My Tai Chi Teacher and Friend, Shirley Russ

I am happy that my Tai Chi journey includes Shirley Russ, a wonderful member of the team of instructors at Wu Xing Martial Arts. I have been training in Tai Chi for two years now, and I have appreciated Shirley’s awesome knowledge and her patience with students.

Shirley says that she teaches Tai Chi with a “great deal of love and enthusiasm for both Tai Chi and the students of the art.” I could not agree more! Shirley does an excellent job teaching us on Wednesday nights along with Serge, who I will have to tell you more about in the future. Shirley is a thoughtful and modest woman who places her students first. I have learned so much from her; somehow, when you practice Tai Chi, you remember who helped you with specific moves that were more challenging. This is still true today as well.

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Shirley Russ

Shirley has not only studied Tai Chi for 40 years, but she also practices Kung Fu, Qi Gong and Push Hands with just as much passion. Push Hands, by the way, is a two-person form of Tai Chi that we often do in class. We also practice Qi Gong in class often as a warm-up for Tai Chi or else at the end of the set to stretch.

Whenever I see Shirley on a Wednesday evening, I am eager to hear about her morning because she goes to lead a class for students on the Toronto Island. She suggested that I should come with her and I told her that I would attend one of her sessions sometime this summer. I cannot wait!

I asked Shirley her thoughts about her own experience in Tai Chi:

I feel very fortunate that I “stumbled” on Tai Chi, which was a rare and unknown commodity in 1975. I immediately recognized that it was challenging in a way that even the vigorous Western exercises I was doing, were not. So I stuck with it and to it, even though it did not come easily to me at first!

The benefits have been too many to mention – improved balance, a more open body, a greater ability to focus and many beautiful sets to do, like the Sword Set and the Partner Set. I have also met and taught a great many lovely people – Tai Chi seems to attract them! So I’m in it for life.

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Ref.: Wu Xing Martial Arts Team

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My First Tai Chi Teacher: Sifu Ali Siadatan

As I continue my journey learning Tai Chi Chuan and its related practices, I remember when I first started with Sifu Ali Siadatan, my main instructor and owner of Wu Xing Martial Arts with his wife, Shellie Siadatan.

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Sifu Ali Siadatan

I had never done any form of martial arts, but right from my first lesson, I felt as though it was a good idea for me to begin the practice of Tai Chi Chuan. Naturally, I have made progress in the past two years. I have been attending group classes regularly, and I have taken some private lessons, which helped me improve as we can go into more of the specifics one on one. I have really benefited from the guidance of all of my instructors at Wu Xing.

Sifu Ali’s interesting biography tells us that he is a third generation student of Master Yang Chengfu (1883–1936), historically considered the best known teacher of the Yang style Tai Chi Chuan (wikipedia). Sifu Ali studied under the expert guidance of Sigung John Oliver Peel, the founder of Temple Knights, a martial arts school located north of Toronto.

There was a good article about Sifu Ali published in the Globe and Mail back in 2011. Amy Verner took some of the classes and relates her experience in this article.

As well as teaching the practical side of Tai Chi Chuan, including the meaning behind the different movements, Sifu Ali shares many of the deeper meanings of martial arts. Often, these meanings relate directly to our daily lives and routines. Sifu Ali also leads Kung Fu and self-defence classes, and he guides spiritual studies. Perhaps in the future, I will try other classes and share some more of my experience.

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If Tai Chi Makes you Feel Good, then it Must be Good!

The Health Benefits of Tai Chi Chuan

According to the Wu Xing Martial Arts website, “Tai Chi is an amazing combination of a moving meditation and physical exercise.” Based on some further reading, I am convinced that there are important physical and mental benefits to Tai Chi.

I had been discussing this topic with one of my teachers and she recommended the book by Peter Wayne, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, which talks about Tai Chi and its benefits based on completed and ongoing research.

Peter Wayne is a Tai Chi teacher and Assistant Professor/Researcher at Harvard Medical School. He presents detailed statistics related to health in his book, which helps the reader understand how the components of Tai Chi can help improve health and well-being. There is obviously not enough space here to delve into all of the details, but if you are interested in learning more, you could visit the library to pick up a copy of the book. I borrowed mine at my local branch of the Toronto Public Library. This book is a great resource. It is easy to read and contains a wealth of useful information about Tai Chi and its related practices such as Qi Gong.

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Peter Wayne states, “Regular practice leads to more vigor, flexibility, balance, mobility and improved sense of well-being.”

Everyone knows that any type of physical activity is good for you. It is good for your heart as it reduces stress and it improves your psychological well-being. As we get older and are looking for the right activity, Tai Chi is the perfect option. It is one of those low-impact exercises that are accessible to people of all ages.

The book says that the therapeutic components of Tai Chi may help relieve pain, and people often begin the practice to help them recover. I have seen some regular Kung Fu students in our studio switch to Tai Chi if they have had an injury. Tai Chi is a low impact and weight-bearing exercise so it can enhance bone health, and it may also be good for you if you have low bone mass. In fact, Peter Wayne says that preliminary studies show that Tai Chi improves bone density.

You can develop your balance with Tai Chi, which is excellent to prevent falls. The kick sequences in the set require that you keep your balance to stay steady. I think that my balance has improved with practice; it is something that I focus on a lot.

