Tui Shou Test: A New Beginning

tuishou with Matt

This was my first tui shou (pushing hands) match (more like a test) in over 15 years. It was an non-compliant, yet friendly, freestyle match. Striking was not allowed. The gentleman in the video with me is Matt Stampe from Virginia. I met him for the first time just 2 days prior. This match took place on June 1, 2014. I have included video at the end of the article.

I practiced and competed in taiji and pushing hands in the 1990s when I was also an external stylist, but there was nothing internal about what I was doing then. It has only been the past 4 years that I have revisited a previous teacher of mine and started focusing on internal skills.

So, I took a much different approach with this match than I had done in the past. I had no idea what to expect because I know Matt has a lot of experience, both in taiji and in other arts. My main goal going in was not to try to beat Matt, but rather to see if I could adhere to the principles that I teach.

I wanted to remain upright and relaxed, avoid bracing the ground, and keep resistant tension out of my arms. I know I made some errors in those goals, but overall, I felt pretty good considering the circumstances.

Basically, I took almost no initiative with offense. I decided to just see what Matt was going to do and continue to try to neutralize and follow him. Overall, I was happy with how I managed. There were 3 good times when he took me by complete surprise and I could not neutralize. There were other times when I had him neutralized, and it seemed like he was giving up the attack, so I let up, and he would immediately take advantage with a fast push that would semi-get me, as seen with the occasional “heavy” back steps I had to take rather than me just stepping due to following. Lastly, at times I underestimated what Matt was doing, thinking that I could completely neutralize without turning or stepping and I held my ground a little too long at times, again making me take a heavy step back.

From this I learned several things:

  1. I should not let up. I should always stay “on” the opponent, even in a friendly match.
  2. I should pay attention to match the speed of the opponent even when the rest of the match seems to be kind of a steady speed. I was stuck in that slower mode and foolishly did not adjust when he did those faster attacks.
  3. I need to relax even more so that I can operate even more from awareness. Had I been more aware, I would not have overestimated my neutralizing abilities at times. That shows me that I was a little too much in my own head.
  4. I should definitely take initiative with offense at times.

Though the match was over 11 minutes long, my breathing felt good. I was not tired even though I had just previously finished attending a very physical 6 hour workshop. This is quite a contrast to my experiences from the 1990s when my tui shou was still externally based.

I thought that Matt did an excellent job in this match. He kept it friendly, but he was able to maintain an almost continuous offense, making me work at my skills the entire match. He was able to exploit my gaps and weaknesses fairly regularly throughout the match which shows both his experience and how much he was paying attention. Additionally, even though he tried to “get” me almost continuously, he did well at not exposing himself, giving me little to work with in that regard.

I have been avoiding tui shou in general because I am still working on my basic skills and getting my body proper for the internal work that I do. I did not want all of my “bad” external habits creeping in because of a competitive engagement.

However, I felt comfortable with my level of error in this match, and I want to work more on tui shou given what I have learned from my mistakes in strategy.

It is official. I have caught the tui shou bug.

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Upcoming Workshop on Joint Opening and Loosening Exercises, Saturday 6/28/14

For additional information, please visit the event page for this workshop, and indicate your plans for attendance.

Here Are the Basics:

Topic: Joint Opening and Loosening Exercises
Date: Saturday, June 28, 2014
Time: 10:00 am to 1:00 pm
Location: Oriental Medicine and Health Services, 1201 Philadelphia Pike, Suite D, Wilmington, DE 19809
Cost: $65 for the workshop which includes my instructional DVD on the topic (for details on the DVD, click here)
Registration: You must be registered and paid by Thursday, June 19, 2014. Call me at 302-792-2831 or email me at info@omhs.biz for more information. Space is limited, so it is first come first served.

Workshop Content:

You will learning the set of Joint Opening and Loosening Exercises. Below is a video of me doing the set, but trust me, the movements are not as they appear. During the workshop, you will be given very detailed instructions on how to do the movements. You will find yourself learning a very different way of moving than what you are used to. In addition, you will learn how to pressure test the movements so that you can be certain that you are doing them correctly. Remember, you will also be given my instructional DVD on the topic to serve as a reference for your practice at home.

