a few pre-2018 blog posts...

There are a thousand ways…

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a blog entry, but recently a particular Tai Chi instructor from my past has been in my thoughts. This is for him…

Many years ago, I met a Tai Chi teacher who was quite the mystery to me. Without meaning to, he presented me with a puzzle, the depth of which I would not really work out until some years later. His lesson has shown up again and again as I’ve worked with many awesome teachers and students and continued to evolve my understanding of the art.

In short, the lesson for me is this: There is no one true or correct way to interpret, define, or practice Tai Chi (or qigong for that matter). I’ll explain what I mean: This particular teacher had come to Tai Chi following a serious injury which left him with intense pain and mobility issues. His work and social life were challenging at best. Upon encountering Tai Chi, he had an inspiration. After a few lessons, he decided to study on his own in such a way as to rehabilitate himself, one slow step at a time.

By the time I met him, he had recovered marvelously. He was also working with students, sharing what he had learned, teaching Tai Chi… As I watched him move, the young student in me was shocked. I remember having such thoughts as: Uh, I’m pretty sure that isn’t Tai Chi; There’s no way that would work in a fight; and This doesn’t make any sense at all!

Fortunately, we’re not the content of our thoughts, and it later occurred to me that regardless of how different his approach to the art was, it was working! It obviously felt good in his body, had facilitated his healing, and was of value to his students! Who was I to offer any further comment on it other than, good for him!

This was a liberating realization for me, and continues to be so. Over the years, I’ve seen many, many approaches to Tai Chi and qigong. Variations exist within movement interpretation, semantics, application, and even theory and principles. There are differing points of view as to how flexible Tai Chi is as a discipline, how it relates to other martial styles, and how much it can be altered depending on the needs of the student… or circumstances.

Where I land on all this can be summarized by the idea that Tai Chi exists to serve the evolving best interest of the practitioner. Students bring to the art their history, their challenges, their strengths, and the unique complexity of their body-mind. We use our Tai Chi, respecting where we are in any given moment, to strengthen, refine, and develop ourselves on many levels. The various forms and practices are tools to further realize our potential. As we grow and evolve as practitioners, our abilities improve as do the tools and understandings we employ. Happily, all this can be a lot of fun and is very rewarding along the way…

I believe, to be honest, that some approaches to Tai Chi are more developed and respectful of “body logic” than others. But all of us can improve the wisdom and ability with which we use our marvelous body-mind. We can all learn more, include more, expand and go beyond what we have mastered so far, and do so with respect for ourselves and those around us.

This means that anyone can learn and benefit from Tai Chi and/or qigong. Given an open mind and willingness to explore and cultivate what works, we can all find a way to practice that feels good and moves us forward.

I’ve long since lost touch with the teacher mentioned above, but I remain grateful to him and all the other bright souls who have and continue to inspire and enlighten my practice.

Toward deeper practice

Recently, someone asked me, “How can I take my practice beyond traditional form work?” I love questions like this as they can lead us into subtle and interesting places. In this case, the student was thinking beyond the mere repetition of movements and ideas and more to the heart of practice and our personal relationship with it.

In pondering this, it occurs to me that good practice is not so much a thing we do, but a quality of being we step into. For me, it is much like meditation or prayer or that “zone” we can feel when running, hiking, or concentrating on something fascinating to us. As such, it is unique (and similar) for each of us. Ideally, it is a sate of focused self-cultivation in which the first basic theme is “practice so as to feel genuinely good.” If you are feeling good, your practice is good, even if technically there is lots of room for improvement. Feeling good comes first and feeling good will lead you deeper.

What do I mean by “feeling good?” It might mean that you are feeling more balanced, more coordinated, happier, stronger, a deeper flow of energy, a sense of peace, presence, or connection. It can mean many things as you move in the direction of greater well-being. For Tai Chi or qigong practitioners, good practice involves using the movements and principles of our forms, but seeking more so the qualities of one’s Self beneath them. Explore the feeling of presence and the clarity of your focus. Enter into greater levels of relaxation, ease, grace, and more… The deep qualities of one’s Self are truly uplifting and inspire us to go deeper still.

