Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Carry Tiger to Mountain

Over the weekend, I had the chance to participate in something extraordinary – a two and a half day tai chi seminar with Master Yang Jun, who happens to be the sixth generation descendant of the creator of the Yang style. To say I was excited would be an understatement. To say I was nervous would also be an understatement. After all, he holds the title of “Shanxi Province Famous WuShu Master” by the Chinese WuShu Academy.

I knew it was going to be an intense weekend (three hours on Friday night, five hours on Saturday, and five hours on Sunday), but not until I went through it did I realize how intense. Master Yang Jun not only covered the proper way to execute each posture of the form, but also described the energy flow (sending and stopping) and demonstrated how some of the postures worked in relation to martial arts.

Having started his training at the age of five, he was clearly totally connected with this martial art form. His combination of strength and softness was amazing to watch. Each nuance of every movement had meaning. There wasn’t anything that was done without purpose.

As a teacher, he was patient, kind, and relentless. He made us use parts of our bodies that we hadn’t used before; pay attention to parts of our bodies that we ignored before. I don’t think I’ll ever look at pushing open a door the same way again. He would have us start to execute a posture but then stop us in the middle. And then, as we all stood frozen like statues, he would ask us to check if our heads were facing forward, shoulders relaxed, backs rounded, arms bent, and so on. This checkpoint was fabulous for taking a quick inventory before moving on, but holding some positions were really rough, especially if we were standing on one leg at the time. He would also walk around and make adjustments to our still life poses. And then we would do the posture again. And then several more times before moving on to the next one.

When discussing the postures, Master Yang Jun would call them by their English names, such as Single Whip, Grasp Bird’s Tail, Diagonal Fly, and Carry Tiger to Mountain. But when we ran through portions of the form, Master Yang Jun would call out the postures in Mandarin. I began to imagine all of us being in a public square somewhere in Shanxi, doing our daily morning practice before heading off to work.

The respect we had for him and the humility we felt in his presence, I believe, were truly genuine for us all. It was not just because we were asked to begin and end each day’s session with a traditional martial arts greeting – “Yang lao shi, hao!” (general translation: “Hello, Teacher Yang!”) and “Yang lao shi, zai jian!” (“Goodbye, Teacher Yang!”) – accompanied with the right fist to left open palm. And in return, he was gracious and compassionate.

By Sunday afternoon, I wasn’t sure how much longer I could physically and mentally hold out. Already, several people were sitting on the side resting, and some people had administered massages during the breaks. Yet, when it was all over, and we all received our certificates for completing the 103 Hand Form, I was filled with sadness and emptiness and didn’t want to leave. But the good thing is that I can take what I learned with me, and the essence of the class will be there, a part of me each time I practice the form.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tai Chi and Baseball, Together at Last

A couple weeks ago, our tai chi group was invited to participate in the Year of the Tiger Celebration for the Detroit Tigers’ opening weekend at Comerica Park. Our teacher was excited about the prospect of our participating in such an event, and asked the class for volunteers. A few of the veteran students volunteered right away, but the majority of us took two steps back. I took a step behind the person in front of me so that my teacher couldn’t see me while I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. After all, I’d only been her student a couple years, and I still didn’t know the Yang 103 form very well.

The event sounded like it would be fun. It sounded scary. It didn’t help when our teacher said that we would be performing before thousands of baseball fans.

Although my teacher said that it was purely voluntary, I think she might have been disappointed with the lack of enthusiasm, and she started putting the pressure on. She began picking on a few people to solicit more takers. She leaned over until she saw me, and asked if I would go.

“No,” I said.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know,” I answered in a small voice. What I should have done is told her the truth: Because I’m scared! The other students probably would have laughed.

But my teacher is very artfully persuasive, and one by one, a few of us agreed to participate, including me. And then, we found out we would be performing the 49 demonstration form, which is a condensed version of the 103 form. Some of us had never learned this form before. We knew all the postures, but they were all condensed and rearranged in this shortened form. We had three rehearsals before the event to get up to speed. Thank goodness there was a YouTube video that I could watch and review. Over and over and over again.

I went to the first rehearsal, and when I saw that the majority of the people there were the more experienced students from our class and other classes, I wanted to get back in my car and drive home. I didn’t belong in this group. And I didn’t want them to think that I thought I belonged in this group. But I stayed and rehearsed with everyone, partly remembering what I had seen on the video, and partly following when I had a lapse of memory. Each rehearsal got better, until it was the day of the performance, which was last Saturday.

We walked in the parade with hundreds of other people from various Chinese associations, schools, and dance troupes. We stopped and gave a quick tai chi demonstration before heading into the stadium. I was nervous, but not as nervous as I thought I would be. Either I was getting more confident, or I was delusional about my abilities.

Finally, it was time, and we stepped out onto the field with the other ribbon dance, tai chi, and lion dance performers. I felt at ease. We got into formation, and waited for our cue to begin.

When the music started, we all began to go through our respective routines, but I was only aware of what our group was doing, keeping a watchful eye on the corner people to make sure I wasn’t moving too slowly or too quickly, and doing the right moves. Although I was very aware of the scrutiny of the baseball fans in the stands, I remained miraculously calm. Maybe it was the fact that I was part of a large group, or maybe it was the calmness of the chi moving through us. But I felt like we were one unit, flowing forward and backward and around, expanding and contracting as one. I felt the peaceful energy emanating around us and floating out across the field. Did it reach the fans in the audience? Or were they distracted by the beating drums, dancing lions, and bright-colored midriff-baring ribbon dancers?

We timed our form perfectly, and finished right when the music stopped. We had made it through, and everyone had done reasonably well. I was so happy that I had been a part of this celebration. Sometimes we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zone to find out what we are capable of.