It is Qìgōng (氣功).

The joint opening and loosening exercise set makes for an excellent daily qìgōng routine. It is relatively simple to perform and only takes between 10 to 15 minutes to complete depending on pace. By opening and loosening the joints, you are also helping to open the acupuncture channels in the body, thereby aiding in the circulation of your and blood. There is a saying in China that roughly translates to “a used door hinge never rots.” Regular practice of this set while working on becoming more correct in how you do the set will bring you many worthwhile benefits.

It is also Jīběngōng (基本功).

Jīběngōng translates roughly as basic exercises. This set of joint opening and loosening exercises serves as a set of basic training exercises for developing foundational skills in tàijí. Having open and loose joints is a requirement in tàijí, and in my opinion is an important part of the “sinking” that is also part of tàijí. Doing this set regularly and correctly will help build part of your martial arts foundation.

Additional Benefits

If done conventionally, this set has value in that is keeps you moving and able to maintain range of motion into your old age if practiced carefully and daily. However, I do these movements in a specific manner driven by awareness. Done this way, this set is a vehicle for discovery of what it means for a joint to be open and how to maintain that openness. Having open joints, in my opinion, is not only a basic requirement for internal martial arts and for allowing forces to pass through the body, but it is also an important part of good qìgōng, allowing for better circulation of the and blood. I feel that if physical forces can get stuck in your body at certain points, then the and blood flow can be negatively affected at those points as well. Therefore, not only will regular correct practice of this set help bring about many health benefits including more freedom of movement, but it can also improve your practice of ANY martial art.

A FREE Bonus

Though the workshop ends at 1:00 pm, we will be breaking for lunch and returning at 2:00 pm to watch a kung fu movie. I have not yet decided which movie to show, but as a workshop attendee, you are welcome to watch the movie with me. If you are a kung fu movie fan, then you know it will be fun.

The Flyer

Click on the flyer for a larger, printable version.

JOLE workshop 140621

Click this link for a PDF file of the flyer.

Video of the Set of Joint Opening and Loosening Exercises

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Thanks for taking to the time to look at all of this. I hope to see you there.

Trailer for Joint Opening and Loosening DVD

fb cover photo

Below is the trailer for my DVD on Joint Opening and Loosening Exercises. The release date for the DVD is set for June 1, 2014.

There is also a dedicated Facebook page for the DVD.

Total running time of the DVD is 1 hr 57 min.

The price is $20 plus S&H. It can also be purchased directly at my business location in Delaware.

For ordering information, email me at info@firstchoice-acupuncture.com or call me at 302-792-2831.

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The Hips and Stretching – 4 Weeks Progress

I have started stretching again recently. I am pleased so far with the results, but I will get to that a little later. Be sure to watch the video at the end. In the past, while doing external martial arts, I was very flexible and strong with my own body. After switching my focus to internal martial arts, I realized that my flexibility and strength were no match for the type of relaxed looseness that my teacher had. During that time period, I never did catch on to how my teacher was able to do those stretches the way that he did, and it took all I had just to try to keep up with him, a pale external imitation. In 2000, going back to school had me change priorities, and stretching took a back seat.

Though I continued to practice t’ai chi and qigong since then and did joint opening and loosening exercises the whole time, because I was not actually stretching, I lost quite a bit of range, especially in stretches that involved my hamstrings. I could no longer do the splits or bend straight down with my body flat to my legs, just to name a few.

About three years ago, I decided to start stretching again. I used the exercises / stretches that I learned from my teacher. I also added a few that I used to do back in my external martial arts days. It was rough going. I was worse off than I thought. I did try a different approach, though, based on my new understandings.

I knew I had to loosen and relax rather than to stabilize and stretch. Stabilizing part of the body and literally stretching another part of the body away from that was how I had always stretched. It seemed to fit in well with my former external martial arts paradigm. However, that method was no longer appropriate for my body, and I needed to find another way.

I had done a lot of work on loosening, relaxing, and extending my spine in my t’ai chi and qigong practice, so I made sure I was doing that while doing the stretch routine. That did help some, and I was able to increase my range, but I was still nowhere close to my former flexibility. Furthermore, my hamstrings never, ever stopped feeling tight. On top of that, the stretching left my hamstrings painful, and I mean painful every day. I was stretching every day for the first few months, then I switched it to every other day. After a while, I tried two times a week. Still, my hamstrings were not recovering between workouts. I finally gave up.

