My introduction to Tai Chi principles came long before I ever heard of or saw any Tai Chi. In the early 1990’s, I was in my 40’s and a neighbor bought a ranch with some horses included in the sale. None of us knew how to ride or care for horses, so we learned together. In order to approach a new horse, you have to go quietly, slowly and yet have confidence. When mounting him, you must make contact with his mane or neck, slowly move your leg over the top and sit down gently. If you don’t, he will dance or bolt. Once seated in that nice “horse stance”, you must remember to not pinch your knees in or grip too tight with the legs, or it will lift your seat and give him the signal to run. When he does take off into a gallop and you haven’t yet learned to control the speed, the biggest mistake you can make is to use muscle. A human, even a large man, is no match for 1000 pounds of horse. You must instead, use 4 ounces of movement in your fingers to zigzag his head and turn him into smaller and smaller circles until he slows down.
Does any of this sound like Tai Chi?
The hardest thing to learn about riding was the control of the mind and fear. One freezing cold winter we were out in the park and I spotted some ice in the center of the trail. I should have trusted the horse, but my fear got the better of me and I steered him around and we slipped and fell. I was on bottom, him on top. My leg and ankle were shattered to dust. The surgeons and rehabilitation people said I would never be stable enough to walk on sand, bend my ankle enough to walk up stairs, and would probably limp for the rest of my life. My friend carried me to my first Tai Chi class and I practiced most of that year in a cast and brace. That first teacher, Mr. Lee, was a British engineer and approached everything very technically. We had to move without bouncing, breathe without sound, look without appearing to see in addition to ending every form in the exact spot we started. There was very little push hands and no instruction in applications.
When Mr. Lee closed his classes, I met my next teacher, Shifu Joseph Laracuenta. Joe is a Puerto Rican baseball player who loves all the martial arts. He wants to share his love with everyone he meets and he does it generously and most times without payment. From him I learned confidence. He takes students on their second class and drags them out into the center of the room and says “Show me your form”. Even if they only remember to step out left and lift their hands, Joe encouragers them and tells them what a great job they are doing. He came to my house for months to coach me for my first tournament, which was run by Master Li Tai Liang in Queens.
He would never accept money and only wanted a promise to practice. Joe instilled in me a love of tai chi and the people I met in his classes. At the same time, I was taking some qigong classes with Shifu George Masone and some workshops with Master Sam SF Chin. I couldn’t get enough. I was taking classes 4-5 days a week and teaching some basic classes in my own little space.
In 2007 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was not a good year for me. Five surgeries, seven months of chemotherapy, and 30 radiation treatments in a row. Joe, George and their students, my friends, Mike, Cathy, Isabel, Merrill and Mario got me through. Joe taught me sword and fan form to combat the joint damage from the chemo. They gave me reikii, massage, did countless hours of qigone with me. George taught me how to “Fly Under The Radar” while on the radiation table. It was a mind meditation that allowed the radiation to hit the cancer and not burn the rest of my cells. He would have his entire class do Soaring Crane for weeks on end to get my lymph flowing.
After I recovered from that awful year, George began to tell me to study with Master Li. I was afraid. All I knew about Kung Fu was from the martial arts movies. Lots of fighting, hacking, stabbing and killing. George was in the Army and sometimes taught class in his camouflage uniform. I was very afraid. But, thank goodness, he finally convinced me to try.
In the summer of 2010 I took my first Xinyi Dao class. From Master Li I learned some Tai Chi, Bagua, Xinyi and Shaolin forms and principles. But most of all I learned that the important thing about the practice is developing health and helping other people. I have watched him spend his own time, energy and money in teaching and helping people at all levels. He shares his art, his food, his jacket. What student hasn’t gone out of the door on a freezing night and heard his voice telling you to put on more clothes. If you don’t have more, he takes off his own coat and gives them to you.
I think the most important thing about learning any Kung Fu is to practice with a sincere heart as Joe would say, go with the flow as George would say and help each other as Master Li tells us every class. More people need to learn the arts early in life as preventive medicine, then maybe we wouldn’t hear people saying, “I came to Tai Chi because my back is hurt, my knees are sore, I have injuries from hard arts, falls from horses, or accidents”. My wish is that all people learn the principles, including how to manage fear and stress. My thanks are to all the people, friends, strangers, students and teachers who have helped me all these years.
July 21, 2015