Learning and teaching Tai Chi has taken me all around the world over the years. As well as numerous extended trips to China (Chenjiagou, Zhengzhou and Beijing) for intensive training I have also had the pleasure of travelling to America, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Scandinavia and Russia when I used to teach and lecture periodically for P&O on one of their cruise ships. It was all great fun and what better way to see the world than by pursuing and teaching your favourite pastime? Tai Chi training on a moving ship is quite an interesting experience and it certainly challenges your sense of balance when the sea is rough!
So last week saw me travelling to Gdansk in northern Poland for four days of intensive seminars with my teacher, Chen Bing, who is currently about half way through his annual European tour. I had been to Poland briefly once before when I was teaching on a cruise of the Baltic Sea and was prepared for some cooler weather. It was about 5 degrees in Gdansk which to me seemed quite chilly but my Polish friends often commented on how mild it was!
The seminars with Chen Bing were excellent; he is great teacher and I really like learning. Tai Chi practise is never a finished product, for just like life it comprises an ongoing, evolving process. There is always room for improvement in how one trains, within how one perceives, moves and focuses independently and also in how well one can apply Tai Chi martially. The considerable amount of training required to achieve this not only ensures the ability to ‘look after yourself’ but also all-round superb health and incomparable motor skills. Cultivating a mindset which is consistently open to learning, re-learning, refining and improving is very wholesome, healthy and extremely useful indeed but perhaps most difficult for most of us to grasp.
Having input from someone who has much more experience than yourself is vital and this is especially the case when you are a teacher. People who teach without receiving any input over the years often stagnate and end up teaching something quite unrecognisable as the original subject and thus many of the authentic benefits are lost along the way. This is the same in many disciplines and for me the openness to continual learning certainly separates the men from the boys (and the girls from the women!). Wisdom comes from experience and experience comes from making mistakes; often we require someone to point out our mistakes to us so that we can become aware of and capitalise on them. Chen Bing has been training since he was 6 years old and so he has almost forty years of experience to share; for me his insights are invaluable.
The seminars consisted of 2 days of solo form training (Laojia Yilu) and then 2 days of pushing-hands and martial applications. Each seminar began with an extensive medley of warm-ups. The ‘Fangsong Gong’ exercises he teaches are really cool and systematically loosen, innervate and strengthen the whole body, though in particular target the mobilisation of the hips and spine. After these shenanigans every joint was open and ready for action and it was really useful going through the entire Laojia form with Chen Bing (and great to learn some of his slick variations of certain movements). His careful observations on how we trained were very welcome for usually what you think your body does and what it actually does are two different things; and this is true for beginner and advanced practitioners alike!
Training pushing-hands and applications with Chen Bing was excellent. He demonstrated hands-on with each individual all the various skills and techniques he wanted us to learn. What I like about him is the way he combines being very calm, soft and loose with some serious whole-body power. So we all worked our way through the basic single and double-hand patterns and started to look at moving step work with C.B. on hand throughout to point out common mistakes and pitfalls and how to resolve them effectively.
The Polish guys were great to train with being both really friendly and hard-working. Outside the training hall we went out for dinner a few times and only once did I succumb to having to try a shot of highly potent lemon Vodka! Needless to say, I survived and a good time was had by all. Straight after I returned to the UK I headed up to London for a seminar with my other teacher Grand Master Chen Xiao Wang (who happens to be Chen Bing’s uncle) who has 60 years of rigorous Tai Chi training under his belt. As usual the seminar was amazing and so all in all it was a busy but brilliant week to say the least!