Friday, July 5, 2013

How to Be a Real Taiji Student

by Paul B. Gallagher

“Taiji teachers are easy to find;
real students are hard  to find…”
~~B.P.  Chan~~

            Many years ago when I began learning Bagua from Master B.P. Chan in New York City, I had a rather startling experience. 

            After nine years of Taijiquan study and practice, I prevailed upon a dear friend and colleague of mine, Kenneth Cohen,  to show me some of the  Bagua movements he had learned from Chan. He graciously agreed, and for several days we practiced informally in a local park. Although Ken taught in a very precise manner, our study sessions were very casual, since I merely wanted to learn the rudiments of some Bagua moves so I would have a bit of variation in my practice routine.

            After our initial study session, whenever Ken visited my town once or twice a year, we would spend an hour or two in Bagua practice, so I could learn a little more each time. Our practice was never intended by either of us to be an in-depth study, but simply some informal sharing, which I very greatly appreciated.

            However, one day I became sufficiently intrigued with Bagua that I wanted to get closer to the source of the teaching. I asked Ken to introduce me to B.P. Chan. Again, he very graciously accommodated my request. So I traveled from western Massachusetts down to New York City to meet Chan for the first time. Of course, I had previously called the Master, seeking  his permission to visit a class.

            Chan kindly allowed me to observe several classes, and even spent time with me after his class day was finished to answer some of my specific questions. It was quite evident to me, observing his movements as he demonstrated them in class, that he was a very highly accomplished master (even though, as I later found out,  he never liked to be called “master,”  and wanted only to be called a “guide” on the path of study).

            I was sufficiently captivated and impressed by what I had witnessed during my visit, that I decided I would like to take a few private classes from him just to “polish up” my very rudimentary  Bagua movements. We made an appointment for the following Sunday, when he said he could see me before his regular classes started at 10 AM.  So I arose around 4:15,  left my house just before 5, and arrived at Chan’s studio right at 9 AM.

            He asked to see what I had learned so far, so I showed him what I had learned from Ken  who was one of his best students. I told him I had learned the movements very casually, and wanted to refine my movements just a bit, but was not intending a long-term exhaustive study. I hoped he would not be insulted by my request.

            He observed my movements silently for a few minutes, then told me he had seen enough. In the most polite terms, he informed me that what I was doing was total crap (not his language), and that I would have to start over from the very beginning. This was NOT a reflection on what Ken had taught me, but rather on the very casual way I had approached both learning and practicing the basics of Bagua that I had learned.

            When I had first started learning Taiji, some nine years earlier, I was unable to find a teacher in Boston where I then lived, and so drove for four hours each way to New York and back for a period of 4 ½ years every weekend to spend Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings in private classes. I had absolutely NO desire to commute to the City again for any long-term study commitment--and yet this seemed to be exactly what Chan was proposing. I didn’t quite know how to respond, so I stood silent for a few moments.

            Chan scrutinized me attentively, then said, “ ‘Mr.  Paul’  many of my students want to ‘go to the movies’…they want to learn many forms  and many arts, but none of them very well.  Do YOU want to go to the movies, “Mr. Paul?’”

            I was stunned—the master had just thrown down the gauntlet and then waited wordlessly to gauge my reaction. I didn’t know what to think—I couldn’t even imagine another multi-year period of long weekly commutes to study, yet something about Chan’s abilities, and his very presence and demeanor, told me that studying with him would be a completely life-changing experience.

            I asked if he could recommend a teacher in Massachusetts, hoping the question would not offend him. He quietly answered,  “Teachers are easy to find; real students are hard to find,”  and then fell silent once more.  Somehow, from my very depths, before I could monitor or censor what I was about to say, I simply blurted out, “Mr. Chan—you are the master, and I would be honored and privileged to be your student.”  He smiled slightly, and said “Good boy!  You can have a private class before my regular Sunday morning classes. We’ll start at 9 AM next Sunday.”

            Thus I began another 4 ½ year period of weekly commutes from Massachusetts  to New York City, arising each Sunday morning at 4:15 , taking my private classes and some of Chan’s public classes, and returning home late at night, after Chan’s class day had ended.

            Somehow Chan’s quote about “real students” burned in my brain throughout the years. And as I taught Taiji over more than three decades, I totally understood the wisdom and truth of Chan’s observation.

 So WHAT IS a “real Taiji student?”

            Grandmaster Cheng Man Ch’ing stated three conditions a student of Taijiquan must meet:

1)     Getting correct teaching
2)     Perseverance
3)     Having a natural talent for the art.

The first two were critical, and the absence of natural talent could be overcome with arduous practice.
       Regarding getting correct teaching, it always surprised me that the vast majority of my beginning Taiji students had no idea what Taiji really was—or any interest in its history or traditions.  Nor did they have any understanding about what constituted a qualified teacher.
[You can find some ideas about finding a teacher in two blogposts I wrote some time ago.]

             Questions from Tai Chi Newbies Sept 17. 2009

What is a Tai Chi Master Dec 29, 2009

            So the first requisite of being a real Taiji student is doing preliminary research  about the art, and what constitutes a qualified teacher. This does not have to be a profound scholarly endeavor, but simply acquiring basic information about the origins, purposes, and traditions of the art. A friend of mine who had spent some years in China once shared an interesting observation. He said that in China, where one sees hundreds of people practicing Taijiquan every morning in the parks of any city or town, everyone “gets” Taiji—even if they do not practice themselves. They have a kind of gut-level feeling and understanding of the art, even if they are not fully aware of the history of the art, or of the specific fine points.

