Looking Through The Telescope

      A respected colleague recently suggested that I write an article on T'ai Chi Gung. While I was pleased that anyone with their background felt I had something valuable to share on the subject, I did not at first take the idea very seriously—because what I thought I knew about it might not be enough to fill a page. Then I considered how much I had actually learned... and I said okay.

      I had started teaching a class in Manchester, NH and discovered that, as part of the class, I had to teach them T’ai Chi Gung. So, like a teacher managing to stay just a chapter ahead in the textbook to teach a class, I started learning the form. I had always thought of it as boring compared to getting lost in the form of Slow Set, but the truth was that I hadn't yet learned it well enough to make it interesting.

      To begin with I had to learn the sequence of moves better, both forwards and backwards. Then there are the transitions (and those are a little different depending on whether your sequence is forwards or backwards). After tackling a few details like the extra Cloud Hand to step out into Deep Horse, and how the last Cloud Hand makes Cross Hands to get out of horse stance—and I had the form down. But then there are the moves. Sometimes when practicing the whole thing just seemed too daunting, I could still get myself to practice a single move for an hour at a time. This turned out to not be boring at all and to offer unexpected benefits—I actually discovered my waist. The feeling of being seated and having the upper half of my body rotating magically around the waist, without my knees swimming back and forth, was completely novel. Now I look for it everywhere. By taking the legs out of the equation, it is much easier to find the waist and not be fooled by the legs!

      Some other things I discovered were the vertical and the horizontal axes of the body. There are probably special names for the following motions—and if I had been reading from my colleague’s library, I bet I would know them! Nevertheless, here's my take... There is an opening of the chest up to down (along the vertical axis) that allows bending over and standing up straight, bowing and un-bowing the spine. There is a different opening of the chest side to side (horizontal axis) that allows the arms to move close together or far apart as in Hiding Tiger, without the motion coming from the arm. I can feel a corresponding opening and closing of the scapula or shoulder blades when I do this. I didn't know that after circling the high hand down you're supposed to leave the hand behind, and with an opening of the chest, bring the moving hand all the way over to the other side the body for the "riding on a chopper" position. I also thought there was a waist motion to bring the high hand to the side in White Crane; I would turn to the left and to the right as if I were doing Horse's Mane. Apparently as you finish the move the opening of the chest brings the high hand over by itself. This move is a combination of the two types of chest opening. As the hands are passing each other there is that bowing and un-bowing of the spine as well as the accordion-ing of the chest—and as you finish the move there's that opening across the chest that moves the arms apart. Very exhilarating.

      In Cloud Hands, Hiding Tiger and Fair Lady I can especially feel the waist motion. In Push, White Crane and Cross Hands I sense that bowing and un-bowing action and in Double Winds, Brush Knee and Horse's Mane I discovered how the arms themselves pivot, sometimes from the shoulder like pushing hand in Brush Knee, other times from the elbow like the top beach ball hand in Horse's Mane. Of course each move is a combination of many different motions of opening, closing and pivoting. With as much depth as these moves have in Tai Chi Gung, it is astonishing that they should also be this way in Slow Set. So it's a wonderful way to "see" inside the moves. (You couldn't be an astronomer without looking through the telescope, right? And while we're on that subject, in Zhan Zhuang there's grounding the feet, bending the knees, dropping the tailbone, dropping the breath and the Chi, bringing in the chin, and opening the crown—that's the magnified version of what is supposed to happen in those few seconds before preparatory move.)

      Looking through that telescope is endlessly fascinating... Perhaps there should be a few more sets of Tai Chi Gung to make a standing version for each move. For now, with so much to learn in those nine little moves, there's more than enough to keep us busy.