I became very dizzy while watching Cloverfield in the theater last year. I sank into my seat and muttered, “Oh man, I don’t feel too good.”
“What’s the matter?” my friend Geoffrey asked.
“Taiji,” I said. “I think I may have a bruised rib from taiji.” Even the kids in front of us had to turn and see what was so funny.
Everyone knows “tai chi” — it’s that arm-waving thing old ladies do in urban parks. The Whole Foods yuppie crowd swears by it as a way of learning how to “relax.” Taiji quan (same thing, somewhat more accurate transliteration) started out, however, as a powerful martial art. I started looking for a martial art to practice a few years ago and observed a few classes. I met lots of athletic types, and a few obvious scammers who claimed impressive credentials but who wouldn’t survive the first five seconds of a fight. When it comes to martial arts, there are a lot of choices out there. People who want to learn how to defend themselves can take classes dedicated to the basic rules of situational awareness — “Don’t wander around drunk, live in dicey neighborhoods, or pick fights” is 90 percent of it. People who want to learn how to fight can just take up boxing or judo or the tough groundfighting style of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (think Ultimate Fighting Championship) and get pretty good in a year or two. And if you want to be one with the universe, then there are plenty of folks ready to sell — and buy — taiji. One thing about tai ji: It’s pretty much Weirdos Only.
I was lucky; I found a teacher who knew what he was doing. I went to his class after finding what was clearly a self-made Web site that promised “Chen style taiji” — the original kind of taiji used for fighting. When I walked in that Wednesday night, I noticed a few things: no uniforms, no mats, no belt rankings, no extended bowing and rituals, and the teacher introduced himself by his first name: Marin. As it turns out, that’s traditional Chinese martial arts. The endless kowtowing, the silk outfits, the strip-mall storefronts with arches and Home Depot waterfalls, that’s for rubes. Marin rented space in a ballet school and also trained in local parks. That first night, people wandered in and out of class, doing warm-ups and complicated stretches, followed by detailed repetitions of the first few moves of the taiji “form.” Then Marin demonstrated a move. He’s a small guy, 5’6″ and maybe 130 pounds soaking wet, and he quickly took down a much larger student, twisting his arm and locking it up to the shoulder. After class, I asked how hard the student had actually been resisting. Marin said, “Try.”
I’m taller than Marin and have 60 pounds on him. I’ve also done some wrestling. We clinched, arms on one another, with me looking for a good grip. I pushed hard, pulled, grabbed his waist, then his neck, and yanked. It was like grappling with one of those robots from an auto plant assembly line. He didn’t move at all. Then Marin “brushed” me to the ground with the palms of his hands — he didn’t even have a grip on me. I was hooked.
When I attended my first official class as a student, I was put into a horse stance — it’s like sitting in a chair and having it pulled out from under you, but you have to stay standing with your weight shifting from heel to heel — and with the tiniest of nudges from Marin to get my knees and hips in the proper position, my muscles shrieked in pain. I began shaking instantly, and my eyes stung with the salt of my sweat. “When it hurts so much that it’s almost impossible,” Marin explained, “you’re doing it right.” Then he smiled and said, “Relax.”
Taiji can be a killer workout. The pattern of movements, or form, builds balance, flexibility, and significant muscular endurance. You use your muscles in ways you never would otherwise, and build an aligned structure — bones, muscles, and fascia — through which to channel force. Saturday was “push hands” day in Marin’s class, and despite being the second-heaviest guy there, I was routinely thrown around by my fellow students. I’ve had my ribs bruised, my elbows cranked till I heard a crack. I’ve been dumped on my butt and even on my face. Every time I lost, Marin told me, “Good. You’re learning how to lose. Now learn how to relax.” I’m getting there.
At a literary conference, of all places, I met a couple of other martial artists. One was another Chen stylist. He had been practicing for three times as long as I had, and he told me he knew six different sorts of taiji forms. At the time I’d only ever even heard of two forms, but many teachers develop their own shorter, easy-to-learn versions of the complex exercises.
We decided to do a little fixed-step push hands — like standing wrestling, the first to unbalance or move or push the other guy gets a point. We started pushing in the grassy traffic island of the conference hotel’s parking lot and I did surprisingly well, winning about half the time. I thought he was going easy on me until he started changing the rules: “Don’t grab my neck!” he’d say after I unbalanced him with my palm on the back of his neck and my elbow slamming into his chest. “Don’t throw me down — this is my only shirt,” he’d say looking up from a cloud of dust. Then, “No chin-na!” (the term for joint-locking and control) when he’d wrap his arm around my neck and I’d just crank his shoulder.
Not that he didn’t do a number on me as well. I was covered with bruises afterward, and at dinner, another friend who was a blue belt in Brazilian jui-jitsu said, “Wow, what level are you? I thought beginners in tai chi weren’t even allowed to touch anyone.”
