Since this was my first time participating in one of Dr. Yang’s training camps, I want to share my first impressions. I have been practicing some form of taiji on and off for many years, first in a community college. My instructor was a young man who taught a very simplified version developed in California in the 1960’s or 70’s. This form consisted of 12 different motions which were repeated as individual exercises, usually 9 times, and then strung together. I now recognize this as a qigong practice, but over time I started to find it boring and wanted to learn a more complex form. That is how I came upon Dr. Yang’s Chen style as it was being taught by Stefan Panzilus and Eric Peden in Arlington Hts., Illinois.
Over the years, as I was learning the 48 form, Eric and Stefan would introduce qiqong and meditation into the practice and insist, however gently, that it was just as, if not more, important than the form. I took lessons from Stefan and Eric for almost 10 years and then stopped for two or three years. But I came back and after several more years of lessons I decided I wanted to experience one of the camps, after hearing Stefan and Eric talk about the experience with great enthusiasm.
That was my mindset when I attended my first session with Laoshi this past July. My ambition was twofold. I, of course, hoped to refine the last twelve moves of my 48. I realized that learning from the instructor of my instructors was a very good opportunity. I also hoped to gain better insight into qigong and meditation. Although, as I mentioned, the importance of qigong and meditation was often brought up during regular sessions, it never seemed very popular with the class. It was certainly not attractive to me. After all, we all thought wa had come to learn the 48 form.
As the sessions with Laoshi began, he somehow sensed that I was struggling. I was one of the newcomers in a group of people that included many instructors and students who were already very comfortable with the form and the basic concepts of his teachings. As Laoshi was giving me some needed individual attention, he asked another member of the class to “take me under their wing” and make sure I was pairing up with other students to get the most out of the lessons being taught.
I don't know how he did it but whenever I needed instruction in some aspect of the form or qigong exercise we were working on, my “shadow” was there. As the week went on and I became more comfortable working with other members of the class, my guide gave me my space. Between the personal attention I received and working with all of the very knowledgeable and giving people that attended this camp, my sloppy form improved quite nicely.
I’m really not sure how it happened, but as the week progressed I became more and more cognizant that the qigong we were simultaneously practicing was making me aware of how the energy was to be directed. Naturally, this had an enhancing effect on my 48 form. But in addition, since all of these movements can be done minimally or in an exaggerated fashion, qigong practice now gave me the opportunity to gauge how athletically I could move and remain comfortable.
Moving from a more athletic movement to meditation, we periodically paused for lying down qigong. I gained a great respect for this practice during these 5 days. Again, I had never liked or practiced it in the past. I should say that after a day of Laoshi’s intensive training, pretty much any lying down would have been appreciated! Yet during the lying down qigong and meditation, I experienced a very good example of what I now understand to be one of the real assets to the practice of taiji in general.
A typical lying down Qigong exercise requires you to lie flat on your back with arms outstretched over your head so you are lying in a straight line. It was very painful for me to attempt this and I had always hated this practice. Laoshi explained to me and the class that it took me 60 years to mess up my body this much, I shouldn’t expect to fix it in one session. He showed me how to only push myself to near the limit and then drop back a little bit and to do that consistently and often. In this way progress will come.
It is easy to see how this technique can be applied to every aspect of my taiji practice to improve or at least gauge progress. I now feel quite confident during my practice. I realize that the important aspect is to make it a regular routine and practice often even if you don’t feel you have the perfect form. If you are confident in your form, then when given the opportunity to work with a more experienced practitioner, refinements can be made.
I want to clarify that while I found the training quite draining, the sessions are not geared toward any specific physical ability. All of the forms, exercises, and meditations are adaptable to any level. The students in this particular class ranged from very athletic to somewhat physically restricted, and everyone was able to participate at their own level.
Since coming back from camp I have been talking to fellow members of the group that study with Stefan and Eric in Arlington heights. Even though both of these instructors attend Laoshi’s camps and recommend them, I have heard members indicate that they would like to attend a camp themselves but didn’t think they would fit in with a group of people that were more advanced in the practice. I have and will continue to assure everyone that just the opposite is true. This is a group of people that wants to spread the word and techniques that Dr. Yang is teaching and seem to get as much satisfaction from helping another person improve their technique as they do from improving their own. Perhaps, and hopefully, we will see more folks from the Arlington Heights contingent attending camps in the near future.
About the Author
Alan Berna was born in Elgin Illinois in the 1950's. He attended public schools, community college and received a BS in chemistry from Roosevelt University in Chicago by working in a university office full time and going to school part time as part of his employment package. After college he found a career in the graphic arts business as a formulator but he always had a keen interest in studying the universe and it's beginnings. Every answer seemed to raise more questions and the search drifted more and more into the spiritual. For him, taiji is a way to meld the physical and spiritual.