Greetings. Last week I gave you the questions that were posed to me from Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association. I hope you enjoyed thinking about what answers you might give. This week I will answer the first three, as they are quite long, and finish next week. Please feel free to send me any comments or questions.

Questions and Answers About Tai Chi

1. For those readers who aren’t familiar with Tai Chi, can you briefly explain what exactly it is?

When I am asked what Tai Chi is, I am reminded of the story of the blind men who, never having encountered an elephant, are asked to describe what it is. One touches the trunk and says, “An elephant is like a large snake.” Another touches a leg, and says, “No, an elephant is like a tree.” Another, touching the flank says, “No, an elephant is like a wall.”

They are all correct, yet their individual answer is incomplete due to their not having all the information necessary to make an informed decision.

Talking about Tai Chi Chuan is much like the elephant problem. Tai Chi Chuan is a very complex art, with three main roots that go back hundreds, if not thousands, of years into Chinese history. If you ask someone who is interested in martial arts, he might respond that Tai Chi is definitely an effective self-defense system. If a person on a spiritual path were asked, he would probably respond saying it is a meditative art. And if someone who was involved with health and wellness was asked, he might answer that it is a physical culture/healing practice.

All are correct, yet Tai Chi cannot, and should not, be limited to one field of study. All of the roots are of equal importance and make Tai Chi Chuan one of the most popular physical activities in the world.

The name, Tai Chi Chuan, literally means Supreme Ultimate Marital Art. Today, in order to gain popularity worldwide, the art generally is known and “Tai Chi”, eliminating the word “Chuan,” which means marital system. I can understand the reason. Most people are not interested in martial arts and would certainly turn their backs on the marvelous exercise. But to fully understand its evolution, we must include the Chuan aspect.

The first root is the Martial Arts. People have always needed to defend themselves, whether from animals, or other humans. China is a crowded place, with much chance for confrontation. Many martial systems evolved. Tai Chi Chuan, as a martial art, emerged from the Taoist Wudang temple sometime between 500 to 1000 AD. The distant past is clouded, partially because of the idea that mystery and myth will add to its appeal. Because it was very effective, it was passed from father to son and never shared with strangers. It was not until the introduction of guns that hand-to-hand martial arts lost their effectiveness. At this time, in the early 1800’s, Tai Chi started to move into the general population and gain popularity as a physical exercise.

The oldest root, going back several thousand years, is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), or the health and rejuvenation aspect. The Chinese have been using exercise to maintain wellness, cure disease, and strengthen the body for many thousands of years.

TCM theory is based on the idea of balance – balance in all aspects of ones’ life. Overall fitness and well-being is not just the absence of disease. It was derived by a balance between the physical, mental, and spiritual. TCM sees the whole person and uses various modalities as a way to eliminate the blocks in our systems that tend to cause excess or deficiency. Balanced, relaxing exercise is one of the ways. I remember one Tai Chi instruction telling the class, “Don’t make your heart sweat.” This relates to the Chinese belief that internal balance is favored over physical appearance. This approach is quite different than the traditional Western idea of fitness.

The third root is Spiritual Development, namely Buddhism, Confucianism, and especially Taoism. These philosophical systems have placed an important part in the lives of a majority of Chinese people and their cultural development. The Taoists look to what is natural, a blending with the forces of the Universe, to achieve supreme health and a long life filled with a strong feeling of contentment. In much the same way that TCM achieves physical health through eliminating tension and extremes, Taoism eliminates beliefs as an obstruction to seeing reality. Meditate, relax, and find your inner balance; all will become clear. Decisions will be based on seeing what is, not acting on how one thinks it should be. The Taoists didn’t have a creed, an all powerful God, or rules. Each person is responsible for his or her own personal achievement.

The Taoists developed the philosophy of Yin and Yang and Tai Chi. By observing nature, the Taoists saw that nature was a manifestation of complementary opposites – day and night, up and down, hot and cold, sun and moon, male and female, etc. It is this interaction of forces or expressions of energy that cause movement, and movement indicates life.

If we look at the yin and yang of weather, barometric pressure, there are two forces; high (yang) and low (yin) pressure. It is the interaction of these two forces that causes different conditions. For example, a light breeze is caused by only a slight difference between the yang or high pressure and the yin or low pressure. A greater pressure difference might result in high winds or even a hurricane. The greater the difference of pressure, (the higher the high and the lower the low), the greater the resulting movement of air.

The Taoists realized that health and long life was influenced by this yin and yang theory. Chi (life force) and blood moved in the same way and for the same reasons that all the external natural forces do. If their bodies and minds maintained a balanced state and did not bounce between the extremes, health and contentment would result.

Tai Chi Chuan is a blending of relaxed exercise from TCM, non-action and a spiritual goal from Taoism, and also self-defense skills. It is hard to really separate these various roots, as they are very twisted and co-mingled. The body needs to be strong to fight off disease as well as intruders. The mind must be clear to see the workings of the Universe, as well as beginnings of an emotional problem. The practices, studies, and exercises for good health, martial skill, and spiritual attainment are all the same.

2. How did you become acquainted with Tai Chi? Please describe your particular background with the practice and how you got to where you are today.

