In Innocence of Youth and Yang Style

I began classes in T'ai chi five years ago [1976], with only a vague idea that it was what I had glimpsed in my childhood in Burma : figures moving silently in the early morning mist, on my way to school.  As in most countries where there are large groups of overseas Chinese, the local people know little of the activities of the Chinese community, passing them by as strange and foreign.  In 1974, in the strained atmosphere of The Place (London School of Contemporary Dance), amongst dancers either charged with nervous excitement or collapsed from over-exertion, I felt the distinct presence of a woman whom I discovered taught the T'ai chi.  Her calm manner and the directness and immediacy of her eyes and body intrigued me.  It was the need to understand this energy in Gerda Geddes that drew me to a beginners' class in the evenings, at the end of an exhausting week of Graham and ballet.

This was my second year at The Place.  The weekly classes in T'ai chi were breath and space for me.  Learning to copy and memorise the movements came easily, and I thought little of what it was about.  In my third term of T'ai chi, having begun my third year of training at The Place, I talked to Mrs. Geddes for the first time, to tell her that I had decided I could no longer take the Graham training.  My body awareness was so slight that I was surprised to hear her say I was not the only dancer who had come to T'ai chi with bad back trouble.  At that time, and for many months before and after, I had severe pain in the lower back, even in performing daily activities.

Upon leaving the school, I began T'ai chi in earnest, attending all of Mrs. Geddes' classes, slowly helping her by demonstrating in the beginners' groups.  I had feelings of guilt and failure in giving up the dance training : I had been unwilling or too weak to sacrifice my body at the altar of Martha Graham.  Despite advice and warnings from a physiotherapist whom I trusted, I had gone on at The Place, until it became clear that I had to stop.  Also, I was twenty-two, with five years of university study behind me, and it had been difficult to submit myself to a training where the person is primarily reduced to a physical body and that body is abused by yourself and by the teacher.  My bad physical state, therefore, offered me a way out, and a way in to pure movement that is the art of T'ai chi ch'uan.

The words "T'ai chi" are most often translated as "Supreme", "Ultimate", meaning a concept so great that nothing exists outside of it.  "Ch'uan" means "fist", metaphorically action, or action that is in balance : right action, at the right time, in the right way, and to the right point!  One who is master of the ch'uan is master of his or her own energy.  Learning the T'ai chi one undertakes a long journey which literally begins from under one's feet.  After I had "learned" the movements of the whole form (about twenty-five minutes of continuous motion in the Long Form), I began to realise I could hardly move! Or, I could, but only with enormous tension.  During two years of bashing away at contractions and spirals, in the air, on the ground, and for years before that, I had had no real idea of the amount of strain and effort most of us use to walk, breathe, think - to do everything.  The stress the Graham training had put on my body - considered fairly pliable by modern dance standards - had intensified or brought to the surface tensions and imbalances inherent in my system.  The open, still and slow movements of the T'ai chi began to be a mirror for me, where I, if I dared look, could see what was out of true.  For a long time there seemed to be little else apart from knots and cobwebs, wherever I looked!  Then came a long period when the mask which was my face and my body began to crack.  I hated doing the T'ai chi  alone, because then it was as if I was on a battlefield; and in class, the strain between the "beautiful Oriental" doing the movements which "seemed so right" for me and what I now knew to be raging underneath would mount and I would pour with sweat - very embarrassing, when people expect an inscrutable Oriental to be in a state of constant bliss!

It was through teaching the T'ai chi that I really began to learn about people and bodies and how we inevitably carry the enormously heavy load of our past with us day after day, at times almost breaking under the weight yet oddly, hardly aware of the burden!  And many of us, often, like our loads - they are, after all, familiar props around which we build our physical and emotional characters.  So to change, to grasp the situation as it is, and in T'ai chi terms to fist, is a major step.  You seek to eradicate the pattern of physical and emotional behaviour within which you are locked.  This is no different from the aim of many forms of therapy, but the T'ai chi points to a particular way to change : to find what is good at the centre of oneself, to allow oneself to rest at this point of balance, then to grow and work outwards from the stillpoint, with patience.  "Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?", asks the Tao te ching, from the China of 3rd century BC.

The principle of wu wei ("non-action", "actionless activity") embodied in the T'ai chi remains elusive to many of us, as does the mere idea of the Buddhist concept of nirvana.  Especially in the West, we think : if one does not act, one is collapsed in a heap.  Or, nirvana - freedom from the repetition of a determined cycle of birth and rebirth - can only mean annihilation.  Perhaps we can understand better if we begin by thinking that "opposites" such as action/non-action are not necessarily in opposition : it is precisely at the point of balance achieved at the complete and harmonious fusion of the two forces that we have wu wei.  An example : the old masters of T'ai chi likened the quality of T'ai chi movement to the drawing of silk from a cocoon; if you pull too hard, the silk will break; if you don't pull enough, nothing will happen.  Also, what is done and what is left undone must be in awareness of that moment : right action, at the right time.

The form of the T'ai chi ch'uan emerges out of formless stillness, where yin and yang are fused into One.  The individual, the one who 'plays' the T'ai chi, decides at a point in time to begin.  You stand, weighted and rooted through the lower body, the spine light and floating upwards.  You are fully present in the body.  Awareness of the breath brings awareness of the whole body within which ch'i or Universal Breath has begun to circulate, consciously.  The mind or the 'Heavenly Heart' directs the ch'i, and out of stillness, motion emerges and yin and yang draw apart.  All the forms which follow, the lines and shapes the body draws in space, have been conceived in order to maintain perfect equilibrium : the body inspired by the breath moves in harmony within the space where you exist.  "Tranquillity is a kind of vigilant attention" says the I Ching, the ancient Book of Changes : there is awareness all along the journey, in every single part of each movement.

The form of the T'ai chi shows us an ideal state.  When you actually begin learning, you realise that you have to learn to walk, again! Instead of flowing into a step, you bang down into it, or your control of it is only through tension.  The first big step in  learning the T'ai chi is when you realise that you can rest in one leg, and with the inspiration of a gentle yet resilient breath, the other leg lifts, empty, and softly falls forward to meet and merge with the ground.  As the foot slowly begins to loosen and open, a long process of undoing is started throughout the body.  There begin to be spaces and air - light - between the joints and muscles.  There is time for each step and movement to grow into fullness, and to empty.  Not surprisingly, the undoing in the foot, in the hip, in the shoulder, the neck, the breath is simultaneous with the letting go of something in the mind, things we have held on to for many years, perhaps most of our lives.  In T'ai chi, the acquiring of knowledge - how the body, the entire system, works, and how it works best - should go together with the untangling, letting go, 'losing and losing'.