But what of those times during which we are not feeling so good? What about those moments of struggle or discomfort or uncertainty when learning something new? In those challenging moments, it can help to remember generosity for ourselves. We can continue to learn and allow a sense of inner good will and self appreciation. We can always refine that clarity of intention, whether we feel it at the level of a trickling stream or a roaring ocean that flows over to include all around us. We can use challenging moments as opportunities to embrace more deeply any virtue that inspires us most. In this way, outer practice leads to inner growth… cultivating the outer strengthens the inner.

In the end, I know of no better way to self cultivation than through meaningful practice… crafted from those disciplines worthy of our time and energy. So wherever you are in your relationship with self-cultivation, whatever that may mean to you, take it further still, with kindness toward yourself, authenticity in your methods, and with the consistency that makes us strong. Let your practice evolve as you do and if the spirit moves you… share it with others.

As always, I wish you happy practicing!

many ways to practice

Hello everyone! The subject of personal practice often comes up in Tai Chi classes. Whether we are just beginning or have years under our belt, it’s often helpful to ponder our practice and how we can make it even more beneficial and enjoyable.

I’ve written in the past about the importance of identifying your reasons for practice and to regularly keep them in your awareness: Why is Tai Chi important to you? Align yourself closely with your why and you will naturally gravitate toward more and more satisfying practice. Make sure your reasons resonate personally and continually feel into what is inspiring and uplifting to you.

It is also beneficial to have a sense of progression in our approach to Tai Chi: where are we starting from and where we are going. This came up recently in a forms class I was teaching.  The solo forms of Tai Chi are very important. They exist as a container for principles and ideas; a template for fundamental movement. They also afford us a vehicle through which we cultivate certain energies and qualities inherent in this art.

We begin with a bare hand solo form and basic choreography. This is the first golden gate to higher levels of study. Without a clear sense of choreography and the body mechanics that support it, its difficult to progress further. So we learn the basics of stance, coordination, relaxation, and what move comes after the one before. At times, this can be a challenging phase. At others, it’s an exciting exploration and it simply gets easier with practice. Push through the challenging bits. 

Once we learn the basic solo form, whether it be a short form or the traditional Long Form, we can relax even more and dig into deeper levels of practice. Forms are not meant to be a stopping point, but rather a beginning point. They provide us a foundation upon which we can build and to which we return time and again for higher levels of mastery. Pondering the Ten Important Points of Yang, Chengfu is a great way to take your form work to a deeper place. At first, I recommend just working with one principle at a time.

Beyond the standard interpretation of form, there are many ways in which we can practice and a lot of variety we can bring to each session. Variety, if done with mindfulness and attention to core principles, can afford us higher levels of understanding and mastery in our art. We can alter speed, rhythm, frame size, and other points of emphasis. Doing so can significantly improve our coordination, balance, awareness, and more. And this can be far more pleasing than limiting ourselves to mere repetition.

Beyond adding variety, there is the level of more free-form practice. One can practice movements in the opposite direction or go more “randomly” from one posture to the next, creating logical transitions that link the movements together. This level of practice elevates our familiarity with the various techniques in Tai Chi. A good way to begin this kind of practice is to choose only two movements from the form that do not typically occur together, such as ward-off and push. Create a good transition between them and practice it in various ways – left side, right side, different angles, etc. Just let yourself explore how two movements can connect with each other.

Another whole new arena of form work opens up once a student begins two-person practice. Prior to this, form work can be somewhat abstract but once we have the feeling of connecting to another human being in controlled drills, the bare hand forms start to feel deeper and more relevant. There is suddenly a felt context in our movement.

So, I encourage you to look deeply. No matter where you are in your study of Tai Chi, think both inside and outside the box. Breath, relax, go slowly and enjoy the exploration of your own self in the process. And let us engage our Tai Chi as if we are a force of nature… for surely we are!

