My Personal Journey in Tai Chi Chuen
CHILDHOOD TAI CHI
My first encounter with playing Tai Chi was on the roof top of a concrete apartment building in Hong Kong. I must have been 8 or 10 years old. In Hong Kong most people live in apartment buildings. Those days skyscrapers were not as common as they are now. My home was in one of the older style concrete buildings, 5 to 6 stories tall, and all had a communal roof top area. The tenants often arranged to have group classes at the roof top in the morning. I think our family went a few times and dropped out quickly, and that was that.
HMO TAI CHI
My next encounter with Tai Chi was about twenty some years later, Spring of 93. Life was good and busy working in the high tech field. Everything else took a back seat. I was young and stressed out and unhealthy. I found out that the local HMO was offering a beginners Tai Chi class. It was offered every Thursday nights, at a health center that is one stop from my normal subway stop from home. So I joined. A young man, at most in his last twenties, taught that class. He taught a short Tai Chi formed called the hwa yu form. I still have no more information that form/family style about today.
Luck would have it that he was relocating out of Boston at the end of that class. I was interested enough that I asked him for suggestion to continue learning. He directed me to his teacher. I started with his teacher and studied for about 1 year. What I didn't like about his teacher it is that it seems a little too "new age", too soft. However he was a very nice guy and I definitely had fun during the classes. Initially the classes were at a Church down in the fashionable Newbury Street area. It was very calming, at the same time a little strange, to be doing tai chi on the altar / platform of a church. The class moved to a school building in the suburb and I continued for a bit.
YANG JWING-MING YMAA
Around that time at a party I met an inside student of Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming. This guy was very nice and we chatted a long time about tai chi. That was my first serious discussion about tai chi with a traditional Chinese view point, from a Chinese student of a well know Chinese Sifu. He invited me to visit the school.
I visited the school and met Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming. He is a very nice and gentle person and very knowledgeable. At the same time I can tell that he is a very good martial artist. He marketed himself and his school very well and at the same time still seems quite down to earth. His school, YMAA, down in Jamaica Plain, Boston, is very nice. The old school space is, well, old, but there is a new building next door with a very nicely done up basement dojo. Air conditioned, gleaming hard wood floor.
I attended class there for about three months during Summer of 94. While I think highly of Dr. Yang, because of the size of the school, they use several different instructors to teach the beginners classes. These instructors are good martial artists, but they are not necessary the best teachers. Therefore I know it will take a long time to get into some serious learning. Another issue is that they focus is a little too much on hard style than I thought they should be. The instructors are all young man and women that were more interested in the external forms then the internal forms, and they would push the class to the external side more.
BOW SIM MARK
Now that I know a bit more about Tai Chi, and that I really want to continue my journey, I hit the phone book and see what other schools are out there in the area. First listing I found that looked interesting was the Chinese Wushu Research Institute. I called one afternoon. A lady that is probably Chinese answered the phone. She was brief, and just told me to come down to the school and watch a class, then go from there. Very low key. I later learnt that the lady of course is sifu Mark herself.
The low-keyness of the phone conversation almost made me not go. But I did. I went on a weekday evening when there is a beginners class going on at the back of Chinatown. Bill was teaching a class. I sat there for an hour watching them, kind of boring actually. They told me that sifu Mark may drop by and I should wait for her. I waited, and waited, and sifu Mark finally showed. I didn't even get to talk to her for another half hour. Finally we chatted a little in Cantonese, and she said just start beginner class. So I did.
This was November 1994. The beginner class was taught mostly by Bill, who is a long time student of Sifu. I went through the taste of tai chi (12 movement form) with the class in about three months. It was great. I decided to continue, which meant start to learn the combined tai chi form -- a 67 movement form that will take some time.
A word about the school location. It was on the ground floor of a concrete residential building in Chinatown. The space was one big open room with 20 foot ceiling. The floor esdconcrete with a thin linoleum covering; very hard on the knees. But the openness was great. The high ceiling let other people practice long weapons with ease.
I spent just under one year learning, two times a week, from Bill. Most of the time I was the only beginner left in his class. It was wonderful. I really owe a lot of my journey to him. With all the one-on-one time I moved along quickly and kept my interest. I learnt the combined form within the year. This is actually quite unusual. Most people takes at least one and a half year to learn that form. Also, I think I am actually the last few that managed to learn the combined form, because sifu has no patient to teach beginners that form anymore. Most people drop out of it after a while. The only other chance was at Newton, which I will explain later. At the end of that time I basically know the basic mechanics of the form but would hardly say I am doing Tai Chi correctly, using sifu's standards.
I also managed to learn tai chi broadsword from Jean, another long time student of sifu Mark. Again, at this level I was just learning the mechanical part and the form. There are long way to go for learning weapons.
TAI CHI ARTS ASSOCIATION, NEWTON
Sifu Mark wanted to start a different school location. She bought a two family house in Newton and started Tai Chi Arts Association. She decided to start teaching classes there herself, and she invited me to start going to the Newton classes because I live closer to there.
The only thing I can say is, learning directly from Sifu Mark is simply wonderful. She is such a good teacher. Having the opportunity to learn directly from her is quite a unusually opportunity, considering that she is basically teaching us almost pure beginners. No old masters would spend that much time teaching beginners, but Sifu does.
