct practice this 'something' is present in all postures.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Robert W. Smith (1926- 2011)

Robert W. Smith passed away the evening of July 1st. He was a noted martial art researcher, writer, teacher, and practitioner. He was the author and co-author of 16 books and numerous articles dealing with the fighting arts. His work no doubt touched many martial artists regardless of style.  -From the Journal of Asian Martial Arts.-

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Sung & Satyagraha

One of the most difficult concepts to explain and comprehend in Tai chi is sung or what is generally translated as 'relax'.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Daily Practice

When I first began my Tai Chi practice I was 21 and had no trouble maintaining a vigorous personal practice outside of class.  I was very enthusiastic about learning Tai chi and possessed that obsessive focus that young adults often have for a new and somewhat exotic pursuit.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Without involvement you can research spiritual practice to your death and achieve nothing but increasing bewilderment.

A long time ago I copied the above sentence to my Tai Chi notebook.  It is a powerful truth about spiritual practice and one of the most important reasons why I practice Tai Chi - emphasis on the word ‘practice’. 

I remember a cartoon I saw many years ago.  There were two doors: in front of one door there is a line of many people waiting to enter.  The sign on the door reads: Tai Chi Lecture.  In front of the other door there is only one person waiting to get in.  The sign on that door reads: Tai Chi Practice.

The message is clear.  It is easy to listen to conversation, even serious academic discussion, about spiritual practice and imagine that you understand it.  It is quite another to involve yourself in actual practice.  You can sit in a class and take copious notes on body mechanics and principles of movement, but if you never hold a posture or move through a series of them with presence, you are clueless.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Ben Lo's Wisconsin Workshop

I tried to remember how many Ben Lo camps and workshops I've attended.  I lost count after 40.  At 84 he is still a powerful teacher of Tai Chi.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Is Longer Better?

There are many length Tai Chi forms.  24 postures to more than 100.  Even though our form has been called “the short form” it is really of medium length.  When you count the repetitions, which you should for accurate comparison, we have 65-70 depending upon how many Repulse Monkeys and Cloud Hands you do.  It should be pointed out that Tai Chi originally had only 13 postures so these forms are much longer.  Quality matters more than quantity.  I learned the “long form” first and, while I go through it every now and then, I think our form is completely adequate.  The one advantage that the long form might have is that it is . . . . longer, i.e., it keeps you practicing for a longer period of time.  So, do ours twice.


Monday, May 9, 2011

The New York Times Crossword & Dojo

In one of last week’s New York Times crossword puzzles one clue read: Dojo discipline.  Since dojo is the Japanese word for a martial arts training hall (it literally mean place of the Tao or way), I was running through the various Japanese martial arts that I know of such as: karate, judo, jujitsu, etc.  Nothing seemed to fit.  Finally, I realized that the answer was TAICHICHUAN.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ch'i kung and Tai Chi

In class this week I talked about ch’i-kung (also spelled qigong) and Tai Chi.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Welcome to the Center States Tai Chi blog!

I decided to create a blog so that people who are involved in learning and practicing Tai Chi at Center States Tai Chi Chuan studio can share their insights, information they come across related to Tai Chi, frustrations, feedback on the classes, etc.  My hope is that this will create some fruitful dialog that will extend beyond the blog and beyond the classes.