In upcoming form classes, we’ll be digging more deeply into core principles and creative practice in solo work. There is also a new 2-person workshop coming up on the 31st and a brand new 5-Section class beginning in June. I hope to see you there!

an introduction to pushing hands

I am writing this piece in light of the new Friday evening open Tai Chi practice in Bellingham. We meet in one of the city’s most beautiful places – the Gazebo in Elizabeth Park, just off of Broadway. It is my hope that more and more people will come to share their practice, insights, and good will with one another.

Tai Chi is surely a community practice. This tradition traces its beginnings to a small farming village in China. In the early 1800′s, the people of this community developed Tai Chi as a means of defending themselves from bandits and other surly types who would wander through at times. The practice of Tai Chi also offered them a way to keep themselves strong and healthy so they could work the fields and support themselves. There was thus a strong, inherent motivation for members of the community to practice together.

In modern times, our motivation is similar but different. We still practice to support our health and well being but
the need for self defense is not as prominent as it used to be. Also, the community aspect of Tai Chi is actively created rather than pre-existing as it was in Chen village. Today, we seek each other out. In a way, this makes it even more dynamic and meaningful as we join together on purpose for the benefits of mutual development and camaraderie.

It’s also useful to distinguish the difference between community practice and classroom practice. In community practice, there is not necessarily a particular teacher. There might be, there might be several, but the opportunity is for us all to be students and teachers for each other as we explore various aspects of the art.

We might also notice that people will often have widely varying backgrounds and experience levels. This can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding. The challenge arises in how find a common basis for interaction and practice – a common movement language, if you will. If two people have different teachers, for instance, the drills they practice might be similar or quite different. If similar, great… we’re off to the races. If different, that’s also great! One can simply ask to have a new drill taught to them so they can practice together. Differences of approach can likewise be explored in an open-minded, beneficial manner. In this way everyone can improve and learn through the endless exploration that is Tai Chi Chuan.

Another option is for people to engage in what is called “free-play”. Free play can take many forms. It can be either fixed step or moving step. It can involve simple sticking skills or expand into techniques of various sorts… or any form two people care to explore. The key with free-play is to determine the basic guidelines of the game before hand. This can be achieved by simply asking your partner: “What would you like to work on?” and then contribute any ideas of your own.

In my opinion, there are three keys to successful two-person practice: communication, support, and enjoyment. If we communicate, we can achieve a healthy clarity with each other and with the objectives of our practice. We can then be free to both support and be supported in making progress. Once those bases are covered, we can relax, learn, … and enjoy the process!

Some of my closest friends are those I have practiced with over the years. Tai Chi is like that. There is a healthy intimacy that comes from being “up to your elbows” in various drills and practices with another. And as our shared purpose is self-cultivation, becoming the best we can be through this and other venues, we find much to share with those we meet on this path. Tai Chi is truly a wonderful stage upon which we learn that as each of us does better, we all do better.

I’ll have more to offer on this subject as we head into summer and I invite your thoughts and observations as well. I also invite you to join with us on Friday evenings and expand your practice horizons…

guest post… chantal fafard

Going through some of my old notes today I found this piece written by my friend and teacher from many years ago, Chantal Fafard. She was also a student of Sam Masich and has since moved on to other pursuits, but I remember her fondly. This is a great little piece on Tai Chi philosophy. See what you think… 

Wu Chi
By Chantal Fafard

It is said that before you start your Tai Chi routine, you stand quietly in the state of Wu Chi. This state is usually represented as a still space – sometimes called the Void – and is filled with potential for creativity. As soon as you start your routine, you come out of the Wu Chi state, and move into “duality”. Each posture contains this duality, represented here by the qualities of Yin and Yang. All throughout your routine, you alternate continuously between these two poles: substantial/unsubstantial, forward/backward, offensive/defensive…

Practicing Tai Chi though, is not just about expressing one posture after the other. It is about connecting them to your center. Without that connection, you find yourself off balance and out of real power. In fact, the posture you are practicing doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you find that underlying link that not only connects the postures together but more importantly connects the outer to the inner…

These concepts make a lot of sense when applied to your routine. In the same way, they can be used as an analogy for life.

