Taiji Quan, or Tai Chi Chuan, has fascinated me for some time.
Whenever I saw people practicing in the park, I'd stop to watch. I admired the slow, graceful movements and wondered if I'd be able to find a good si fu (pronounced 'see-foo'), or master, to train me.
One fine late-April afternoon, I was exercising in Victoria Park when I spotted a Caucasian man practicing Tai Chi. I paused to watch as he completed his set, and then approached to ask where he'd learned. The man was Massimo, an Italian expatriate who was the master chef at the Hong Kong Regal Hotel. He said if I returned to the park on Saturday afternoon he'd introduce me to his si fu.
That was how I met Au Yeung Si Fu, who began instructing me in the art of Yang-Style Tai Chi.
Au Yeung Si Fu is 66 years old, but has the look and muscle structure of a much younger man. He'd trained in Tai Chi for the past 20 years. His skill level was apparent; I admired his balance, coordination, flexibility and the condition of his body; all gained from Tai Chi.
He was a good teacher and was passionate about Tai Chi. He cared enough to ensure his students learned the correct methods, but within their abilities. Other students I met were protective of him, which indicated he was a man of some substance. I learned that in the past, some expatriates had begun learning from him, promising that they'd be his best students, yet they lasted a few weeks. His students wanted to be certain I wasn't going to do the same thing. I assured them mine was more than a passing interest. Were I were to get involved, I'd be in for the long haul.
That Saturday, April 27, was my first lesson in Tai Chi. I learned the beginning movements in the form and some basic exercises. I also learned how out of shape I was. By the end of the lesson, my legs felt like a pair of sweat pants stuffed with nothing more substantial than marshmallows. On the way home, I found climbing the stairs of the elevated pedway was an arduous task. Raising my knee to bring my foot to the next riser was a struggle.
Drenched in sweat, I returned to the flat. My t-shirt and sweat pants were soaked from what appeared to be a gentle, relaxing form of exercise. Even when I'd been running the Steps of Pain, I didn't perspire as much I had now.
I was bagged, but I loved it. All of it. I was hooked. Tai Chi suited my temperament more than a forceful martial art. I knew it would be beneficial to my health and posture, which is important as sitting in front of a computer tends to make me hunch, and I didn't want to end up stooped as many tall men do when they grow old.
Over the past three months I've progressed to the point where I've learned most of the form. Si Fu has made certain that I learned each step before proceeding to the next. He's been patient and has corrected my mistakes by showing me how to improve the finer details of each move. I told him from the outset I didn't want to learn bad habits, thus I paid close attention regarding the fundamentals. I ignored what other students did, even if their movements looked proper. I knew that as with the game of golf, were I to pick up bad habits, they'd be difficult to correct.
Traditional Yang-style long form has 103 moves. Translated from the Chinese names, I've learned such colourful names as Grasp the Peacock's Tail, Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain, and Needle at Sea Bottom. I learned that what appeared to be a simple move could be difficult to perform until I learned to harness the energy within.
I'm learning the reasons behind the movements. They may be slow in execution, but when done at speed they're an effective form of self-defense. I'm not learning Tai Chi to fight; that was never my intention. I have no interest in sparring. Many people study martial arts for the sole purpose of inflicting harm on others, but that runs counter to everything I understand of the proper mindset.
I understand that I may know the basics of the complete form, yet I'll never perfect it. The study of Tai Chi should be a lifetime endeavour. Some of the other students poke fun at me, saying I'll soon become a Si Fu. I laugh and tell them that won't happen for a long time. I have much to learn. At the moment I'm learning the external portion of the art. From there I'll make the progression toward the internal: the flow of the body's energy, or Chi.
With Tai Chi, everything is rooted in the feet, radiates from the waist and is expressed in the fingers. I need to learn to become aware of that connection and feel it.
One of the first things Si Fu had me do was stand in a specific posture and face a grove of trees for 10 minutes. He instructed me to focus on the trees, clear my mind of distracting thoughts and concentrate on my feet. I didn't have to concentrate long. After a few minutes my feet felt like they were on fire. Over the next few lessons he made me stand for longer periods of time. It was a fundamental step to attaining balance. If I practice Tai Chi without doing this first, I find my form isn't as good.
There is a connection between the mind and the body; one must learn the difference between using external strength versus letting internal energy guide the body. When done correctly, Tai Chi is a relaxed, flowing series of movements.
I go to the park to train four to five times per week. On Saturday and Sunday I train with Si Fu and the other students for about three hours each day. During the weekdays I train on my own for one or two hours. Each weekend I review the moves I learned the previous weekend and Si Fu corrects the flaws in my form. I'd like to train every day, but at the moment I require rest to rebuild my strength between sessions.
I've increased my endurance and body strength and am now able to perform moves that were difficult. My balance has improved and I feel an overall improvement in my well-being. I enjoy performing the movements and I like the calmness of mind and spirit that settles on me as I go through the form. Martial arts attracted me because of the control over the body a person develops, along with the fluidity, grace and beauty of the movements. I liked the confidence, peace and humility true masters exude.
The study of Tai Chi is the best way to bring balance to my mind, body and spirit.
The word that encapsulates this feeling is harmony.
August 4, 2002
Next Tale: Mister, Can You Spare A Pint?