It had been over two years since then with no stretching and losing flexibility and range. For some reason, I decided to undergo the process once again, hoping for better results this time, and better results I got.

About four weeks ago, I decided to start stretching again. I basically went into it with the same mindset of needing to loosen and relax rather than stabilize and stretch. I also decided to do this two to three times maximum per week. The first week was horrible. It was just like my attempts a few years ago, except I had even less range, and my hamstrings hurt even more.

I was discouraged, but I did not give up. On week two, I decided to really slow down the process and listen to my body. I needed to figure out what was going on that was keeping me from getting into these stretches.

I realized that my hips were playing a huge role in my lack of progress. Because I felt relaxed, I assumed that my hips were relaxed when I was trying to bend at the hips. On the contrary, there was a bit of stabilizing going on in my hips that I did not notice until I really paid attention. This kind of stabilizing caused me to fight against myself which amplified the hamstring issue. My remedy was to specifically release the hips while loosening and relaxing into the stretches. This made a notable difference. I instantly gained more range with much, much less hamstring discomfort during the stretches, and I had very little to no lingering hamstring pain between stretch workouts.

I do have to be mindful that releasing the hips once is not going to do it. I have to keep releasing the entire time during a stretch. I have also noticed that even while releasing the hips, my hamstrings can still be problematic at times. When they tighten up and inhibit my movement like that, it means I am fighting myself somehow, and because I am already releasing my hips, it must be somewhere else. What I discovered is that if I place my attention on the front of my thighs while releasing the hips, I can get into the difficult stretches more easily. Very simply put, the muscles on the front of the thighs oppose the muscles on the back of the thighs. So, while releasing the hips, if I also release the front of the thighs, my tight hamstrings behave better.

This is week four now, and I can fairly comfortably get into the splits which I have not been able to do in well over ten years. I filmed myself last night and have included the video below. In watching the video, I can see that I need to do more work on loosening and releasing the low back, but at least now I look forward to stretching, and I am not in constant pain because of the stretching. In just four weeks, I have made a lot of progress stretching only two to three times per week for about 15 minutes per session. I think I am finally on the right path with this.

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My Recent Radio Interview

WDDE me needlingI was recently interviewed by WDDE 91.1 FM, Delaware’s Source for NPR news. The story, which I have as an mp3 file, appeared on air on April 18, 2014 . The article which I have as a PDF file, appeared on the website. Yes, those are my hands in the photo. All three can be accessed below.

Overall, I think it was a positive treatment. I was asked far more than what ended up in the pieces. I understand that the depth that I provided may not have been appropriate for that venue. I am fine with that. However, I do have one complaint. The article attributes the word “energy” to me. I do not use the word “energy” as a substitute for the word qi, and I did not state that “it is more about energy than it is about physicality.”

It has been a few weeks since the broadcast, and so far no one has contacted me as a result of the radio broadcast or website article. Luckily, I had no expectations. I think it is good, however, that these kinds of broadcasts and articles are becoming more frequent and more popular. It does good for the profession as a whole. We need that kind of general marketing.

Click the link to read the Published Article. The article’s links to the audio and video segments no longer work, but I have them both below.

Here is a recording of the Radio Broadcast.  Click the play button to start.

Here is a copy of the video.  Click the play button to start.

My T’ai Chi Lesson on March 30, 2014

rootengineballoon

I had a lesson with my T’ai Chi teacher on Sunday, March 30, 2014. It was raining and my training partner was the one driving. He made a wrong turn, and we ended up being 30 minutes late. Chung-jen was kind enough not to count that against us, so we still had a full two hours for our lesson.