            My friend analogized this to baseball in the U.S. Virtually all Americans “get” baseball, even if they are not rabid aficionados or have not played much baseball themselves.  In America,  most people still don’t really “get” Taiji, even though it has become a household word in the past few decades.

            So a prospective beginner really must acquite a rudimentary knowledge of what Taiji is all about BEFORE seeking out a class or teacher. Just a short time researching on the Internet will do.

A real Teacher must have three primary qualificatons

1.     A Lineage—that is a connection with a series of recognized masters who can trace their roots back to the founders of the art.

2.     An awareness of the entire Taiji System. That is—even if they do not actively practice the martial aspect in depth—they must know the defensive “applications” of each movement, be conversant at least with the rudiments of two-person work, such as “Push Hands,”  and preferably know at least one Taiji weapon, such as the Walking Stick, Saber, or Sword. A really good teacher will know all the weapon sets, plus the rarely-taught Taiji Staff and Spear practices. A qualified teacher must also know specific techniques for developing Intrinsic Energy.

3.     Honesty in directing students to the best teacher for their real needs.

       This last requisite deserves a bit of explanation:
       Many Tajji teachers, particularly some very traditional masters, are very proud of their lineages and their particular style of the art. They might describe their lineage or style as “the best,” or “the only real”  style of Taiji.  While pride in their lineage is certainly admirable,  being overly devoted to their own style may work against the best interest of their students. 
        Sometimes teachers are extremely offended or upset when one of their students wants to learn from another teacher. This sort of very uncomfortable situation happened to me personally, when I wanted to broaden my studies and leave my first teacher. From then on I resolved to always do my best to enhance my STUDENTS’ real needs, even if  that required their leaving my school.

            A personal example will illustrate this:

            I once had a student who was extremely motivated to learn Taiji. He loved martial arts in general, and Taiji was the first one he had chosen to study in a formal setting. He practiced assiduously. He came to every class, and was an ideal student in every way.

            But he grew increasingly frustrated because he felt he could not “relax” sufficiently to do the Taijiquan forms correctly.  He loved to express his energy outwardly and told me he felt painfully constrained while trying to keep his external energy in check during the “internal” Taiji Solo Form. One day he somewhat hesitantly informed me that he had visited a Praying Mantis studio and absolutely loved what he saw. He was courteous enough to request  my “permission” for him to study Praying Mantis!

            I did a bit of research and found that the school he had visited was absolutely legitimate and was headed by a genuine master with a superb lineage. I immediately recommended most heartily that my student leave my school and join the Praying Mantis academy. He did—and came back to call on  me several years later to tell me that he was totally devoted to his new style, and that he was now one of the best students in the academy and an assistant instructor.

            I realized then how important it was for any teacher to be able to respect a student’s real needs and direct them to the appropriate venue for learning the art that will suit them best. The great teacher T.T. Liang was a brilliant exemplar in this regard, and always encouraged his students to broaden their studies with other teachers. “You must learn from many teachers, read many books. But only through serious practice can you discover the truth for yourself,”  he said. Check out  Master Liang’s  book  Tai Chi Ch’uan for Health and Self Defense  for more about T.T. Liang and his teaching.

          Assuming that a prospective student has found a “real” Taiji teacher, here are some guidelines for Taijiquan study itself:

The Essential qualifications for a Real Taiji Student:

1)     Being teachable—that is being truly open minded and receptive to the teaching.  This would seem to be obvious, but it is amazing how many students come to Taiji with their own opinions, prejudices, or—in the case of students with some prior experience--holding on to what they learned previously.

          When I was studying with T.T. Liang, I often witnessed students of other teachers coming to call on him and asking him questions about technique or practice. As soon as he would make a suggestion, the student would immediately start arguing, telling him that they had learned something different from another master. This totally blew my mind!! Imagine coming to a grandmaster  (T.T. Liang) who had immense experience and an unparalleled lineage, asking a question—and then start arguing when the Master replied!

Liang, in his usual modest way, would then advise the visitor to return to their own teacher, who obviously had “higher rank” than his own. Liang never got angry or defensive, he just would tell the visitor that his own knowledge was “limited,” and then chortle a bit when the visitor had left—and say slyly, “I can teach him nothing…” 

Those “students” never realized what they had missed! As the somewhat clich├ęd old Zen story describes, always come to a teacher with an empty teacup and be ready to receive ANY teaching from a high master as the blessing which it truly is.
          Remember--BE TEACHABLE!

2)     Being willing to accept “inconvenience.”  

          I rented a teaching studio space midway between two Massachusetts college towns, about 5 miles from each one. I always found it quite fascinating that a large number of prospective students would call me on the phone, gush about how desperately they had always wanted to study Taiji—how deeply they felt it could transform their whole life—and then decide that a five mile drive from their home to my teaching studio was “too far” or “to inconvenient.” 

          In old China, there was a tradition that a student would be rebuffed on the first two approaches to a teacher---and MIGHT be accepted provisionally on the third, if s/he had the right attitude and the Master felt the student had the right degree of teachability, and the proper temperament for study.  A couple of well-chosen gifts to the Master on the first two visits was always welcomed also…….

