POEM: Tai Chi

do you know the way it flows

the glide it rides from highs to lows

coiling left to unwind right

weight of water, strong or slight

twisting, turning, a fire burning

riding tides and then returning

do you feel the way it flows

sometimes it speeds, most times it’s slow

BOOK REVIEW: Tai Chi Chuan Classical Yang Style by Yang, Jwing-Ming

Tai Chi Chuan Classical Yang Style: The Complete Form QigongTai Chi Chuan Classical Yang Style: The Complete Form Qigong by Yang Jwing-Ming
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is one stop shopping for students of the Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Long Form (i.e. 108 forms.) That’s not to suggest that it only describes the sequence of that form. It does that, but it also offers lessons in the history of the art, explanations of chi and qigong, and elucidation of the fundamentals of the art.

The book is divided into four parts. Chapter one examines the history of this martial art and places Tai chi chuan in the context of Chinese martial arts as well as the Yang Style within the context of Tai chi chuan. The nine sections of the first chapter also explore Tai chi chuan as a means to healthy living, and provide guidance to students on how to go about taking up the practice.

Chapter two consists of five parts that delve into the concept of chi (qi), or energy. This section mixes together mythology of traditional Chinese theory on chi with scientific explanations where science has something to say on the matter.

The third chapter describes the 13 postures of Tai chi chuan, which are a set of fundamentals that feature prominently in the martial art. This is a relatively brief section and is where the book becomes photo intensive.

The fourth chapter offers students guidance about the unarmed element of Yang Style of Tai chi chuan. While the capstone of the chapter is a systematic walk through the Long Form, there’s also coverage of some Yang Style fundamental movements as well as presentation of meditation practices taught in the system. It should be noted that this book doesn’t cover the sequence of the Yang Style Short Form (a.k.a. 24 Forms, or the Beijing Standard Form.) (I mention that because that’s the most popular form in the world and many students may want to learn about it specifically. This book offers many insights into the minutiae of the component forms, but doesn’t describe it as a sequence.) There is a fifth chapter, but it’s only a brief conclusion.

With respect to ancillary matter, like most martial arts books, it’s graphic-intensive. The bulk of the graphics are photos that are used in chapters 3 and 4 to clarify the movements and postures. Said photos have arrows and other figures drawn onto them to help clarify the movement involve. There are also a few line diagrams and maps, and chapter 2 has a many scientific photos, diagrams, and anatomical drawings.

There are three Appendices. The first provides a list of the forms of the Yang Style Long Form. The second is a glossary of the many Chinese terms mentioned in the book. The final Appendix provides information about the DVDs that are available to be used in conjunction with the book (there are markers throughout the book to provide suggestions of when students should turn to the video lessons.) There are end-notes of cited material, but I read the Kindle edition, and most of these were unavailable because Chinese characters didn’t convert to the electronic format. This was no big deal for me because I couldn’t read the Chinese reference material anyway, but if you read Chinese, you might opt for the hard copy of the book.

I learned the Yang Style short and long forms several years ago, and bought this book to provide some background and technical guidance. I found the book to be interesting and informative, and would recommend it—particularly if you’ve learned the Yang Style (but one may find the early chapters interesting even if one hasn’t.) The author uses a number of entertaining and educational stories and the book is readable and insightful for students of all levels.

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BOOK REVIEW: Applied Tai Chi Chuan by Nigel Sutton

Applied Tai Chi Chuan (Martial Arts)Applied Tai Chi Chuan by Nigel Sutton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book distinguishes itself from the pile of books on tai chi chuan sitting on the shelves of your local bookstore. Most tai chi books are large-format, glossy books with full-color photographs of the various moves of the solo forms–usually the Yang-style short form (also called the Beijing Standard Form [or the like.]) Sutton’s book, on the other hand, is mostly text about the history, philosophy, tactics, and lesser-known dimensions of tai chi chuan. In short, while most books give little indication that there’s more to tai chi than the solo form, Sutton builds his niche in focusing on everything other than the solo form. Those who’ve practiced tai chi will be familiar with the on-going debate about whether the art is primarily chi gong (energy work for health purposes) or a martial art. Sutton comes down on the latter side.

The book consists of 32 short chapters (mostly 2 to 4 pages.) It isn’t written as a how-to manual, but rather as a series of meditations on various aspects of tai chi. As I mentioned, the book deals more with “push hands,” the “san shou” fast forms, and weapons than does most books on tai chi. It doesn’t try to teach these methods, but instead tries to offer insight on them. The book would be of most value to someone who has some experience with the art, but who isn’t an expert. The latter might find it boring, but those without minimal knowledge might have trouble visualizing what the author is attempting to convey.