I was living in San Francisco in 1968. I was working as a television director, under a lot of stress. I didn’t have time for exercise. I was depressed and unhappy. The Vietnam War was starting to affect the young people. We marched, but it didn’t seem to be having any effect. Most of us wanted change, personally, and for the direction of our government.
I went to a large gathering of spiritual teachers, called Meeting of the Ways. There was an abundance of wise people in San Francisco at this time. I remember many of the presenters at this meeting – Alan Watts, Timothy Leary, Alan Ginsberg, Yogi Bajan, Swami Satchitanada, and others. They spoke, did some exercises and led chants. None of the messages resonated strongly with me.

At one point I noticed a group of people in a circle in one corner of the large hall. I went over and saw what was going to change my life. In the circle was a Chinese man wearing a uniform, doing slow, graceful movements. I watched mesmerized, as the movements continued for some minutes, unfolding, and changing in subtle and beautiful ways. I was transfixed.

I learned that this man, Master Choy Kam-man, was doing Tai Chi Chuan and would be starting new classes in Chinatown shortly. I got a flyer and knew I would attend. It was full steam ahead for me since that moment in 1968. I gave up smoking, got healthy, found balance in my mind and developed a sense of purpose. After 5 years of study, I was certified to teach, moved to Tucson, and started teaching.

In 1973, Tai Chi was not well known, especially out of the large, coastal cities. It took lots of effort to start classes and earn a living, yet I did. I taught over 1,000 people in the course of 8 years in Tucson. In 1981, I moved to a small rural town in Washington State, Port Townsend. I built a studio for my teaching and have been teaching full time ever since.

Through the years, I studied with many different instructors who helped me to clarify my intention. In 1994, I was the Grand Champion at a major Tai Chi tournament, never having practiced or trained for the event. It confirmed for me that I was on the correct path for my development. It gave me the confidence to start writing articles for major magazines, and I published my first book in 1996. It was well received. I followed with a second book on Tai Chi in 1998. Both were translated in French and Italian and are still in print. Around 2000, I set up a Web site for my work, offering free online lessons. I now get millions of hits each year, have students worldwide, offer instructors’ training via Internet, all while maintaining my small, intimate classes in my home town. I also have produced shows on Tai Chi and Chi Kung for television. They have been running, five times a week, for the past 18 years. I also have more than 100 instructional DVD’s offered at my web site. I also offer over 180 videos on YouTube.

3. Annals reaches out to a large readership of professionals in the psychotherapy field. Can Tai Chi be useful for therapists working with clients?

Tai Chi is a great tool for therapists. First, for work on themselves. I feel people can only give what they have. If the therapist isn’t centered, the client will know it or soon realize it. If the therapist is coming from a centered place deep inside a calm relaxed place, the client will also relax and open.

A person seeks help from a therapist because he or she is out of balance on a physical, emotional, or mental/spiritual level, or a combination of all three. It doesn’t take long for the committed individual to regain balance given the proper instruction in Tai Chi. It has proven itself for hundreds of years to help people on all levels, as it did for me.

It is my opinion that many mental health problems occur because the client is stuck in their head. According to Tai Chi, the body/mind is a bioelectric system. The universe is energy; the human body is energy. If we could look closely enough inside the body we would see that there is nothing solid, only energy. This energy forms itself into shapes with various functions, like digestive organs, the circulatory system, thinking mind, etc. This energy moves and collects in places where needed. When one eats, for instance, the body heats up as the energy moves to the digestive system. When doing physical exercise, the muscles heat up as the energy moves to them. When problem solving, the brain lights up. This is all easily proven with current technology.

So when I say a person is stuck in their head, it means that much of their energy is in the head and they are top heavy, out of balance. It is as if the television set is on and the person can’t figure out how to turn it off.

Tai Chi study is designed in such a way that the energy system of the body is rooted and grounded at the beginning. We concentrate on the health and healing aspects of the art. Because most people seem to be top heavy, thinking too much, they are out of balance. It is like a pyramid placed upside down. It wouldn’t take much to cause it to fall. In the beginning stages, we turn the pyramid back onto its base. We build support from the ground up, allowing relaxation and a sense of the earth providing the support. The earth in Chinese medicine is the mother, the source of nurturing energy needed to feel confident and loved.

After the body is rid of self-limiting, physical manifestations of past problems, the student then works on building strength, flexibility, sensitivity, awareness, mind/body communication, and an understanding of the martial root of the form.

Finally, when the body/mind is healed and strengthened, the student learns to transcend the body and unify with the life force. Tai Chi becomes Chinese spiritual philosophy in action.

There is a saying in Tai Chi. “To know yourself is wisdom, to know others is enlightenment.” The first few years of Tai Chi study, students learn about themselves – the correct functioning of the body and mind. Only when one has mastered himself, do we move the students into situations where they have the opportunity to understand other people at the deepest, energetic level. The Tai Chi classics state this simply. “When the opponent (other person) is still, I am still. If he moves, I move first.” This implies the complete openness of the body/mind and sensitivity to the energetic field surrounding all of us. This is the ultimate goal of all martial artists, healing masters, and spiritual teachers.

Best Wishes,