The other health benefits of Tai Chi may be to:

  • lower blood pressure,
  • help your joints,
  • improve your breathing, and
  • calm your mind.

You will not resolve all of your mental and physical issues by practicing Tai Chi. However, for an hour or so, you will concentrate on the present moment and then feel calm and refreshed. I cannot say that I have experienced all of the benefits of the art so far; I am still working on my breathing, for example. On a positive note though, I sleep better on the days where I have attended Tai Chi class. This may be the first reason to begin practicing Tai Chi!

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The Essentials of Tai Chi

At every Tai Chi class, we focus on practicing while keeping in mind and applying the 10 essential principles of Tai Chi that came from Grandmaster Yang Chengfu. The Yang Family Tai Chi website explains all of the principles in detail and with expertise, but I would like to provide a short overview here.

For me (and probably for others!), it is impossible to think of all the principles at once while practicing, so during a class we focus on one of the principles, such as our straight posture, steady breath or low stance, for example. The next steps after having learned the set is to further progress, one move at a time, and learn how to do it well.

The goal as we go through the Tai Chi set is to find the proper position as we engage in the moves so that our “chi” circulates properly. The “chi” is defined in Merriam-Webster as vital energy that is held to animate the body internally and is of central importance in some Eastern systems of medical treatment and of exercise or self-defense.”

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The first principle, as we know, is to distinguish between “full” and “empty,” meaning if your weight rests on your right leg, it is “full,” and then your left leg is “empty.” The other principles to keep in mind are:

  • hold your head straight and your chin slightly in toward your chest,
  • sink your chest and raise your back, and
  • relax the waist.

The waist plays an important role in Tai Chi because each move involves this part of the body. As we turn the waist, our hands follow without moving themselves. We also have to keep the bottom part of our body heavy and our top light, while doing the set in a continuous and steady way.

As Sifu Ali reminds us regularly, we have to be like marionettes. Sifu is our main instructor at the studio that I attend. I will tell you more about him in an upcoming post, so stay tuned!

Image from Vecteezy

Tai Chi Can Be Fun Too!

A while back, I noticed that someone had posted this comic strip by Grant Snider on the bulletin board at the studio. I thought I would share it in my blog to show that there can be a lighter side to Tai Chi. I hope you like it!
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Attribution:

INCIDENTAL COMICS Words and Pictures by Grant Snider

Incidental Comics by Grant Snider is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Yang Style Tai Chi Short Form

In Tai Chi Chuan, you do not have to adhere to one kind of style or always do the same routine. In fact, there are many different options to keep it interesting. I believe that no matter what style you choose to practice, you will acquire the benefits of this exercise. Moreover, if you are like me, you like variety as well as keeping in good health!

The original long form of Yang Tai Chi has 108 movements, many of which are repeated throughout the whole set. For example, we do a great move called “wave hands like clouds” in three different parts of the long form. Imagine the figure represented below taking steps from right to left (or the other way) and “waving” his hands, then repeating this move three times in the full set.

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Waving hands like clouds

Keep this in mind as you see this move demonstrated in the video of the shorter form of Tai Chi at the end of this post. The Tai Chi 24 set is a simplified version of the traditional long form as it eliminates many of the repetitions. It takes about six minutes to complete.

I enjoy practicing the Tai Chi 24 set. Although you can do it faster, it is still a challenge to learn. I have not totally mastered it as of yet, but I am making some progress!

My goal is to be able to do it on my own and then to find time during the day to practice it. As opposed to the long set, you do not need too much time and space to do this set.

I think that Master Helen Liang, a famous Tai Chi instructor and author, demonstrates the Tai Chi 24 set in such a beautiful way in the following video. The narrator helps us understand a lot more about Tai Chi Chuan while explaining its benefits, such as promoting flexibility, balance and overall wellbeing.

Image above from Vecteezy
Video from Youtube

References for Master Helen Lian:

YMAA website: http://ymaa.com/publishing/authors/helen_liang
Helen Liang website: http://www.shouyuliang.com/instructors/helen-liang.php

Full and Empty – The First Principle of Tai Chi

As I mentioned in my first post, the Yang Style Tai Chi set consists in a series of 108 movements done at a slow and consistent pace. Right from the beginning, we calm our breath, slow down our pace and move in a consistent manner. I find that Tai Chi has many challenges though, and they are not always evident when you watch someone practicing Tai Chi. This is what makes this activity so interesting and a bit mysterious to me.

For example, we are learning about the principle of “full” and “empty.”

As we go through the set and transition from one movement to the next, it is important to remember to place our weight on one leg, which means that leg is “full,” and so the other leg is “empty,” or light. I find that it is helpful to know the difference between “full” and “empty” when I am doing the kicking sequence as well. In addition, I learned that bending the knee of the “full” leg is good to help you keep your balance.

The International Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan Association explains the “Empty Stance”: “… when your back leg and foot is pointed to the corner and the front foot is forward. The front foot touches with either the toe or heel. More weight is on the back leg and the front leg takes just a little bit of weight…”

The image below shows a martial arts practitioner whose back leg is “full” and front leg is “empty.”

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