For about the first 40 minutes of the lesson, we did jibengong (basic exercises). In the past six months, I have been working more on specific skills and less on my physical conditioning. As a result, my legs gave out from exhaustion several times. This has only happened to me a few times before. I usually get to the brink of that each time, but I manage to hang on. This time, I could not. Though these are called basic exercises, they are grueling. Always, within about 10 minutes, I break out in a light, full body sweat, and I do not sweat easily. This time, Chung-jen added something new, something to help loosen the shins and ankles. It is a great exercise, but is extremely difficult for me. I will only be able to practice that with the help of someone else, though Chung-jen does it fine by himself. I also sought clarity on one of the exercises, and Chung-jen offered corrections on a few others. When we were done with the jibengong, my heart was pounding, my breathing was noticeable, my body was sweaty, my thighs felt thick and heavy, but I was ready for the rest of the lesson.

In general, there are 3 main things regarding trying to improve skill that are at the heart of every lesson I have with Chung-jen: 1) more emptiness; 2) better structure; and 3) less doing. Each of those topics are rather deep and are outside the scope of this article, so I will not be touching on those here. I only mention the list because this lesson was no different in that regard. However, the context in which those ideas are presented have varied among the lessons.

I mentioned in a recent article that I both wanted to and needed to get back to basics and work on my foundation. After all, the better one’s foundation, the easier it is to do things that depend on that foundation. One can know how to do high level things, but without an equally high level of foundation, the success rate of one’s techniques will be less than desired, particularly when one has an opponent or training partner that is not being direct with his power or purposely feeding his center.

The first thing I requested that we work on was root. I am still a bit baffled by Chung-jen’s root. I understand, at least on some level, how to root, and in training situations and with people of lesser skill, I appear to have root. However, when Chung-jen softly pushes on me, my root is not there, and my body cannot help but to resist. My mind does not appear to be pushing back, and I know that I neither want to nor intend to be pushing back, but I can clearly feel my legs and / or other parts of my body engaged in resistance, pushing back into him. He tells me that I am pushing back. I almost laughingly say that it is not me pushing back, it is my body doing it; I do not want to do it, but it is doing it anyway.

When I asked about root, he said, “Oh, that’s easy. Just drop off.” The “drop off” is an exercise that he gave us to do several years ago. Practicing that and getting some skill with that is responsible for quite a bit of the T’ai Chi martial application skill that I have. However, over time, because of using it in application, I got away from the original intent of the exercise and came to depend on at least a small amount of movement in order to start the process of the application. It is that small amount of movement that has been causing a reaction in my training partner or practice opponents, which I was then able to borrow and use to complete the application. It is that small amount of movement that someone song (relaxed) such as my teacher interprets as me pushing or moving. I now have a better sense of just how still I must be in order to actually be still. No external or visible movements means just that, not a tiny movement that people miss because of the larger movement that follows. So, I was using the drop off to move people instead of using the drop off to increase my root and level of song (relaxation). In those cases, my drop off, and therefore my root, only had to be good enough to be better than my opponent’s errors when engaged in a drill. Through my seeking clarity, Chung-jen mentioned that dropping off is the same as releasing or song(ing), and that it should be happening during both the “roll up” and the release. “Roll up” is what we call it when the intention of tailbone is causing the lower abdomen to sort of roll up on the inside. Release is when we let that go. However, in letting that go, things should still remain “rolled up.” All the while, dropping off is happening. It is a very subtle process and if one involves one’s conscious mind to keep track and check up on any one aspect, the whole thing gets messed up. As usual, Chung-jen said that to work on this skill, just practice the sequence; it is all in the sequence. Yes, it is all in the sequence if I do it the way he taught me. So, I must not forget that dropping off is root. When he demonstrated on me, Chung-jen was perfectly still, touching me, but not pushing into me at all, and off I went, simply from him dropping off. I have been aware of this phenomenon for some time, but in my haste, I started to jump ahead before fully developing it, depending upon other skills to make up for my lack of root.

Because the topic came up, I also wanted more clarity on this dropping off / releasing. I asked if dropping off / releasing was always done the same, regardless of where I was being touched or what I was trying to do, or if I change it based on those parameters. Chung-jen stated that I should always do it the same way. I had suspected that, based on my previous experience, but I just wanted to make sure. I started to get a sense for it again, and Chung-jen warned that I not wait too long before returning for another lesson, or I would lose the sense again and go off in another direction again: off by an inch, miss by a mile. I will state at this point that the roll up and release while dropping off is the specific “internal engine” used in the type of T’ai Chi on which I am working. There are other internal engines out there, and jin manipulations can be done without a specific type of engine; one need only have open and loose joints and a certain degree of song.