Think of the Wu Chi as an underlying universal force – common to all, and filled with potential for new creations. While meditating, we all tap into that space, and before incarnating, I suspect we were simply part of it. When we come out of the Wu Chi state to be born into this world, we enter a world of dualities. Our body reflects this duality – male/female, short/tall, strong/weak – and we quickly identify with it. Our mind perceives people as friend/enemy, and good/bad things happen to us as we go through the ups/downs of life… The more we identify with this duality, the more we usually lose touch with our real nature.

The trick then is not only to move from one event to the other but to connect these events to your real essence. Here again, without that connection, you find yourself off balance and out of real power. With the perspective that comes from knowing that we are ‘spirit’, you can enjoy and learn from life without getting lost into ‘duality’. In fact, whatever you are going through in your life does not really matter. What matters is that you remember to connect the outer to the inner, the form to the essence. This is the quality and the practice of Taiji.

the first “rule” of taiji

This is my first post to this website since landing in Arizona. Turns out there’s quite a lot involved in moving from one state to another. Who knew? But seriously, what an amazing process this has been. From the caravan road trip with my wife to finding a rental house to the piles of paperwork, unpacking, and now building a new practice and classes… its all a brilliant exercise in being calm, centered, and focused. Not that unlike the qualities we look to cultivate in our Taiji practice.

As for formal Taiji, I just returned to it last week. Prior to that I had spent most of my practice time on meditation and qigong as that seemed to be what most fed my soul during the bulk of the transition phase. It feels wonderful now to return to my long form… like re-acquainting with an old friend.

I found this great little park in Clarkdale with a large gazebo not unlike Bellingham’s Elizabeth Park. It’s just right for form practice and hopefully some outdoor classes sometime in the near future.  

Among other good things, this move has afforded me an opportunity to re-evaluate and re-create many things in my life. One of these is the practices I use for self cultivation including Taiji.

As I settled into my stance and began the first part of the form, I began asking a familiar question… what is my objective? This is a question I have asked my students many times as it helps to clarify and focus one’s energies. It is a question of “purpose”. What is your purpose / intention / goal in your practice? And… how deeply can you go with that purpose?

As I asked this of myself again… I found the one clear answer bubble to the surface and I see this as really being the “first rule” of Taiji, understanding full well the irony of saying that. Still, I suspect you will see what I mean.

For me, this first rule for practice is to feel genuinely good. I practice “so as to” feel genuinely good in my body, mind, and heart. Now… what this might actually means to each one of us, how we process and interpret and cultivate “feeling good” is where the depth can come in.

“Feeling good” can mean feeling stronger, lighter, more relaxed, more present, flowing, flexible, connected, happy, integrated, balanced, calm, attuned, expansive, energized, graceful, etc. Whatever it means to you. If we focus first on feeling good in our practice, we will make progress. We will tend to grow in our understanding of ourselves and we will indeed tend to practice as practice feels better and better, however we define that for ourselves.

For me, all of this is really short hand for connecting more and more with our own authenticity, our true nature. All the details, all the drills, all the theory, principles, and concepts are there simply to support us in reconnecting with this authenticity that then nourishes the rest of our life in endless ways…

Wishing you happy practicing!

embrace the creative

I’ve written on the creative element of Taiji before and will surely do so again and again as it continues to emerge as the single most important part of my own training.

In my experience, Taiji is first and foremost a creative endeavor. Essentially, we practice to create change. We practice to elevate our health and well being, our state of awareness, our self-mastery, our ability to harmonize with both ourselves and with the world around us. We practice to create within ourselves a new and deeper experience of what it means to be human.

In this way, Taiji is a profoundly intimate experience one has with the most authentic aspects of oneself. Along the way, we may encounter all manner of demons and angels, resistances and inspirations, challenges and insights. And these all become fuel for our creative fire if we allow them to be so.