          Around the same time as prospective students were complaining to me that driving 5 miles each way to class one evening a week was too “inconvenient,”  one of my students informed me that he had decided to travel to Taiwan and study martial arts with a traditional master. He was a small and slender Asian Studies major at a local university, and was quite skilled in reading, writing, and speaking Chinese.

          He went to Taibei and after numerous inquiries, found that many people recommended a certain master known only as “Shifu,” who taught at an isolated Buddhist temple in the mountainous middle of the island.  He made his way to the monastery, and was allowed to meet with the abbot (who was the “Shifu”)The Abbot told him that he could never be accepted as a student and had made the difficult trip in vain.

         A month later, my student returned for a second try. This time Shifu appeared quite angry about being disturbed again and told  my student in no uncertain terms to stay away and not come back.

        Another six weeks went by, and my student made a third trip to the temple. This time the exasperated Shifu said he could stay—but he could not learn martial arts. If he would don the gray robes of the Buddhist monk and shave his head, he would be allowed to remain at the temple, and do manual work for his keep. My student readily agreed.

        Once he had begun living at the temple, my student would send me a monthly letter telling me how he was doing. Living there was “inconvenient” indeed!  There was no plumbing of any sort, so my student was tasked with  going down the steep mountain path to a clear stream which ran at the foot of the hill, and bringing up water for cooking, cleaning, and other needs.

        On the first day, he descended the footpath to the stream, carrying two large wooden buckets, suspended on each end of a long pole. He stooped down, filled the buckets, and when he tried to stand up, he realized he was not strong enough even to stand up with the pole on his shoulder and the buckets full--to say nothing about carrying the full buckets up the hill. So he emptied about ¾ of each bucket, and then slowly and painfully trudged up the precipitous path to the temple.

        As soon as Shifu saw him, he seemed to go ballistic—yelling and screaming about the “lazy and good for nothing” young whelp he had just admitted to the temple. He was ordered to go down to the stream and back as many times as necessary to bring up the requisite supply of water. After that he spent the day and evening doing manual work around the temple.

        He would arise at 3:30 each morning to meditate, chant sutras, and copy out sutras in elegant calligraphy, then begin his water-carrying and his other chores for the day. Although some of the monks practiced Shaolin martial arts, my student was never allowed any instruction.

        His letters to me became more and more despairing. One day after about six months, he went down to the stream, filled the buckets, and was on his way up the path when he suddenly realized that he was carrying  FULL buckets, and ascending the path at a good pace, without even breaking a sweat. Like a  "EUREKA !" experience, he realized that he was many times stronger than when he had arrived, and that the grueling water-carrying chore was actually TRAINING. Suddenly he was elated.

        A few more months went by and one day the Master invited him to go on “herb walks” along the numerous mountain paths. My student was delighted at this break in the exhausting temple routine, and at his privilege in having some time alone with the Master. From time to time Shifu would point out a plant, describe its healing properties, what part of the plant to use, when to gather it, etc. It seemed like a nice way to spend a few hours…

        One of the monks unexpectedly became ill with a severe cold and congestion. Shifu ordered my student to gather the required herbs and prepare them. My student replied that he had no knowledge whatever of herbal medicine and there was no way he could formulate a remedy. Again, Shifu exploded…”What in the world do you think we were doing during the herb walks?  I expected you to know every herb I showed you, and how to use it properly!  You have wasted my time…”

       My student realized that the herb walks were MORE training—and that indeed everything that happened at the temple was training—there wasn’t any activity that was NOT training.

        He remained at the temple about 5 years, and never did learn formal martial arts. But when he returned and visited me, he was a superb calligrapher, quite adept in herbal medicine and Qigong, and was immensely strong and self-confident.  He was teachable and willing to accept “inconvenience”—and said it was greatest experience of his life!

3)     Being willing to PRACTICE!  This is self-explanatory. Serious practice of Taijiquan will literally transform your body and mind (for the better!), but this deep alchemy must be done continuously for a long period of time. The Chinese expression for Taijiquan practice is to “cultivate,” just as it is for Qigong or Taoist training.  Slow and steady, over a long stretch of time, like a farmer cultivating fields over a period of years.  The great Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki once compared Zen training to “getting wet in a fog.”  He said that if you are drenched in a heavy rainstorm, it is easy to dry off and warm up. But if you walk for a long period in heavy fog, the moisture seems to permeate your very bones, and will take a long time to dry out.
I always thought real Taijiquan practice quite resembled “getting wet in a fog.”

4)     Developing a courageous spirit. Since Taijiquan is a martial art, one oft-neglected aspect of the training is developing a courageous spirit. Exactly what that means will vary from person to person.  But we all know deep in our hearts when courage is called for and what we would need to do to act courageously in a given situation. If we consistently cultivate our Qi and Spirit, we will be able to stand like Confucius and declare, “When I am in harmony with the Command of Heaven I can face an army of 3000 men and my countenance will not change.”

         The only times Chan ever reprimanded me was when I missed two of his classes (over a period of 4 1/2 years!)  One time I was deathly ill with the flu and he upbraided me for not training hard enough. If I was REALLY training, said he, I would never become ill.  The second time was when I stayed home during a 15 inch snowfall, rather than drive 240 miles from Massachusetts to New York.  That time, Chan said that if I was a GENUINE martial artist I would not let anything deter me from arriving at class in a timely manner.