The rooting topic led nicely into and was intertwined with the roll up and release topic, two of the three topics I wanted to cover. I then brought up the third topic, how to move my arms around. He laughed and said that I have been all along, but that I just needed to get better at it. I told him that I did not want to keep practicing incorrectly, so he got serious again and went on to explain. Up until this point, I have been moving my arms in a way that allowed freedom of movement and conduction of forces. Basically, I have been keeping my joints open and loose and releasing tensions in my torso that would otherwise form due to changes in limb positions. It feels like they float around where I want them to be based on what I think in regards to where they should be. You could say that I was hua (neutralizing) my own limbs and their movements. If someone put hard force on one of my limbs, I just did the same thing. It was no different than if my limb weighed more; I treated it the same. The connections from the limbs to the rest of body were from the sinking and hua. From an application point of view, this method seems to work well until I practice with someone who has better internal skill. Then, they perceive it as me using force, the wrong kind of force. My teacher uses the word fake: “Your movement is fake;” or “Your touch is fake.” Basically, I was not completely whole, somewhat disconnected.

So, how I am supposed to be moving my limbs? Well, it is tied directly into the internal engine that I mentioned above. Chung-jen used the word balloon quite a bit during the explaining. He has mentioned to me before about the head being like a balloon, but this was more inclusive. Although I am not sure they are the same thing, it brought to mind something that I have read on various internal arts forums that Mike Sigman writes about: the balloon man. Admittedly, I have not read his more in-depth expositions on the balloon man found in his blog. I will, however, be reading that soon. Although the internal engine behind his balloon man is a little different than the internal engine that I am working on, I think the balloon man aspect is probably very similar to the balloon that Chung-jen mentioned. Mike provides solid information in a very readable way, so I look forward to it, and I recommend his blog to you as well.

Let me get back to my lesson with Chung-jen now. He stated that the roll up from the tailbone, which connects huiyin (Ren-1 acupuncture point at the perineum) to baihui (Du-20 acupuncture point at the crown of the head), starts the “inflation” process of the balloon. At this point let me say that I have no doubt about this connection from huiyin to baihui. When I roll up, especially with an inhale, I can feel a sensation at huiyin that almost simultaneously “hits” the top of my head. Chung-jen instructed that as the balloon inflates, my yi (mind intent) should connect that to my fingertips (in the case of moving my arms). This will raise them and my arms to where I intend. During the lesson, I was able to do this, and I must say, it felt very different than what I was used to doing. It felt even more like I was doing less. I was psyched from that new experience. I was even able to do it against his pressure on my arms. This got me thinking.

I know in T’ai Chi, we are supposed to hua (neutralize) our opponents. Because they are alive and have nervous systems, they can be manipulated in ways that inanimate objects (such as a heavy box) cannot. Would the balloon hold up against inanimate objects? I asked if the balloon could be trained to become a very strong balloon so that you could lift or move objects with it, and he said yes. I also asked if that strong balloon could then be used to move a person as if they were an inanimate object, just moving their mass away from you with raw balloon power, and he said yes. Of course, that is not how he approaches things, and that is not how he teaches me. Remember those 3 things I mentioned above: 1) more emptiness; 2) better structure; and 3) less doing. Emptiness and hua should be the focus.

Still, I am going to isolate this balloon thing so I can get used to moving my limbs that way. After I get comfortable with that, I will add inanimate resistance to the training in order to develop a stronger balloon. I will still be working on emptiness and hua, trying to be as soft and subtle as possible, but it is good to have a backup plan.

I did ask another question about the balloon feeling just for clarification, and I think it is important to mention here. I told him that when I am practicing and I inhale, I can feel a sensation in my limbs as if they are being filled, and that when I exhale, that sensation dissipates. I asked if this was related to the balloon thing. He said, “No. That is just your feeling of things.” I knew just what he had meant by that because he had told me that before in other situations. He was letting me know that what I was feeling was just my mind’s interpretation of the qi sensation in my body that I have linked with my breathing. Qi in this sense has to do with the kind of qi used in healing or the channel qi in acupuncture. That is different than the martial qi talked about in T’ai Chi.

