– Instructor Lis Hoorweg
February 2012 will mark the end of the twenty-fifth year of my Tai Chi journey. For about twenty two of those I’ve been instructing, but for all twenty five I’ve been learning. Slow learner, some may think. It doesn’t matter, I’ve signed up for life.
One of the best things about Tai Chi is you don’t have to be very good at it to enjoy the feeling and to gain the benefits. I was hooked from my first class all those years ago and that pleasure has never faded. Now I’ve gained a certain level of competence through diligent practice and good instruction, but I only need to look to Chief Instructor Brett or Assistant Director Fontane to see how much more there is to accomplish. When I look beyond them to the Grandmasters in China, I realise a lifetime may not be long enough. But again, it doesn’t matter.
Among the many things I’ve learned from learning Tai Chi is always to do the best I can at the time. The more practice I do, the better my best becomes. The value is in the doing. Perfection is unattainable so we can forget about that as a goal. When the pressure of trying to achieve perfection is removed, learning and enjoyment is greatly enhanced.
I trained originally as a performing musician and still play and teach clarinet. The similarities between learning music and Tai Chi were to me instantly clear. Practice. I was used to that – being by myself for hours every day going over and over the same things, refining and correcting. I was also used to be being told by my teachers what wasn’t right. One of them used to say, “If you can’t play it, you haven’t practised it enough.” No excuses, no argument. We’re not so tough on our Tai Chi students but the traditional masters would have been much tougher.
Yang style Grandmaster Fu Sheng Yuan says, “Come to class to learn, do your practice at home.” The more you practise at home, the more benefits you will gain from classes. Your body will change and thus your understanding of the movements will deepen.
Practising Tai Chi in the Western Desert, Egypt
Tai Chi is a health and martial art and the “art” part is important. To develop skill on a musical instrument takes years. No-one expects to learn to play the piano or guitar brilliantly in a few weeks, and no-one expects to be able to learn by going to a lesson once a week, without touching the instrument in between. In Tai Chi, the body is the instrument. In many cases that bodily instrument has seen better days and needs slow, careful training. A valuable thing about Tai Chi is the slowness, not just in the pace of movements but in the time it takes to learn. There’s no hurry, slow is good. These days that concept is becoming rare. Tai Chi gives us time and space to nourish ourselves both physically and mentally. And we have the rest of our lives to do it in.
Another similarity between music and Tai Chi I discovered is the group experience. Anyone who has played in a band, an orchestra, a small ensemble or sung in a choir understands the concept of listening and adapting your own playing or voice to fit with the rest. This awareness and flexibility is exactly what we learn when practising the form in a group. What you do at home isn’t necessarily what will match others. Subtly adjusting your own movement but maintaining a steady flow becomes second nature. Being flexible. Good musicians do it, so do aware Tai Chi practitioners. The result is a very satisfying experience of combined energy, a feeling of well being. If only we could all incorporate that attitude into our daily lives, how different would our society be?
As I fast approach sixty, so far free of physical problems, I think I can safely attribute my good health to years of regular Tai Chi practice. I did do yoga on and off for about ten years from about the age of nineteen. A friend introduced me to it. I enjoyed the meditation and stretching and the whole concept of a more spiritual type of exercise system, but it never really grabbed me the way Tai Chi did. I had to make myself attend those yoga classes whereas I can honestly say I’ve never felt that way about Tai Chi. Combined though, I think the two systems helped maintain the flexibility and health I have today. Plus a couple of healthy parents now well into their eighties!
In 1986 a friend began learning Tai Chi at the YMCA. He was very keen and constantly demonstrated his newly acquired movements to me and my husband. I found it intriguing and having finally stopped my love/hate relationship with yoga, I was probably ready to try something else. Plus, as a stay at home, part time music teaching mother with two young children, I was keen to get out of the house and do something for myself. After a few peculiar phone calls to various strange people offering Tai Chi in Canberra, I rang the Tai Chi Academy and was impressed by the efficient response to my inquiry. I rang in November, too late to start that year so I waited until February 1987.
The Academy has undergone an incredible transformation and growth since those days. Students attended one, one hour class per week and we had no visual aids like handouts, videos or DVDs. Brett was teaching a modified 108 movement Yang style with weapons styles for the advanced students. I learnt a sword form and a fan form. Shortly after I began instructor training, Brett decided to adopt the Beijing 24 form, then a few years later we switched to traditional Yang style under the guidance of Grandmaster Fu. We practised and taught this form for perhaps fifteen years, complete with sword and sabre forms and push hands training. In 2003, we changed to the Hun Yuan form we now teach which is a Chen based style. The changes were not made lightly and always for very good reasons. Looking back, I can appreciate the wealth of experience and the accumulation of knowledge this has meant and I thank Brett for his forward thinking.
Practising Tai Chi in Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA
Qigong has always been an important element of the training and something I have always enjoyed. I particularly like the Hun Yuan system we follow now with its emphasis on relaxation and energy flow. My husband commented once that I had to “gear up” to do Tai Chi. In other words, I’ve never been a very stressed out or uptight person. It’s difficult to monitor one’s own changes; other people see them more clearly, but I do notice that I rarely become angry anymore. Irritated or annoyed, yes, but not for long and it never takes me over completely because I recognise the feeling and can deal with it. Many students comment on my and all the instructors’ patience and I think the years of Qigong practice has had this effect on us. Anger is pointless and ultimately destructive to oneself and everyone else. I’d rather enjoy myself and my teaching, and I do.
I vary my practice routine a little but always incorporate the Hun Yuan Qigong, some Chan Si Gong (Silk Reeling) and the form. Sometimes I practise traditional Yang form, the Hun Yuan 32 form or the Bang (Stick) and some of the other Qigong sets like the Ba Duan Jin.
All the changes the Academy has made through the years have been to improve the understanding and knowledge of Tai Chi. Without Brett’s constant search for more and better information, not just for his own benefit but for the benefit of us all, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make Tai Chi such an important part of my life. His enthusiasm and dedication were part of what encouraged me to start the rigorous and ongoing training as an instructor. It hasn’t been easy but nothing of value is easy to obtain or retain.
The Yang Family motto is worth taking to heart: Diligence, Perseverance, Respect, Sincerity.