There are some black & white graphics in the book. They are static photos in a section at the middle of the book. The pictures don’t convey a sequence or details of any particular movement, but instead capture various masters within a movement so as to give the reader a taste of the art. There are also a few line drawings used to show items such as weapons and the yin-yang symbol.

The oddest part of the book is the last chapter (which is far longer than the others and is out of character with the rest of the book.) It consists of extended bios on a number of teachers under which the author has trained. I understand the value of paying homage to one’s teachers, but the bios in this section are long and are inconsistent with the general approach of the book. In essence it’s like a 15 page dedication on a 125 page book. The teachers covered seem to have nothing particular in common other than that the author trained with each of them as some point in his life (i.e. they cover different styles and are from different locales.) That said, there are some interesting nuggets about some of these individuals.

I’d recommend this book for anyone wanting to learn more about tai chi. However, if you’re purely interested in learning the solo forms for chi gong (i.e. you don’t want to know about tai chi as a martial art) then one of those other books may serve you better.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi by Peter M. Wayne & Mark Fuerst

The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart, and Sharp MindThe Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart, and Sharp Mind by Peter Wayne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book provides an overview (and a laymen-friendly literature review) of the scientific findings about tai chi, and it helps a beginner get started in his / her own practice. (Tai chi, short for tai chi chuan, is a Chinese martial art that is called an internal–or soft–style.)

The authors achieve an impressive tightrope act. And they manage to do it in a way that reads sincerely, while at the same time providing useful information for all readers. Often books on the science of Eastern health-enhancing activities (e.g. tai chi, chi gong, or yoga)–even if they are positive on the results of such activities—take digs at people’s beliefs about ideas like chi, prana, meridians, or chakra as the authors attempt to distance themselves from such beliefs. On the other hand, books that cater to the spiritually inclined—even when they are couched in scientific terms—may resort to third-hand anecdotes about the supernatural powers of some ancient master or report methodological train wrecks that support their views alongside sound studies, as long as the latter don’t present any evidence contrary to their belief system. In short, such books often talk in scientific lingo while showing a complete lack of understanding of the scientific method. In this book, Wayne manages to navigate these rocky shores because he’s both a scientist and a longtime tai chi practitioner who genuinely accepts that there may be more at work in the practice than science fully understands. Thus, he knows the importance of testable hypotheses and when a study needs to be validated by more a robust follow-up study, but he also reports on the traditional beliefs and isn’t adverse to writing about studies evaluating the benefits of spirituality (note: showing that being spiritual has benefits doesn’t mean that the benefits result from anything spiritual or supernatural.)

The book has 14 chapters divided into three parts. The first part introduces the reader to tai chi, describes the dimensions along which tai chi has been shown to offer benefits (the authors call these “the 8 active ingredients of Tai Chi,” relating them to pharmacological medicines), and explains how tai chi can be simplified for beginners (even the short form sequences take a while to be memorized—let alone building any grasp of the intricacies of said forms.) The second part consists of six chapters that report the findings of studies on the health effects of tai chi, as well as discussing the possible mechanisms of those benefits. The topics discussed in this section include: increased balance, bone density, pain mitigation, cardiovascular health, mental performance, psychological well-being, and sleep quality. The book’s last part suggests ways in which the reader can build a tai chi practice. The five chapters in this section deal with the interactive practices of tai chi (tai chi isn’t just the solo forms that you’ve seen elderly people do in the park), integrating tai chi with other health and fitness practices, the potential for practicing tai chi at work, the role of tai chi in creative practices, and tai chi as a practice of lifelong learning (this last chapter gives beginners tips about how to start a practice.) There is also an afterword about how tai chi might play a part in building improved health and well-being in the present era.

I found the book to be well-organized to achieve its objective. It’s packed with food for thought. Neophytes will find a lot of benefit in this book, but I suspect even advanced practitioners can glean insights—particularly if said advanced practitioner hasn’t been reading up on the scientific findings. Humor, quotes, and stories are used to lighten the tone and illustrate key points. There are some photos and other graphics where needed (mostly in chapter 3), but they are relatively sparse for a book on a practice like tai chi. (That’s not a complaint. I think there are far too many attempts to teach movement arts through books—an impossible task—and not enough effort put into conveying the kind of ancillary information that is transmissible in book form.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone who’s interested in knowing more about the health benefits of tai chi, and moving beyond the platitudes often heard but seldom evaluated.

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