The trade off is that she often try out new ideas on us. When she is designing a new teaching form, or new exercise, she use us as guinea pigs. At this point I truly realize how much there is to learn. I am but at the very beginning of the Tai Chi journey. A bit cliché, but the journal is the reward, and this is going to be a life long journey. This thought is often confirmed by working with all the old time students of sifu's later. Those ten, twenty year students still find new things to learn from her.
At the Newton class, I had the benefits of already learnt the combined form so I am a little ahead from the rest of the gang. As a result I got a lot more from her teaching then I would have otherwise. Few people have the chance of going through the Combined Form twice. She really helped me with insights into the form and movements.
The Newton group, as we were known as, became quite a tight family. It is almost funny, but people seems to take up different roles in the family. We had the older grandma and grandpa, and the kids, and the adult children, and so forth. We really had a great time. We went through the combined form (second time for me), and learnt Tai Chi Fan (not my favorite), and other wudang forms like tiger, and walking the circle. We goes two to three times a week. There were times we just head over Saturday morning to open the school ourselves and practice.
It was very sad that after a few years, she decided to close down the Newton location. I think mostly it was a financial decision. Also she was just spending too much time traveling between the two schools and teaching at BU and other places. At the same time she lost the old Chinatown location and bought a new place at Lincoln Street. We used to have limited parking at the old location. At Lincoln St it is street parking, and it was very difficult. While for Sifu's sake it was great for her to not have to go back and forth so much, I found the new location too difficult to handle.
LINCOLN STREET, BOSTON
I stopped going to class for two years, 2000 and 2001. Work was going crazy with then the new startup, I was just distracted. I did practice on my own to keep up, but it is not the same. I missed the workout and the mental training. In the beginning of 2002, the school was doing a seminar/marketing event. Work was slowing down a little bit, so I decided to attend, mostly for moral support. At the event I learnt that sifu has been teaching the Tai Chi Sword. Tai Chi Sword is first the ultimate weapon form to learn, and Sifu is one of the world expert in that form. Given that opportunity I had to start going to class again. So I did. It was Summer 2002.
I started going to Monday nights wushu basic training, and Thursday night Sword class. The basic training class is one that I have been avoiding all these years, because it is know for being tough. We do extra stretching, extra kicking, and other forms that are great for conditioning, but tough. I am actually glad that I am doing that now. Both of these classes are attended by almost exclusively by the old timers which have been going to these classes for 15 to 20 years. Talking with these guys and watching them, I again reminded myself that there is so much to learn. They are very good, but they are still learning new things from sifu. That is such a wonderful thing. Of course I find that just practicing on my own is not working. I truly slagged off on my techniques. It is going to take me awhile to get back into some basic level of tai chi'ness.
TAI CHI SWORD, PRYING MANTIS AND MORE
Only after starting class again then I realized she finished teaching the Tai Chi Sword. The class went into review mode, which means she just pick one step or two each week and explain it in detail and help to correct our movements. It is hard to be corrected when I don't know the form! I suddenly find myself exposed to her other teaching style, when she teaches the very advance students. She jumps back and forth between different things. We did Sword review, Prying Mantis, Tsing Yi, and lots of other things. Sifu expects you to just follow, and learn if you can. I would not say it is a test, but it certainly challenges one to do one's best. The philosophy is, if you have a good foundation, which we all should have by now, learning something new is (relatively) not that difficult. So it was hard but rewarding work. She was pushing us harder because we were all advanced students, and we learnt more.
Another word about her as a teacher. She knows each student, their individual strength and weakness, their learning styles. She adjusts to each student, but in an extremely subtle way. How many times, just when I feel over confident and thought I figured it out, one quiet word, or one look across the room, and you know what you still need to learn. Just when I feel frustrated, or stuck, or did something better that I thought, another glance or another few words will be all the encouragement that I need. She finds a way to move each one of us ahead on our own path in a subtle way.
It has been almost a year since I started classes again in Lincoln Street. Part of it is that I go to class at least twice a week. Part of it is that I am learning by the sides of the senior students. Part of it is that she pushes us harder then before. I learnt forms and techniques that I did not think I can manage to pick up. The advance students were practising for a big performance. Since they know the form already Sifu was not really teaching it, but just reviewing it or changing it. When that started I was so lost in that form. Quiet unbelievably still, I managed to learn that entire form in the time they took to get ready for the performance. That was a happy experience.
Around the same that as I started back at the Lincoln school, she pushed me to help her teach beginner classes and outside classes. Teaching is a great way to learn, she alway said. I am glad that she let me teach because she has very high standards. I started teaching beginners in her classes and at outside classes. I have always enjoy teaching Adult Tai Chi. Most Adult Tai Chi students come to class to learn to de-stress, re-balance, and generally looking to improve their health and balance (very much like how I started). They have a purpose and make teaching easier.
I also started teaching a kids martial arts class. That, was quite an experience. Most of the kids were there because their parents made them. They did not have any initial interests. I have to discover ways to get them interested and also teach them something good. It took my two years but after that I think I at least have a basic framework to get these five to eight year olds learning. Those classes were extremely tiring but extremely rewarding.
Currently I teach adult private lessons. Teaching is a great way to learn, practise, and grow, and help spread the tai chi knowledge around!