Friday, April 13, 2007


I've just started learning the taiji spear form. It's been a long process just to get to the "starting point". First of all, there are no teachers that I know of anywhere near my neighbourhood---let alone any who would like to teach me. This means I had to find a teaching DVD, and it had to be got over the internet. It also took me a fair amount of time to find a real spear, which like the DVD, came over the internet. That was not the "begining" but to paraphrase Churchill "it was just the begining of the begining". ;-) Because at that point I realized that I simply did not have enough time to take on a new learning task. It took me about two years to divest myself from enough commitments to have the time.

It is not going to be easy. I couldn't find an English language DVD, and I don't speak or read Chinese, which means that I'm stuck watching frame by frame while listening to an explanation that I simply cannot understand. Moreover, I don't have access to a gymnasium, which means that I can only practice in my living room or the patio. This means that I have to be very careful not to "ding" my furniture, the ceiling or my walls as long as it is too cold to practice outside. (Luckily I own a 100 year old home, which means that I at least have 9 foot ceilings.)

Why in heaven's name would someone put themselves through this exercise in masochism?

The first thing is that every form I have learned has come through a similar nightmare.

When I went to my first taijiquan workshop my legs were so stiff from the "post lifting" exercises that I had crawl up the stairs to apartment on my hands and knees. Not only that, but I was such a disaster as a student (even though I practiced probably more than anyone else in the class) that I had to take three beginners classes one after the other before I learned the gross moves of the open hand set.

When I learned the sabre form I didn't have a car and was working at a minimum wage job as a janitor. I signed up for a class over two weekends at a retreat centre that I had to spend hours on a bus just to get to. The cost was $600 over two weeks (a huge amount of my very limited disposable income at the time.) When I got there for the first weekend, the teacher had gotten very drunk the night before and the one other student and I had to drag him out of bed and force him to teach us even though he had a terrible hangover.

When I learned the straight sword I couldn't find any teachers at all in my area, so I got a video tape and learned the form from it (after a fashion) over two years. Luckily, after a while I heard about a local woman who had moved into the area from China and had been on a provincial wushu team. It turned out that she was teaching a class on the sword. All that work with the video meant that I was able to absorb a lot from her two hour, Saturday morning classes---even though her English was pretty bad.

So my experience has been that if you make the effort, it will eventually pay off. Actually, this is a key principle of religious Daoism. Sincere effort will bring results. Moreover, that is pretty much what the word "kung fu" means: hard work over time. The point is the personal investment, not what particular thing you invest in.

When I was living at a Daoist retreat centre I had this pointed out to me by one of the cooks. Ming was an apprentice chef who had been brought over from the mother Temple to work in the kitchen. He spoke pretty good English so I asked him one day why I never saw him doing any taijiquan. He said "I do all my taiji in the kitchen".

This idea of taiji as kungfu as work pretty much goes against what a lot of "groovy" people think of when they talk about taijiquan. In fact, a lot of people specifically talk about taiji as "play". There is a way in which this makes sense, but that isn't the sense in which these folks mean it . Taiji isn't "fooling around", it is hard work!

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