Time was up for the 2 hour lesson. I wish we would have done more. As is usual for us, we three continued with discussion over lunch at a Chinese buffet. I overate, partially because I like the food so much, and it is “all you can eat,” and partially because Chung-jen is able to eat so much and he jokingly remarks, wondering why we cannot eat that much. After lunch, we hugged and said our goodbyes. Chung-jen told us to not wait too long for our next lesson because he did not want us to lose the sense of correctness that we obtained during that lesson. I understand and agree. I would see him weekly if I could. I think I will try to see him again in the first week of May.

Overall, I am pleased with the lesson I had. As usual, I left there feeling like a dummy, knowing how little I knew (in my body) and how much I needed to work. I do remind myself, though, that it is relative. I am certainly not a beginner, but I am far from Chung-jen’s level. I gained some good clarification on rooting and the internal engine that we use. I will work a lot on this, however, I know I will encounter problems. When I isolate an internal mechanism like that, I tend to lose sight of all of the other things that my body is supposed to be doing correctly in order for the engine to be able to be expressed. If the engine is working but there are tensions in the body and forces are not conducting well, then the effects of the engine do not come through. Likewise, if I am just open and loose like I used to be, conducting forces, but with no real engine, I will be lacking and not doing what I am supposed to be doing. I have to combine those, and it is going to take some time. Those things are not new to me, but my understanding is a little different. Each lesson, things make just a little bit more sense to me. I also must work on awareness of the balloon phenomenon in regards to moving my limbs, and I must work that and the engine into the T’ai Chi form sequence so that I have a vehicle for regular solo practice. As usual, I will continue with my training partner so that we may test one another and provide increasingly difficult challenges.

My T’ai Chi Journey and How I Met My Teacher, Chung-jen Chang

bca and cjc

Before telling the part of the tale involving my teacher, I have to start a little further back to put it all into context. It was 1990. I saw a flyer for a local kung fu school, and one of the styles that it offered was T’ai Chi. I already had previous martial arts experience, but I had always wanted to learn kung fu, and I was previously not aware of any local kung fu schools. This was great, I thought, and the fact that T’ai Chi was being offered made it even better.

About 2 years prior, I was at a friend’s house watching a martial arts documentary, The Warrior Within. Masters from various martial arts were showcased including a few from various styles of kung fu. Of particular interest to me was the demonstration by Eagle Claw Master Leung Shum. Rather than demonstrating Eagle Claw, however, he performed Wu Style T’ai Chi. I had not seen anything like that before, and that combined with the hypnotic 1970’s styled deep-voiced commentary had me hooked. I needed to study T’ai Chi.

Back to the flyer: there it was, T’ai Chi at a local kung fu school. I enthusiastically signed up and studied everything they offered including various external styles of kung fu, many traditional kung fu weapons, and, of course, T’ai Chi. The T’ai Chi classes had much less attendance than the external style classes. It was not everyone’s cup of tea. As time passed, I became an instructor at the school, teaching both the external style classes, including weapons, and the T’ai Chi classes. At first, I assisted in teaching the T’ai Chi classes, and then later, I completely led the classes.

During that time, I competed in various tournaments, competing in external styles, both empty hand and weapons, and in T’ai Chi, both forms divisions and pushing hands divisions. I placed in every tournament I every competed in without exception. I thought that I was good at T’ai Chi and that I knew what I was doing. Hey, I even read the Classics. My T’ai Chi seemed to work well even in sparring against external styles. Even though I was not able to duplicate the feats attributed to masters of the past, I assumed that if I continued to practice what I had been taught, that I would continue getting better at what I had been taught, and that it would all come together. Little did I know that I could not get there from where I was. Unfortunately, that is just how T’ai Chi is: off by an inch, miss by a mile. Without a proper foundation, you will never do more than an external representation of T’ai Chi. No matter how clever and sensitive your moves, no matter how effective your techniques, it will still not be T’ai Chi. I, however, was blissfully ignorant. How could I have known?