Unfortunately, for the most part the blue belt was right. Chen style in the U.S. is relatively rare, and many teachers of both Chen and other styles — such as the very popular Yang style — focus legitimately on health. Many also believe that taiji was created by Zhang Sanfeng, a legendary Chinese wizard, and that martial prowess is dependent on “chi” (sometimes qi), or life energy, that one can even project onto others without touching them. Imagine going to a fencing class and being told that the founder of the art was Merlin. Oh, and put the teacher in silk pajamas, note that he insists on being called “Father,” and then spend the first five or six years doing nothing but breathing in order to gather up magical energy under your belly button. After six years you still will not have learned to fight, but you’ll get to lead the class in breathing. After 10 years you might get to actually learn some fighting or even the simplest of techniques. (Or not!) These are often the same people who insist that taiji quan translates as “Supreme Ultimate Fist,” “proving” that it is the best martial art.
If you ran the Chinese characters for taiji quan through translation software, you might even get Supreme Ultimate Fist as a result. Or Gigantic Terminus Boxing. Or Big Roof Ridge Shadowboxing. Or Very Magnetic Pole Fighting. But it really means the sort of fighting that is reminiscent of the Taijitu symbol, famed in the East for its philosophical depth and in the West for its presence on a lot of van art back in the 1970s.
Taiji quan involves circular movement, one side retreating while another advances, moving one part of the body with the rest of it. Think of how a major league pitcher raises his leg while simultaneously balancing on his other heel in order to recruit maximum force for his pitching arm. I’ve received instructions like, “You throw a punch with your ankles first.” It’s tricky and requires significant practice to build the body needed for taiji, but it’s not magic and its creators didn’t declare their art the supreme ultimate anything.
When I got ready to move from Boston to California, I asked Marin, who had lived and studied out here, who might be good at Chen style. He didn’t name any famous practitioners, just his friend Henry. I live in the East Bay and actually pass nine or 10 different tai chi schools — most with many students and nicely decorated digs — during my 90-minute trip to practice with Henry, a 20th-generation disciple, in a lonely corner of Golden Gate Park. Henry doesn’t make anyone bow or call him sifu or wear a T-shirt with his face on it either. He doesn’t even have a YouTube video! This is probably why he only has three serious students. The twin forces of the Chinese Communist Party, which cracked down on martial arts during the Cultural Revolution, and the New Age movement, which threw rational thought by the wayside and embraced a dubious Guru-ism, ruined taiji while ensuring its broad popularity as an easy form of yoga for people who don’t like sitting down while they exercise.
What really attracts the weirdos is the concept of chi. Chi variously means breath, body alignment, leverage, and an intangible substance that permeates the universe, flowing across the sky and resting within the Earth. It also refers to the subjective feeling of the combination of all the above — bracing against and balancing on the ground, the body aligned properly, and inhaling and exhaling at the right moments to perform a move. Chi can be experienced as distinct from one’s imagination, like how some novelists claim that their characters have lives of their own and dictate events regardless of auctorial intent. Generally, though, chi is seen as an awesome magical light that does whatever you want it to, if you give a teacher enough time and money. I even found one teacher who claims on his Web site that “Money is a symbolic form of qi” in order to make students pay tuition on time.
Will, a fellow student who used to box and do Brazilian jiu-jitsu, was flabbergasted to hear that I didn’t believe in magical chi. “Well, what about psychics?” he then asked. Nope. “You don’t think anyone is psychic at all?” he said. Then he said that there were things he didn’t believe in either — like the idea that taiji could be used for fighting. “If I wanted to fight, I’d go back to MMA,” which stands for mixed martial arts.
At our next class Will declared to Henry, “Nick doesn’t believe in chi.” And I said to Henry, “And neither do you!” He smiled and said, “It’s like positive thinking.” His own teacher, Gene Chen, once interrupted a demonstration of “external chi” by stepping into the path of a chi master who was “pushing” a number of well-indoctrinated students with a pantomimed shove from a yard away. Surprise, Chen didn’t feel a thing!
There are two ways to end an article like this. The first would be some sort of altercation — a shoving match at the BART station, a conveniently placed and ethnically ambiguous mugger jumping out of the dark. I could have even entered a push hands tournament and won, proving the superiority of my Chen schools over those of the New Age or Maoist pretenders. Except that Marin told me, “Don’t bother entering tournaments. The way we train, you’d just be disqualified in three seconds.” (Apparently you really can’t grab the neck or throw someone down or twist joints. And you have to bow to everybody!) Unfortunately, I live in an OK neighborhood and don’t drink, so no fights to report.
The other way to end this would be to have had a real chi experience. A miraculous healing of my chronic bronchial infections due to concentrated visualization of golden light. (And yes, I do have chronic bronchial infections and have gotten sick much less often since starting taiji and lost twenty pounds, but I could have done all that by playing a lot of badminton, too.) Or perhaps moving a paperclip by pointing at it. Or sensing a tumor on my dog’s back. Anything! But no, I’m just another weirdo who became nauseated watching Cloverfield on the big screen. And from a few wayward elbows. • 2 April 2009