Yes, there are principles, postures, forms, drills, skills, and more. But there is no single and final way in which these can be interpreted and expressed. We see evidence of this in the nearly countless ways in which people approach their Tai Chi. It is much like painting. We are all using the same medium and share a common language even while our understanding and expression takes us in directions that best suit our individual needs and interests.

I think this is important for new students to understand so that they begin their study with an eye for developing both excellent fundamentals as well as the freedom to thoroughly enjoy their own process.

It can be easy, in the beginning to become unnecessarily frustrated with choreography or balance or an endless host of other details. But this need not be once we realize that the whole purpose for practice is to create meaningful, beneficial, enjoyable change. Enjoying one’s practice leads to, well… practice. And consistent practice leads to deeper self-inquiry and deeper application of effective principles and this results in the beneficial change we all desire.

To this end, I always encourage experimentation. Learn the core template, then explore more deeply and thoroughly and see what works best for you on whatever level you are contemplating. Discuss your experience with your teachers and friends, find out what works and what doesn’t, and then build on  your successes and insights.

In this way, our practice stays fresh, vital, alive and changing – even as we endlessly change and evolve as individuals and communities.

choosing our teachers… (part 1)

What is a teacher? And to whom, or what, should we entrust our most sacred consciousness in the process of our learning?

I am constantly pondering the subject of human development and self cultivation so the question of teachers rolls around in my mind quite often.

Most, if not all, of us have known those rare individuals who are a clear breath of enlightenment upon our path. These are the inspired men and women who enter into our lives at just that right moment to offer not only a quality of content, but also a quality of spirit from which we can glean so much for ourselves.

We have also had other so-called “teachers” who have perhaps abused their position or “taught” us by example what not to do or think or be.  These too have their value, but in a less inspiring, more ponderous manner.

As we become adults, however, it becomes even more critical that we choose our teachers in life quite consciously and wisely. This is not always an easy process especially if our choices seem limited. Nor is it always easy to cultivate a healthy relationship with a teacher once they are chosen. There are many reasons for this, many stemming from past assumptions and ideas about the learning process in general.

This is especially important, however, when choosing a teacher in the martial arts or other systems of self cultivation. This is so because such arts run deep and are multidimensional in nature, affecting us on many levels. And while we are ultimately responsible for our own experience and progress, the source of our information and inspiration is very important. This is particularly true in the beginning of one’s study.

In my next few posts, I’ll explore some ideas on how to make wise choices when considering your teachers. We’ll also look at some “unconventional teachers” that can open up worlds of understanding and progress for you like none other…

Feel free to post your comments also. I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue.

choosing our teachers… (part 2)

So what exactly is the phenomena we call a “teacher”?

At the most basic level, a teacher is simply someone who offers us instruction in a particular subject. At a more complex level, however, a teacher is a guide, a mentor, and one who inspires us to be our best. This, of course, assumes that both student and teacher have good chemistry and approach the relationship with respect and clear intentions.

With this as our starting point, let’s consider four specific categories of “teacher” including the more traditional type. I believe each of these is indispensable if we wish to make the greatest progress along our path of self cultivation.

First and foremost, we have to acknowledge that we are a teacher to ourselves. I see this as the most important level as there can be no learning or progress at all unless we receive what we are offered by others, take the time to process it, and then have the tenacity and fortitude to apply it through practice.

This, of course, is being a good student, but it also involves actually teaching and re-teaching ourselves the material over and over again until it becomes a part of us. Further, we will find that the subtleties of any discipline will only occur to us after we put in our own time, effort, contemplation, and sincere dedication. It is then that the inner teacher emerges to further add clarity, nuance, and depth according to the maturity of our focus.

It is easy at times to give overmuch authority, power, or influence to others to the point where we actually lose some of our own personal sovereignty. I’ve seen this happen in various instances, but especially in martial and “spiritual” disciplines.