It is time to introduce an important character in this story: Bill. Bill had joined the same kung fu school after I had already become an instructor. Initially, he studied both the external styles offered and T’ai Chi, however, in time, he had settled in with just T’ai Chi. He was my most dedicated student and took it all very seriously. He eventually plateaued and made me aware of my own plateau. At this point, I had been with that kung fu school over 5 years. The head teacher of the school did not seem to have anything else to offer in regards to T’ai Chi. Bill asked me if I could recommend another teacher that he could study with. I did not know of anyone in the area, but I gave it some thought. I remembered that one of the friends that I made at the tournaments, Al Jean, was an instructor under Yang Jwing-Ming. Both Bill and I were familiar with Yang Jwing-Ming through some of his books and videos. Though Al Jean did live in Boston, I knew at the time that he had recently moved to the Baltimore, MD area. I knew Al always did well at the tournaments, and I assumed that if he was an instructor under Yang Jwing-Ming, then he must have a decent set of T’ai Chi knowledge and skill. So, I recommended that Bill get in touch with him. I cannot recall if it was I or Bill who had found his contact information, regardless, Bill contacted Al Jean and had a fateful conversation.

Bill explained to Al who he was, how he knew me, and what he was looking to learn. Al decided to steer Bill in another direction. Al was under instructions from his own teacher, Yang Jwing-Ming, to seek out instruction from Chung-jen Chang of Bowie, MD while Al was living in Baltimore. Yang Jwing-Ming would have Chung-jen Chang teach various workshops at his school in Boston and thought highly of him, so he thought his own advanced student / assistant Al would do well to study with Chung-jen while he had the chance. Bill contacted Chung-jen and started studying with him in 1995.

For about a year while he was taking private lessons with Chung-jen, Bill would still work out with me regularly. He would show me what he was learning, which was a lot of basic exercises, no work on the form. Considering the T’ai Chi background that I had, this seemed strange to me, and the basic exercises seemed similar to ones that I had already taught Bill. Of course, my eyes only saw the outer shell of things because I did not know any better. Bill insisted, however, that Chung-jen was very knowledgeable and skilled.

About a year later, June 1996, the kung fu school at which I taught was set to perform during the Masters’ Demonstration at the 3rd World Wushu Games held in Baltimore, MD. Bill informed me that Chung-jen would be there performing as well. I was excited about getting to meet Chung-jen. During the event (when I was not engaged in conversation with Cynthia Rothrock), Bill kindly introduced me to Chung-jen. He seemed friendly enough, but I did not know what to think. I was anxious to see him perform.

Wow! I sure did see him perform. Though I did not really know the depth involved in what I was seeing, I could plainly see that it was qualitatively different than any other T’ai Chi performance that I had ever seen. His movements seemed very precise, very together, and very flowing. His stances were low, but he looked very relaxed. In the Yang style sword form that he performed, the sword was clearly an extension of his body, a part of the whole. The Zhaobao small frame (Hulei Jia) form that he performed, showed me a coordination, flexibility, and type of strength that I had never seen.

I was seriously impressed. About a month later in July 1996, I started studying with Chung-jen. Bill and I were taking private lessons together in Yang style T’ai Chi at the rate of about 1 to 2 lessons per month. After about a year or so later, I started learning Chen style T’ai Chi with Chung-jen on Saturdays in a class setting rather than having private instruction. During that time, I continued the private lessons in Yang style T’ai Chi at the same rate. I did not mind the 2 hour drive each way at all. It was worth it. This went on until November 1999 when I moved to San Diego.

I learned much during that time period, but I was never quite able to pick up what Chung-jen was putting down when it came to internal power. I found a good training partner, Jim Hogg, while I was in San Diego, and we worked out for hours at a time, usually twice a week. I also visited the East coast twice and had more private lessons with Chung-jen. Then, one day, in mid 2001, I got sick.

To say I got sick is an understatement. This would end up being a chronic illness that wasted me away, literally dropping my weight down to 106 lbs at 5’ 5”, an illness that lasted a trying 9 years. I had some type of dysautonomia which was never fully diagnosed let alone adequately treated. I had to stop the workouts. It took all of my strength just to finish Chinese Medical School, which is why I was in San Diego. During 2004, my last year in San Diego, I had just enough strength to start training again, but only for very small periods of time. At first, I would work out literally for just one minute. I was determined.