If you would like more information about finding a qualified Taiji teacher and developing into the best Taiji student you can be, you would enjoy my book Drawing Silk.

And for lots of information about a variety of Taiji studies, please visit  

                                  (C)   Copyright Paul B. Gallagher 2013, all rights reserved 

Paul Gallagher with B.P. Chan, 1981 


Paul Gallagher's PROSPERITY TAO blog...with numerous articles on how to maintain prosperity in difficult economic times--using genuine Taoist principles.   STAY TUNED!! 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Qigong and Tai Chi--Arts of Cultivating Life-Energy and Quiet Mind


            I receive many emails inquiring about the differences between Qigong and Taiji Quan—which one is most appropriate for a beginner, how they differ, which is more “effective” and so on.
            So I thought I would elucidate these questions, to benefit newcomers to these arts. If you are an old-time Player, this post might be a bit elementary and simplistic for you. But if not—read on!
            The Chinese arts of Qigong and Tai Chi have been evolving over a period of two millennia.  Perfected by Taoist adepts, enlightened physicians, and master martial artists, they are a living tradition of exercise and physical cultivation designed to “retard old age and make Spring eternal.”
 Here are a few very basic guidelines:
            Both Qigong and Tai Chi are fundamentally about building Qi (pronounced “chee.”)  Although much mystique surrounds the word Qi, the most usable definition I have come up with is that Qi is a kind of bio-electricity.  Qi “magnetizes” the iron in the red blood cells for greater oxygen absorption, energizes metabolic processes in the body, creates mental alertness,  and developes strength by electrifying stronger muscular contractions and making them more coherent.  
            The Chinese consider the cultivation of Qi to be the prime requisite to a long and healthy life, as well as physical power and martial arts prowess. While most Western sports develop external strength, muscles, stamina and endurance, the ancient Chinese physicians believed that building up an imposing physique without first developing a foundation of Qi is like trying to build a structure without a firm underpinning, which is bound to collapse
            An old Chinese martial arts adage says, “Lian quan, bu lian gong; dao lao i zhi kung.--If you only practice martial art techniques and do not cultivate the ‘internal’  (Qi), in the end you will have nothing.”  That is because the Qi nourishes the blood; the blood nourishes the internal organs; and the organs nurture the musculature and external body. So Qigong should precede, or at least be a part of any strength building  or martial arts program.
            Literally Qigong (pronounced “chee-gung”) means “the cultivation of Qi through practice.” There are several major types of Qigong:

1.                 Qigong for overall health.  This is the most common type of Qigong.
There are literally hundreds of styles and traditions of Qigong. Each serves its own particular purpose and has its own rationale. A few examples of well-known Qigong styles for health are:
The Eight Brocades, Wild Goose Qigong, Swimming Dragon Qigong, Spring Forest Qigong, and the Five Animal Frolics (see below).

2.         Qigong for cultivating “intrinsic energy” in the martial arts to discharge powerful force in combat. Each major martial arts system has its own specific Qigong practices, for developing the ability to project power according to the principles and techniques of that particular art.

3.         Qigong for opening the energetic channels prior to meditation. In Taoist meditation and the cultivation of spiritual energy, it is of supreme importance to make sure the meridians (energetic channels) are clear before attempting to develop and circulate high-level energy through them. Various forms of “meditation sickness” described in ancient Chinese texts are caused by attempting to circulate energy before clearing the passages.

4.         Qigong to develop specialized energy for Qi-healing on others.  There are numerous traditions of Qi-healing in China, and each has a method for developing strong Qi in the practitioner, so that s/he can project that Qi into others in a healing situation.

Irrespective of which of the four major types of Qigong a beginner aspires to practice, the Qigong for health is the critical prerequisite for all the others. Obviously, you have to develop your own Qi to a high level before attempting to circulate it in subtle spiritual energetic channels, or using it in healing or self-defense.  Qigong generally involves specific movement patterns, breathing, and mind intent. The idea is to create a synergy between mind, breath, and movement. The more elementary systems of Qigong use more external movement;  more sophisticated methods use more mind-intention in directing Qi flow and less visible external movement.
There are numerous varieties of Qigong; a qualified and experienced teacher can tell you which version would be most appropriate for your body type, temperament, age, aspirations, and physical needs.
            One of the most highly evolved forms of Qigong is Tai Chi (correctly spelled Taiji and more properly called Taiji Quan). While many forms of Qigong energize or affect specific energy channels or organs with individual exercises, Taiji is an energy cultivation for the entire body simultaneously. It is more profound and ramified than Qigong. Taiji combines physical exercise, Qi development, self-defense , and meditation into one coherent whole. Taiji  goes beyond Qigong in that it is actually a form of nei gong—or total internal cultivation of Qi.
            Taiji embodies a sequence of movements, which can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 30 minutes to perform, depending on the number of movements involved. The sequences range from the “Classical 108 Movement Solo Form”  to some newer “short” forms  which contain just 24 movements. There are numerous “Families” or styles of Taiji, each with its own sequence.
         Taiji, unlike Qigong, which often exercises or focuses on individual body parts, moves from the center outward and involves the entire body acting as a coherent, powerful unit. Taiji greatly strengthens the legs, creating a firm “root” or base of power for the upper body. After long practice, you can become firmly rooted like a tree below, but flexible and soft above. As Lao Tze wrote: “All things when alive are pliable and yielding; when dead they are hard and tough.”   Taiji seeks to maintain the “pliability of an infant” well into advanced age.