It’s a tricky balance, but I believe we must first acknowledge that the magic happens, and can only happen, when we “own” and take responsibility for our own learning and progress. We can then truly appreciate, from a healthy and strong place, the wonderful teachers that come into our lives.

This leads me to the second category of teacher: an actual physical individual. Ideally, this is one who is an expert in the subject we are pursuing and possesses the ability to inspire our hearts and minds.

I have been extremely fortunate to have had many such men and women in my life. (See About for a partial list). A good and dedicated teacher can shave years off the time it would otherwise take us to learn something. They can add dimension and clarity, even profundity to the material they offer us.

How can we find such individuals? Its important that we first strive to be such people ourselves. Even if we are not formally teachers, we still influence each other constantly and have the capacity to encourage, inspire, and inform. In so doing we will then more easily attract similar people to us when they are needed. In part three of this series, I’ll discuss other ways to evaluate schools and teachers as you look to further your chosen art(s).

The third category of teacher is our peers and training partners. In the martial arts, there is simply no substitute for good training partners. We need to have the physical energy, the outside insights, and the good will of our friends in the art to progress. Touching in with another person studying the same kind of principles and practices is always illuminating. It is enjoyable (most of the time) and it allows us to develop our skill, our chi, and our awareness. Cherish your training partners and strive to help your friends in this art as well and we will all be the better for it.

Finally, the fourth category of teacher is a special one: Nature itself. I include the natural world among my favorite inspirations as it expands the dimension and application of study greatly.

If we listen, nature provides us with endless opportunities for growth and understanding of our art. My most recent experience with this involved a hike on a very steep mountain trail. As I headed up the sharp incline, I thought back to my Taiji principles of rooting through the legs, lengthening through the top of the head, and relaxing through out. It turned out to be some of the very best training I’ve had on structural alignment and coordination and by the end of the hike, I had moved quickly, comfortably, and enjoyably through some challenging terrain.

I’ve had many other such experiences, with some being quite profound and surprising. If you think of nature as your teacher and remain open to the subtle influences, even suggestions you might receive, you will find yourself richly rewarded in the process.

All in all, we are always surrounded by an abundance of learning opportunities in our pursuit of self cultivation. No matter our circumstances, there is always a “next best thing” before us that will take us forward. Through honoring our selves, our friends, and our teachers, we are consistently well positioned for greater progress and fulfillment.

Tune to the Possible…

Our minds are much like radio receivers… we have the choice to focus on (listen to) whatever we wish. 

I have long been an advocate of alternate media as most main stream sources are quite obviously limited in their perspectives. That said, I realized the other day that I had been reading a lot of alternative material lately which, while more factually accurate, was still pretty negative.

There’s a place for news that is disturbing and challenging just as its important to know if you’re walking into a busy intersection and in danger of being hit. But once we have that knowledge its more important to stay focused on solutions, possibilities, and actions that inspire. 

This can be a challenging focus to maintain these days, but we enter this life-affirming state every time we practice our qigong or Taiji or sit down to meditate. I believe it is our opportunity, and perhaps responsibility as practitioners of these arts to extend this affirmative state of mind into more and more moments of our daily lives. 

In doing so, it becomes easier to recognize and work with opportunities for positive change when they arise and, as the saying goes, “We are ever surrounded by insurmountable opportunities.”

A few suggestions for enhancing your possibility thinking on a daily basis: 

1. Turn off the news and get more in touch with the still, peaceful content of your own mind.
2. Discipline yourself to exercise and meditate daily. It builds mental, emotional, and physical strength and momentum for greater progress.
3. Keep a daily journal in which you record at least 10 things for which you are grateful or in which you have been successful. This is an awesome tool and produces very positive, though initially subtle, changes in our thought patterns over time. I’ll write more on this in a future post.
4. Take time out from your busy day to simply stand and smile – both to yourself and to your world. Ahhh… that’s nice, isn’t it?

Wishing you a brilliant day!

Art BanerComment