I moved back to Delaware at the end of December 2004. A few months later, I had regained another small portion of strength, enough to get my Chinese medical practice up and running. I also decided to teach T’ai Chi and Qigong. Honestly, teaching those two classes was the only physical activity I was capable of doing. Somehow, I was able to teach and do those 2 things and mostly feel OK while doing them, but nothing else. Have me walk down the street or up a flight of steps or carry groceries into the house, and I was beat. It did help that my students were mostly there for the health benefits and not for martial arts training.

I knew my skill level was not what it should have been. I was, however, blessed with a good memory, and so I continued practicing all that Chung-jen had taught me and did get better at what I had been doing, but I had truly plateaued once more. I knew I wanted to study with Chung-jen again, but I was embarrassed. I was a weak shell of my former physically fit, strong, flexible self. Then, one day, I got a new training partner. This was in March 2010.

He would work out with me a few times a week. I slowly started to build up stamina and strength from the workouts, and luckily, some of that extended to my activities outside of T’ai Chi and Qigong. I tried to get him to understand the inner workings of what Chung-jen was trying to teach me, but it was futile being that I did not have a good grasp of it myself. We did, however, get very efficient at what we were doing, but in the end it was still mostly external.

A few months later, my training partner declared that he absolutely must start studying with Chung-jen and that I must go, too. Though I was still feeling embarrassed and inadequate, I called Chung-jen and set up a lesson. I had kept in touch with him over the years via Christmas cards and occasional letters, so it was not quite like I was just calling out of the blue. Still, he was glad to hear from me, and we set up a private lesson for July 2010.

We showed Chung-jen what we had been working on, and he seemed interested that we had discovered a few things. That lesson, he taught us some things that made a major difference in my T’ai Chi. The door had opened. Chung-jen stated to me, “You have been in high school long enough. It is time to graduate and go to college.” I was totally psyched.

As we continued with private lessons, I was finally catching on to what Chung-jen had been trying to teach me previously and what I had been working on for so long. There were times when Bill, who introduced me to Chung-jen, would attend the private lessons with us as well. My training partner and I worked out several times a week, a few hours at a time. Also, during this time period, my health situation changed for the better rather quickly, and though I am now still not 100%, and I still must avoid certain activities, I am doing much better. I completely credit the “new” T’ai Chi that I was learning from Chung-jen and practicing regularly with my training partner. We got what we thought was really good, really fast. However, each time we would go for another lesson, Chung-jen effortlessly showed us the great divide between our skill level and his. He did not do this explicitly. It would just become very obvious during the course of the lesson. This went on until September 2013 when it finally sunk in about how to judge myself and what it was I needed to do in order to continue to acquire more and more skill. I felt like a total dummy leaving that lesson, but within a week, I realized that in many ways, it was my best lesson yet.

It is now March 2014, and I have not had a lesson with Chung-jen since that September 2013 lesson. Worse yet, circumstances have changed, and my training partner and I do not have the same access to one another like we used to have. Workouts have been infrequent. During this time period, I have once again started focusing on basics. I have been trying to build a better root and work on being more song (relaxed). This is what Chung-jen kept trying to tell me. The “higher level” stuff, mostly involving yi (mind intend) that I was doing would fall apart against someone with skill because I did not have a good enough physical foundation behind it. I am, however, glad that Chung-jen answered all of my questions, humoring me, showing me how to do higher level skills. This kept me motivated; I felt like I was getting somewhere, having something to show for my efforts. It got me healthy.

Now, though, it is time to really get down to business. I have a lesson this coming Sunday with Chung-jen, a long overdue one. I really just want to work on zhan zhuang (standing), song (relaxing), and how to properly move my arms and legs. I cannot emphasize just how important those things are. The first 30 minutes of the lesson are going to be jibengong (basic exercises) as usual, and it scares me to think about it. Honestly, it is like you have to train to get into shape to just be able to make it through those exercises with him. Then, I am going to feel wasted for the next 30 minutes, as I try to get my body to behave after that initial gauntlet, if you will. It will be worth it though, because the rest of the lesson will be chock full of basics, just like I want, just like I need.

So, that is my T’ai Chi story, up until now. I hope you enjoyed it. I know I have.