            There are four levels you will experience when learning Taiji: 

1.         Form
2.         Function
3.         Feeling
4.         Forgetting

Form includes the movement sequence of the art, and all the principles embodied in the movements—“root,” balance, structural alignment, dynamic coordination  of action, etc.  Learning the long sequence of moves enhances mental focus and concentration.
Function means the defensive “applications” which are embedded in each movement. It is ESSENTIAL to learn the Functions of the movements, even if you do not choose to actively pursue the martial aspects of Taiji. The Functions of the movements govern the all-important flow of Qi in the form, so doing a “round” of Taiji without understanding the Function of the movements  leads to a lifeless, ”qi-less,”  dance which may be pretty, but would lack any spirit or meaning.
Feeling is the sensation of Qi circulation once the movements can be performed fluently, with ease and grace. After a good round of Taiji, you will feel as if you have had a warm inner “qi-bath” once you have cultivated the correct feeling.
Forgetting is the epitome  of Taiji, when Form, Function, and Feeling  all start to happen and coalesce spontaneously. Only at this point can your Taiji form truly be called “meditation.”
       A wonderful example of this final stage of Taiji practice came one morning when I visited my teacher, T.T. Liang, at his studio in Boston.  I didn’t normally visit him unannounced, but on this occasion, I was in his neighborhood and decided to just stop in and pay respects.
He lived in his studio, a small commercial building near Boston’s Fenway. The windows which faced the street were covered with drapery on the inside, and on the outside a passerby could see posters with Master Liang’s class schedule, some of his calligraphy, and a large Taiji symbol. Liang always taught his classes to music, so when I heard music, I assumed that a class was in progress. I felt a bit awkward about “crashing” his class, but decided to go in and wait quietly in the back of the room till the practice had concluded.
            So I gently opened the door and entered…
            To my shock and chagrin, there was the Master doing his own private round of Taiji practice. What struck me was the ultimately peaceful, almost ethereal expression in his very bright eyes. He was clearly “somewhere else.”  In a moment he recognized my presence, grinned slightly and said, “Paul Gallagher—surprise attack!”  Then he went on to finish his round.
            After he had rested for a few moments,  I commented that he seemed to be in some exalted  zone during his practice. “Yes,” he replied, “I can take a trip to Paradise any time I want without spending one dime.”  At that instant I fully understood the real meaning of “Forgetting.”
Many new students question and even deplore the “self-defense” aspects of Taiji. They can’t mentally correlate “violence” with meditation, calm, etc.  In reality, though, the two apparent poles are not contradictory—they are simply Yin (meditation) and Yang (self-defense) aspects of the same art. Proficiency in the defensive aspects creates self-confidence, strength and root, mental focus, and a feeling of unassailable centeredness.
            As a famous Chinese Taiji master once told an inquiring beginner—“Oh yes, Taiji very good meditation. If your mind not be clear, you be hit right away.”
            Taiji, as a complete art based on Yin and Yang, is not only about “relaxation.”  It seeks to develop the practitioner’s  potential to relax and yield, as well as the potential to be courageous and powerful. It is an art of self-cultivation which can be practiced enjoyably for a lifetime.
(C)  Copyright Paul B. Gallagher 2012, all rights reserved

            For information on the Five Animal Frolics, a very unique form of Qigong which combines elements of Qigong and Taiji into a fascinating whole with the energies of the Crane, Bear, Monkey, Deer, and Tiger, please go to

You can also learn lots more about the entire system of Taiji, training methods, principles, writings of the Masters, and even some cool Taoist tales at'%20Secrets.htm







Thursday, June 3, 2010

Your "Tai Chi Daily Three" for Health and Long Life

Dear Friend,

Please accept my apologies for the delay in posting this article. It’s been a bit over 5 months since my last post. I just got “caught up” in business, family, and other endeavors.

If you have "opted in" to my e-mail list  through my free download page on Total Tai Chi,
('s%20Secret%20Strategy%20Audio%20Download.htm )  I am changing my mailing list service company. You will still receive my emails from

If at any time you want to unsubscribe, you can simply email me at with the subject heading “unsubscribe” and your name will be removed from the list. Of course, I hope you stay on the list. I will be making the blogposts more frequent and will be developing some new products (ebooks and audios) which will explain how to make the Tai Chi way shine in your life.

Needless to say, we totally respect your privacy. And we will only send you emails which we genuinely believe will be of interest and value to you.

And now—on to today’s post!

Tai Chi is so much more than the practice of a set of esoteric movements for “relaxation” or a low level of fitness.

The deeper practice of Tai Chi is the adoption of a “Tai Chi Lifestyle,” which incorporates the Principles of Tai Chi into numerous areas of your life. Now this does NOT mean taking on any special belief system, religion, or so forth.

The practice of the “Tai Chi Lifestyle” is simply applying common sense principles--which have an effective history of over 2000 years—to enhance your health, vitality, and mental clarity for a lifetime.

The Tai Chi Lifestyle is elegantly summed up in Chapter One of The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine,  one of the foundation texts of classical Chinese medicine.

This is what the Yellow Emperor’s “Heavenly Teacher” taught him as a way to create great longevity:

“If you are tranquilly content and your mind is empty, the True Chi will
accompany you always. If your Original vital Spirit is preserved within,
from where might illness come?

