Playing Tai Chi in Subway Stations

In February, I went to train in Oakland, CA, with Nathan Heintz. Nate crashed at my house while he was in BC for Taiji Traditions Camp, in November (2009) at Shawnigan Lake, and I went to California so he could return the favour. Leaving Canada during the winter is awesome, and going to train in the Californian sun sounded like a good idea. The trip from Victoria, BC,  to Lake Merritt, California, on Amtrak took forty hours on one ferry and one train seat. At least they had terrible coffee:

One morning, while Nate and I were practicing on the lake shore, we saw a guy wearing weights on his wrists and ankles doing what looked like a bagua walk along the path. He went to the lakeside and did what looked to be Capoeira stretches. Nate and I were drilling jibengong (foundational exercises) and warming up with push hands. ‘Wrist Weights’ finished stretching and interrupted us as we pushed. He claimed to have forty years of training, and experience in combat. He was missing one of his front teeth, so at least it looked like he had been in some scraps. After forcing his opinion of what we were doing wrong on us, I asked ‘Wrist Weights’ for his name, he said: “Yi-Chuan”. I shook his hand and said, “Each-one-Teach-one”.

Nate explained to me that Yi-Chuan has an affinity to the three internal martial arts, Bagua Zhang, Hsing-I Chuan, and Taijiquan (Tia Chi). Yiquan is a fighting art that was developed by a practitioner of Xingyi. Nathan said, “there are no forms, and the majority of the curriculum is Zhang Zhuang and single-movement exercises similar to Jibengong in the Practical Method of Chen Taijiquan. I don’t know what Yi Chuan is, and won’t claim to know because I have never practiced the art, but Nate used to practice and explains the difference as “Xingyiquan = form mind fist. Yiquan = mind fist. Xingyi is Yiquan without the form”.

Joseph, pronounced “Yoseph”, aka ‘wrist wieghts’, taught us a few things. When we asked who his sifu (teacher) is, he said “Allah”.  He gave me some good feedback on stance adjustments for forms, but Joseph kept repeating one idea to Nate: “You’re too tense. You aren’t listening. Empty your cup”.

Accepting an instructor’s teachings is the biggest roadblock to learning. You need to empty your cup so someone else can fill it up. When we say, “empty your cup” it means to accept everything you know is wrong, or at least insufficient, because too often confidence gets in the way of fully understanding the lesson at hand.

Three recent articles,one by Master Chen Zhonghua, and another by Chris Bennett aka @ChrisChats, and one by Nathan Heintz provides detail to the concept of emptying your cup and leaning.  Bennett writes: “I did not understand that  a simple move in Tai Chi often requires a depth of understanding which can be only achieved through years of thought, discussion and practice. This understanding is like going on a journey of: simplicity -> complication -> new found simplicity”.

The journey of taijiquan takes a learner through the process of physical understanding through experience.  It starts with memorizing the choreography of the postures and forms, then correcting the postures, combined with the physical conditioning of muscles and joints. After memorizing the choreography of the form, many people rush into adding speed and strength.  Number Eleven of Master Hong Junsheng’s Three Character Canons, in his book Chen Style Practical Method Volume One: Theory, says: “Follow the rules/ Seek progress/ Don’t rush/ Without knowing”.

Nathan said: “Sometimes your cup just fills up, and then you’re “full of it”. Sometimes someone needs to empty your cup for you. They tilt you over on the ground, and some of it spills out. Sometimes your cup needs to crack or break to empty out. Sometimes you just need to listen, or you need to sit down and stop working so hard, so you can slow down and relax, and realize that your job is actually much harder than you thought it was. To understand that what you’ve been doing had its place, and was not in vain. That all of that work got you here, where you are now. But that now there’s something different on the table. Something more fundamental. Something more correct. Another piece”.

Master Chen posted a quote to his posterous from another famous Chinese Master, ” I say to my students, the first day I tell you to relax; a month later I tell you to relax; a year later I tell you to relax; ten years later I tell you to relax; and a dozen years later I still tell you to relax. Why? Because after a while, your gongfu has improved so you must relax more and deeper. This is called the flavor of taijiquan. What is the function of taijiquan movements? It is to increase internal energy […]”.  Many people practicing taiji will doubt there is any more they can relax and continue training with strength. These people never get to the next stages in learning taiji.

It is reassuring when you encounter people who practice other internal martial arts, like Hsing-I, and see the similarities to the relaxed manner we use in practice and application. Soon after Joseph parted ways with us, another person stopped to ask about our practice, wondering if Nathan teaches push hands. While we were practicing that evening the same guy who inquired about push hands, Stephen, stopped by and demonstrated his Chen Family form. This was one of the rare moments on my trip I actually took some pictures; here are a few:

Walking through the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station in Oakland, California, Nathan told me about  a violin virtuoso who played for an hour in a subway station and was completely ignored. Through a google search I found the article, Pearls Before Breakfast,  written for the Washington Post by Gene Weingarten.  Only one person recognized Joshua Bell and his violin, worth $3.5 million.  More than a thousand people walked by, and wrote off a master performing their art because they were rushing to work.  Stacy Furukawa, the sole person who recognized Bell from a free concert he put on three weeks earlier, said “Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn’t do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?”. For some obvious reason, I’m not surprised this could happen in any city, even in Washington, D.C.

Playing In Subway Stations by Serengeti & Polyphonic
Download now or listen on posterous

02 Playing In Subway Stations.mp3 (6306 KB)

The Victoria Taiji Academy’s drop-in classes are held in a gym at University Canada West, but us ‘die-hards’ train outdoors for most of the winter; In late Spring, we move to our full-time outdoor location in Beacon Hill Park. Victoria is a tourist destination, and Beacon Hill is one of the busiest parks in the summer. Thousands of tourist come to ‘Mile Zero’, where the Trans-Canada highway begins (or ends), and where Terry Fox began his Marathon of Hope. Point is, people come from all over the world to take pictures of a statue right beside where we practice, but they pass us by.

Compared to the story of Joshua Bell, playing a multi-million dollar violin in a DC subway station, Nathan and I had two people stop and recognize we were practicing traditional taijiquan. We were playing our priceless art in public, and even though the San Francisco Bay Area has ten times the population of Victoria BC, only two people stopped to inquire. A few martial artists jogging by gave us the fist over hand martial arts salute, but in a stressful year of intensive study at Royal Roads University, only one of fifty able bodied & stressed out people in my cohort ever inquired about taijiquan, or attended a tai chi class; even though I always announce our taiji academy’s events, demonstrations and open houses. Everyone already seems to know everything about tai chi.

With this blog, and with my other upcoming projects, I aim to provide simple explanations of my experience learning tai chi, and to share them with anyone who cares. Thanks for reading, subscribing, and commenting,


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  • Ravi Mohan

    “Xingyi is Yiquan without the form”.

    Sure that should be

    “Yiquas is XingYi without the form”.