Instructor Lis has been interviewing students for many years. One day, Lis commented that she would like to interview Brett. As a result, Chief Instructor Brett Wagland shares his Tai Chi experience with us — the reasons that he began to learn the art, his Tai Chi journey and what Tai Chi means to him.
Finding His Passion in His Search for the True Path – an interview with Chief Instructor Brett Wagland
– interviewed by Instructor Lis
Why would a fourteen year old boy from the steelworks town of Wollongong pick up a book exploring the connection between Christianity and the Tao Te Ching? Not only did he pick it up, but he read it.
Brett still can’t really answer that question, although his interest in Eastern philosophy had been piqued by a lesson at school on Buddhism. He freely admits his family regarded him then, and now, as the black sheep, the one who followed his own “weird” path in life. It was expected that he would have taken up a job in the steelworks, as did most of his school mates. He was the boy who wasn’t satisfied with learning his father’s trade of carpentry and wanted more. Just what that “more” was he didn’t know.
The television show “Kung Fu” had an extraordinary effect when it aired in the early seventies. It depicted a mysterious martial arts expert wandering about America’s Wild West, solving problems with his calm, oriental style wisdom. Brett loved it. This “Grasshopper” really had something! He signed up for Tae Kwon Do classes, the closest thing to Kung Fu available in Wollongong.
Always fit and athletic, at school Brett trained as a sprinter, played rugby at state rep level and did four years of Tae Kwon Do. The football took a hard toll on his body. At about sixteen, he sustained a severe injury, damaging two vertebrae in his neck, which would cause varying degrees of chronic pain for the next fifteen years. When he witnessed a close, very talented friend’s kneecap being shattered in the sport, he decided that rugby wasn’t the way to go. Instead, he took up boxing, which was interesting from a martial arts point of view. However, he did this, more to assist a friend as a sparring partner than any desire to fight. The very influential Bruce Lee also tried many different fighting styles in order to perfect his skills.
Tae Kwon Do gradually lost its appeal. The emphasis was on a militaristic fighting style and Brett felt it was missing something.
He was now about nineteen, graduated from High School and working with his father as a carpenter for want of anything better to do. On the way home from the gym one Saturday, he passed a hall where an exercise class was in session. He watched from the doorway for a while, wondering if what they were doing was Tai Chi. He had read about it somewhere or heard of it vaguely and was intrigued by the mix of philosophy and martial arts. The instructor invited him to join in and, surprisingly, asked him immediately to assist in a demonstration of Push Hands.
“I remember laughing all the way through the class because it seemed so weird. But I came away feeling really good, better than after the other training sessions. From then on, I went to Tai Chi on the way home from the gym every Saturday.
My neck was really painful. Doctors said there wasn’t much that could be done except the last resort, an operation. I couldn’t concentrate or focus for long — neck pain does that. Tai Chi was a relief. It made sense. My body had worked very hard. I gradually phased out the other training.”
Strangely it never occurred to him to practise the movements at home. He enjoyed the lessons and was able to do the movements by following the most proficient student in the class. His system failed spectacularly about four months in when the student he always followed was absent and the instructor asked Brett to lead. “I couldn’t remember any of it!” After that, he began practising.
“I discovered that practising was really enjoyable. Most things don’t give you the immediate payback you get from Tai Chi. Nothing else I did took such time and effort but with such an immediate sense of satisfaction. I’m amazed it took so long for me to realise the benefit of practising.”
The modified Yang style Tai Chi classes were run by an instructor with Gary Khor’s Sydney based academy. Along with other keen students, Brett travelled regularly to Sydney for extra sessions with Gary Khor. From here, he began assisting in classes. Much to his family’s amazement, he realised teaching Tai Chi could be a potential occupation. His interest in Eastern philosophy had continued to grow. After he attended a Buddhist retreat in which he was able to clarify his thinking, he decided to begin teaching. His father was upset, wanting him to continue in the safe and tested career as a carpenter. Brett knew Tai Chi was the right path for him, he knew it would work and that he really had no choice if he was to remain true to himself.
As part of Gary Khor’s organisation, Brett moved to Bateman’s Bay and opened a class. However, the area didn’t provide enough students. At the urging of the many Canberra visitors and the fact that an aunt lived here, he moved to Canberra. This was in 1982.
His first classes were at a hall in Hall but he soon moved to Turner. A few years later, Brett established his own independent Tai Chi and Chi Kung Academy.
In the early days, authentic information about Tai Chi was difficult to find. China had only just begun opening its doors to the West. The old masters were reluctant to share their expertise with anyone let alone “foreign devils”. Brett made several trips to Hong Kong and China in the search for genuine knowledge. Plenty of people were willing to take his money, very few had anything of value to share.
“It was a real maze. Dead ends everywhere. It’s not easy to gain access to the information I wanted about training techniques. It’s hidden knowledge, closely guarded. They’re more than happy to exploit westerners. I could probably have bought two houses with the money I’ve spent.”