“Those who know Tao pattern themselves according to Yin and Yang
and live in harmony with the motions of Heaven and Earth. They
carefully regulate eating and drinking; they arise and retire at the
appropriate hour; they do not carelessly overtax their energies.
Thus their external form and internal spirit can be fully nurtured
And they can fulfill their allotted span of years.”

The Commentary says, “If you follow these principles your body will be strong and your spirit clear, old age will be late in coming and Spring will seem to be everlasting.”

Well, all that sounds very elegant and inspiring on a philosophical level.

Now—how can you APPLY this in daily life/

The answer is the “Tai Chi Daily Three”-- Meditation, Healthy Eating, and Movement which circulates and builds QI.

Future blogposts will discuss Meditation and Movement in more detail.

For a thorough description of Healthy Eating according to Tai Chi principles, just click on

Right now, here are the principles of Meditation for the Tai Chi Lifestyle:

Your body is simply a dense configuration of energy at various frequencies of vibration. Each organ vibrates at its own set of frequencies, in health and in disease. And your body as a whole, has its overall Core Frequency. Maintaining harmony and coherence in this Core Frequency is the main purpose of Meditation, and as such is your most important daily practice for health and energy.

Many books and teachers nowadays teach meditation as a kind of “feel good” relaxation practice, a way to “zone out” for a while and get away from the stresses of life.

The Taoist (Tai Chi) approach is a bit different; it is a way to focus the mind, quiet the Spirit, and build QI at the same time. That way, the Yin function of Meditation quiets the mind and relaxes the Spirit; while the mental focus and breath (Yang function) cultivate a strong QI field and build your Core Frequency.

Here are the basics of Meditation, and we will expand on these in the next blogpost.

1) BODY. You need a stable posture. Zoning out on a couch won’t do it! You require a stable and aligned body “frame” for effective Meditation. That means the crown of your head should line up with the base of your spine; your shoulders should be in line with your hips, and your ears with your shoulders.

You don’t need to sit on the floor ”yogi style” unless you are flexible enough and enjoy sitting that way. A stable posture on a chair with your feet flat on the floor is quite OK for most people. If you do sit on the floor, make sure you sit on a firm meditation cushion , so your hips can be slightly higher than your knees.

Just remember—you need to feel STABLE and COMFORTABLE, as in the illustrations below:

2) BREATH. The second critical requirement for effective, QI-building Meditation is breath. Your breath should be altogether natural and relaxed-- absolutely NO straining of the breath. Just feel and experience your natural breathing patterns. Often your breath may feel a bit tense and uneven at first, but will soon become deeper and smoother. The old meditation texts say your breath should be “slow, long, deep, and fine,” like a baby sleeping in complete tranquility. Obviously, this is a natural process and you should NEVER strain to become “relaxed.” That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?

3) MIND The third essential to Meditation is a focus for your mind. There are  scores if not hundreds of ways to focus the mind, but the simplest is just to count your breaths—from one to ten, and then repeat. If you miss a count, simply start again at one. The best way is to start meditating for 10 minutes or so, and increase the minutes over time. There is no need to spend hours meditating, unless you are a Zen monk (nun) or a mountain Taoist. For most people a CONSISTENT meditation schedule of 30 minutes a day will bring amazing results for your energy level and peace of mind.

There will be a few more specifics about Meditation in the next blogpost.

Meanwhile, just get started with Meditation, the first of the  "Tai Chi Daily Three"—and enjoy the results.

And don’t forget to check out the e-book on Healthy Eating as well.

Till next time,

paul gallagher

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What Is a Tai Chi Master?

Have you ever wondered what a Tai Chi master really is? It’s a fascinating question—and needless to say, there is no definitive answer.

Still, if you are at all interested in Tai Chi, or a “Tai Chi Master’s Strategy of Life,” some of these observations may be helpful for you to consider.

The most common ideas on what a Tai Chi master really is usually center around the following characteristics:

The Tai Chi Master is:

1) someone who performs the Tai Chi Forms perfectly, with elegance, focus, precision, and power.

2) someone who knows the entire Tai Chi System to a high level. **

3) someone who is an excellent fighter and can overcome any adversary.

4) someone who combines all the above qualities.

All of these qualities would indeed define a high-level Tai Chi master. But I would suggest there is something even more, perhaps a more elusive and intangible quality.

The following story might begin to illustrate just what this might be…

Some years ago, I was taking cooking lessons with a renowned Japanese chef in the Boston area. One of my fellow students was a young Japanese who was quite proficient in Goju Ryu Karate-do. He was visiting the United States for a while to learn English and to experience American life.

One evening, we went to a local Karate exhibition offered by one of the schools in the city. As the demonstration began, the head of the school came onstage and was addressed as “Master_______.” I have forgotten his name, since this happened several decades ago. He was an American, in his late 20’s or early 30’s. He began showing some Karate kata (solo formal exercises), and I was very impressed by his power, speed, and skill.

My Japanese friend, however, seemed to be getting more and more agitated. When there was a pause in the demonstrations, I asked my Japanese friend what was disturbing him so much. He replied in limited English, “Cannot be master; cannot be master…”

I had no idea what he was talking about.

He went on to explain as best he could that the youthful Karate teacher was “too young” to be a master. He said that a “master” had to be at least sixty years old. I was stunned to hear this, because I had been very impressed by the teacher’s demonstration.

A week or two later, my Japanese friend and I visited a scholar who was fluent in both Japanese and English. Remembering my experience at the Karate demonstration, I asked my friend and the scholar WHY a young American could not be a “master.”

The scholar replied that it had nothing to do with the teacher’s nationality, but that he was “too young.” As our conversation continued, the scholar told me that in the Far East, a “master” was assumed to be someone who had a wide experience in life and skills in many areas, and that accumulating this level of skill and life-experience required many decades. A “master” had to have more than technical martial arts skills.

A few years after that, when I myself began studying Karate, my teacher said something which seemed to confirm what the scholar had said earlier. “Don’t make the dojo (training hall) your world; make the world your dojo.” The force and depth of that comment hit me hard, and I have not forgotten it to this day. From that moment, I personally vowed to “make the world my dojo.”

Later still, when I began studying Tai Chi, I came to realize that each of my teachers seemed to have a quality and charisma which transcended mere skill in the Forms.

After many years of observing my Tai Chi teachers, and masters in other areas, I arrived at a general idea of what the term “master” means to me.

I came to realize that a true Master is someone who can help students in any area of life, from the skills of the art itself to health, life-attitude, and even spirituality. Many Tai Chi masters of the past were also highly skilled in Chinese medicine and herbs. Some of them could do Qi healing. Others were experts in military strategy.

A modern example comes to mind--the late Grandmaster Cheng Man Ch’ing, who was a “Master of the Five Excellences.” He was a high-level master of Tai Chi, Chinese medicine, painting, calligraphy, and even wei qi, or Chinese “chess,” (similar to the game of GO in Japan).

Master T.T. Liang was another Tai Chi adept who excelled in painting and calligraphy, and was taking university courses in English literature in his mid 80’s!

Many Tai Chi masters excelled in Chinese medicine. Traditionally, if a student fell ill, the well-rounded Tai Chi master could offer remedies for the illness; if a student sustained an injury while training, the master could heal that injury. When a student needed advice on some pressing life problem, the Master could offer wise counsel, based on years of observation and experience.

(I was beginning to comprehend why the Japanese scholar years earlier had said that a “master” needed to be a mature and seasoned individual).

A master also has “kung fu.” In America, we think of “kung fu” as a form of martial art, or a set of forms or techniques. Actually, “kung fu” really means something more like “inner development of skill refined after years of study.” And ‘kung fu” is not restricted to martial arts.

A supremely skilled Chinese physician who can deftly place a needle with perfect precision on an acupuncture point, or who can create an elegant and effective herbal formula, has kung fu in medicine. A superb cook has kung fu in the kitchen; and an expert calligrapher or painter has kung fu with the brush.

Developing profound kung fu requires years, if not decades.

I have personally come to believe that a Tai Chi Master should also understand Yin/Yang on many levels, since Yin and Yang and their transmutations are the very essence of Tai Chi. So a Tai Chi master could relate the Universal Principle of Yin/Yang to nutrition, medicine, meditation, and even social events and personal economy.

Most often, a well-rounded master is also a highly skilled teacher. And there is truly an exalted kung fu in the art of teaching! A real master is always compassionate and caring for students, even though the teaching and discipline may be strict. There is absolutely no excuse for a master harming or exploiting a student in any way.

A master is also supremely perceptive and can unfailingly perceive precisely what a student needs to progress. If a student’s best interest demands that s/he go on to a different teacher, the master is detached and can “let go” when the student is ready to move on.

Many students are surprised to learn that the genuine masters are still the MOST TEACHABLE of students. No real master ever pretends to know it all, since the very process of achieving mastery reveals that there is always a far horizon where there is more learning yet to attain.

I am reminded of a story told to me by my martial arts brother, Sifu Ray Hayward.

He was studying with the late B.P. Chan in New York City when T.T. Liang stopped in for a visit. After exchanging a few pleasantries, Chan promptly asked Liang to observe his Form and offer corrections. Some of his students were shocked. Chan, after all, was a master of five entire “systems” of Chinese martial arts, each “system” being roughly equivalent to a Ph.D. in the West.

After Liang had left, Chan’s students demanded to know why in the world he, an eminent master in his own right, would ask another master for “corrections.” Chan replied, “What kind of teacher would I be if I failed to try to perfect myself? The best teacher must also be the most humble student.”

That attitude is the hallmark of a true master, and an interesting contrast to the young student of meager experience who comes to a teacher and demands to learn the “good stuff,” or advanced material, claiming that he already “knows” all about the basics. A master in any art is ALWAYS practicing and refining the “basics.”

In the end, I believe that studying with a master is essential to acquire true depth in Tai Chi. It is possible to learn forms and techniques from a less skilled teacher, or even from a video presentation. But there is another dimension altogether which one senses in the energy orbit around a true master. The great Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki characterized it well when he called it a “transmission from warm hand to warm hand.” There is really no substitute.

Another of my teachers, in a totally different area of study, once told me “When you enter a room, you either brighten the room or you dim the room.” In my experience, I have found that a genuine master always brightens the room.

**  To learn more about the Tai Chi System, you can check out my book Drawing Silk

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tai Chi and the Three Teachings

Some years ago I was visiting with a professor of Chinese history at a prestigious college and asked him if there was “one best way” to understand the essence of Chinese philosophy. He unhesitatingly replied that there were TWO ways. One was to “Eat an  excellent Chinese meal” and the other was to “Study Tai Chi.”