In 1989, Fei Wang arrived in Canberra. This was a fortuitous turning point in Brett’s never ending search. An accomplished martial artist lies beneath the gentle, smiling exterior of traditional Chinese medical practitioner, Fei Wang. They met when Fei was brought along to a class by one of the students. Subsequent discussions revealed Fei had much of the knowledge Brett had been seeking. He had trained with a traditional teacher in Shanghai and was willing to teach Brett. He also suggested Brett contact Yang style Grandmaster Fu because his own style wasn’t suitable for the general student body. Yang style is the most popular style of Tai Chi. It is the style that Brett had been learning and teaching up to that time, although in modified versions. Grandmaster Fu Sheng Yuan is the current Yang family representative. With the assistance of Fei and also Fontane, now Brett’s wife, Grandmaster Fu was invited to give workshops in Canberra.
Through these two sources, Brett was at last on the right path. From Grandmaster Fu, he was able to access the traditional Yang style training methods and incorporate them into the Academy curriculum. From Fei Wang, he learned Martial Arts and Qigong.
“From Fei I learned the nature of hard work. His method is pure and clear, very straightforward. Hard work gives benefits. There are no free rides. There is a strong tone of self development in Fei’s teaching. He trains the person to understand himself.”
Under Fei Wang’s guidance Brett’s neck injury slowly began to improve. The practice of San Ti he has found to be most beneficial, with its emphasis on releasing tension and strengthening the spine and shoulders.
Brett’s fascination with oriental philosophy, Tai Chi and martial arts hasn’t diminished since that early encounter with the Tao Te Ching at fourteen. Not content with running an Academy which doesn’t change or grow, Brett is always seeking better methods of teaching and training. He wants every student to benefit from what he has learned over the years. He wants all of his students to fulfill their potential physically, mentally and spiritually and believes Tai Chi is the best method he has discovered for doing that. The change in 2003 from the traditional Yang style to the more flowing Hun Yuan Tai Chi reflects this desire to give students the best possible road to achieving the same benefits he has experienced.
It was during a trip to China that Brett came upon the Hun Yuan system. “In July 2002, I went to China to research some Taoist practices. While I was in Beijing, I had the good fortune to meet Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang (1928- ), one of China’s greatest martial arts experts. He is known universally for his amazing feats of internal power. When I was in Beijing, I was also very impressed by the Tai Chi students trained under Grandmaster Feng’s system. They appeared to be very relaxed with good foundation and they were very absorbed in their practice. Some students have only been practising for a relatively short period of time and some are in their fifties and sixties. Due to this, I went to China two more times during that year to train in their system and Fontane also went in December 2002.”
Brett spoke of the difficulties for students in experiencing the higher levels of traditional Yang style. “It is easy for students to miss the rotating movement of the shoulders and waist due to the subtleties of the circles. Strength in the legs is necessary if you want to achieve a high degree of relaxation and internal power in traditional Yang style. Unfortunately, because this requires very hard diligent practice, people in modern day society find it difficult. A late start and leg injuries are also factors which hinder practitioners in their development to a satisfactory level. Over the years with the assistance of Fei Wang, we had tried many ways to help students to achieve deeper levels of relaxation during their practice. However, the degree of difficulty for students still remained. There is no escape from hard diligent training if one wants to develop strong legs, an important foundation for traditional Yang style. As a result, students are unable to relax deeply and experience the higher levels of training which are very joyous. Many long-term students found that their training reached a plateau and that they could not progress to the next stage of development.”
Brett realised that the strengths of the Hun Yuan system were for all students of all levels. “As I practised and learnt more about the Hun Yuan system, I came to understand that it has many benefits for both beginners and seasoned practitioners. As a system, it emphasises training in the internal aspect of the art from the very beginning. It helps students to feel a strong sensation of qi (energy). The different foundation components of the system enable students to understand what is required in the Tai Chi form physically, mentally and energetically. Most of all, training the Hun Yuan system is very enjoyable. It does not tax the body. It does not place a lot of pressure on the legs and knees, so it is suitable for all age groups and even people who are nursing an injury. The large circular movements open all the joints, relax the muscles and strengthen the tendons. Every part of the system is geared to fostering deep relaxation and building qi to nourish the practitioner.”
Brett concluded, “For me personally, Tai Chi is a form of artistic and spiritual expression. It is a unique blend of philosophy, medicine, martial arts and meditation. Practising Tai Chi is like weaving a beautiful tapestry of all these elements. It has the power to relax and invigorate the mind, body and spirit. It connects one with nature. The slow, gentle rhythm of its movements and the feelings of qi coursing through the body and radiating outwards bring one a deep sense of calm and joy. It is amazing that such a gentle art can transform one's personality, strengthen the mind, open the heart and free the spirit.
To see Tai Chi being used for self defence defies common belief – a small person can overcome a bigger person with what appears to be a light touch or an imperceptible movement. This again illustrates the depth of Tai Chi. Its gentle movements can produce great power. The Tai Chi classics state: ‘From softness comes hardness (strength). From relaxation comes power.’
For me, Tai Chi is a living, breathing philosophy and a tool for self development – both beautiful and practical, a living treasure with thousands of years of wisdom woven into it.”
Fortunately for all of us, instructors and students alike, Brett’s unflagging enthusiasm and drive has cleared the way of many of the obstacles. The only one remaining is our own individual lack of self discipline. In the words of his first teacher and every teacher since, “You have to practise!”