The first came from a wonderful book by Lin Yutang, a Chinese scholar in the early 20th century who wrote in impeccable English because of his Oxford education. When asked to summarize the Chinese approach to life, he answered, “All of Chinese philosophy can be reduced to one good meal.”

Lin wrote a wonderful book entitled The Importance of Living. Although its style is a bit antiquated by modern standards, it is well worth the read, and to be perused slowly, like smoking a fine cigar or enjoying a cup of truly excellent tea.

Other than Lin’s advice, the best way to learn Chinese “philosophy” is by studying Tai Chi. Of course this is NOT about learning a bunch of abstract philosophical “head-trips.” Chinese philosophy has always been practically oriented, centered on how best to live and enjoy life.

And since many elements of the practical application of Chinese philosophy have endured for several millennia (notwithstanding the tremendous changes to China in the past century), it just might be interesting to take a look…

There are three main “paths” or teachings in China—Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Although many Westerners would call the latter two “religions,” they are not religions in the commonly accepted sense. They are more like ways of life, each effective in its own area. In the West it would be unthinkable for someone to be an Orthodox Jew, a devout Catholic, and a Presbyterian at the same time. Yet it is not at all unusual for a traditional Chinese to be a Confucian in regard to family matters, a Taoist in terms of overall life-attitude and health cultivation, and a Buddhist when it comes to the “afterlife.” Each of the teachings serves its own proper sphere.

The best example of the practical use of these Three Teachings came from my main teacher of Tai Chi, T.T. Liang

Master Liang often advised his students to be good “Confucians” until age 60—that is, get a good education, find a good career, have children and grandchildren, etc. Each successive step would be a big  “Raising of Rank.” During this time  it would also be necessary to practice health and QI development to form a foundation for later life. By establishing a good foundation of family, career, finances, and health, a student would have a good "root"  for the remainder of his/her life. Since most of Master Liang’s students of the early 1970’s were “hippies” and “seekers,” it was quite amusing seeing them reject his admonition to be good “Confucians!”

Then, Liang recommended being a “Taoist” from 60-80, emphasizing further cultivation of QI and Spirit for long life and the perfect health necessary to ENJOY the fruits of the first 60 years!  I remember a very touching incident which perfectly illustrated this maxim.  One Summer, Master Liang was teaching at an education center in New York State. He and his students were practicing in a pine grove; the air was fragrant with pine and soft white clouds drifted across the blue sky. A perfect day!

After they had finished a round of the Tai Chi Solo Form, there was a short respite. One of the students took advantage of the break to ask the Master why he still practiced at his advanced age (he was around 80 at the time). Liang looked surprised for just a moment, then replied that he practiced to make his life beautful! The student appeared a bit confused, so Liang went on to explain that he had experienced considerable toil and stress during the "Confucian" period of his life--and he needed to be in excellent health now to enjoy the fruits of his earlier labors. Tai Chi ensured that he could remain in perfect health, so he could now have the abundant energy and  alertness to enjoy his life to the fullest.

If he did not have his health, he said, his first 60 years would have been in vain. But now, he found every day beautiful.

Finally, after age 80, Liang recommended one become a “Buddhist,” that is--meditate frequently, and remember that in the end “Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form.” This way one could have a perfectly clear and calm mind, devoid of any stress or striving. As Liang once said to me—“In the end, nobody cares who’s who—all are dust!” And Liang seemed to perfectly exemplify each stage of the Three Teachings and passed away peacefully at age 102.

In Tai Chi practice there is a fascinating mix of the Three Teachings.

The Confucian aspect of the art lies with the teacher/student and student/student relationship. The teacher/student bond is based squarely upon Confucian norms of respect. There is a respect for the Founders of one’s Style and for the Founders of Tai Chi in general—that is a respect for the Lineage. There is a kind of vertical dimension, in which both teacher and student revere the Lineage of the past, and realize that someday they will be a part of that Lineage, and be esteemed in turn by their Tai Chi “descendents.”
In the horizontal dimension, students respect each other as members of the same family in a spirit of mutual help and support.

The “Taoist” aspect of Tai Chi is that many of the fundamental principles of the art—such as the mutual interplay of Yin and Yang, neutralizing aggressive Yang energy with Yin yielding, and a concept of a firm “root” which ensures one’s physical stability in the midst of movement and change—all have a distinctly Taoist flavor.

And , while there is no markedly Buddhist aspect to Tai Chi in terms of underlying philosophy, many of the Tai Chi movements probably derived from elements of Shaolin martial arts, since Shaolin anteceded Tai Chi, and formed much of the martial arts “repertoire” for many centuries in China.

In sum, going beyond the Tai Chi “Solo Form” and exercise routine and exploring the profound spiritual and philosophical roots of the art can be a rewarding study, with many positive ramifications in real-world everyday life.

For an entire audio seminar on Tai Chi and the Three Teachings, go to  click on the left on “Audio CD’s” and find “The Secret Life of Tai Chi” audio program. It is currently available as CD’s, and will be available as an MP3 download early next year.

Also, we are continuing with our Tai Chi Master Key series, using the Tai Chi principle as a guide to many areas of life. The first in this series, an e-book on “The Tai Chi Master key to Healthy Eating” can be found at