I first learned about tai chi chaun when I was reading about Chinese religions in College. Years later found a book on it too and it became an interest but I had no idea if I would find an instructor.
Then I began my study of Isshinryu, till within 4 years I was a new sho-dan, my instructor was returning to the USAF for his career, and except for competing in tournaments I was on my own for my training. I started my program at the Scranton Boys Club and then one day in 1979 I saw an article in the Scranton newspaper about a demonstration for a new kung fu school in town and a demonstration of tai chi chaun was part of their program.
Rothrock Ernest Laoshi was the school instructor and performed the demonstration. Seeing it I realized I wanted to study it and after the demonstration was over approached him. Hearing my background he told me he would accept me as a student and that there would be 1 ½ hour class a week of personal instruction and it would cost $7.50 a class.
I began the next week.
He first taught me several warm up drills, standing still in play guitar as a drill, tai chi stepping practice and finally the opening of the Yang Long Fist Tai Chi Chaun form.
The Yang form as he taught it was roughly broken into 6 rows of techniques, but if you use the closing movement section as a determinant there would be 3 sections. IMO making such distinctions has nothing to do with tai ch, but is a useful tool to train beginners.
The normal class structure was I would go and perform the warmup exercises, stepping and standing still. Then I’d perform the form I knew, with Laoshi making corrections as needed. Then he’d show me the next section of the form and I would then continue the practice of the form with the new section.
I quickly discovered being a sho-dan in Isshinryu didn’t prepare me for tai chi. There were stances I had to learn to hold that caused a pull to a single muscle fiber in the middle of my quads. So even tai chi required conditioning in it’s own way.
He also began to teach me the single push hands partner drill. Having taught myself, I know I was way to stiff and probably as much fun as doing push hands with a sack of potatoes.
My routine at that time was teaching two classes at the Boys Club a week, training with Laoshi on Tuesday evenings and as my wife was the Swimming Coach at the YMCA, the other evenings I would go their to practice both Isshinryu and Tai Chi. I quickly discovered that they didn’t mix very well so one night I’d work Tai Chi and the next night I’d work Isshinryu. Later I began to feel a conflict between my tai chi practice and my sanchin practice. I found my resolution to that issue and my tai chi continued.
I think that first row took about 12 weeks to learn. Then Laoshi explained I had to re-learn the first row, but this time my head and eyes had to follow a specific point that moved as the form was performed. So once again I went through the first row move by move. I immediately discovered whatever balance I had begun go acquire during my training was lost. The role of the head with the eye focus moving during practice made maintaining balance very difficult. The use of the head maintaining balance in normal movement became obvious. I had to learn how to draw my balance into my center. In the long run, working to develop a stronger center within myself..
I also began to experience what I describe as ‘chi’, it came from me experiencing the energy wave feeling of my instructor. You know in all our years we’ve never set down and talked chi, discussed it or explained it. We’ve just discussed correct practice of the form. I then would say what I experienced is a personal issue, but real to me. When Laoshi would move with me I could feel his movement.
Then one night I returned from class, entered our home and discovered my karate instructor, Charles Murray, sitting there waiting for me. He come back on vacation to visit his wife’s family. I began describing what I was doing in karate and that I had also started to study tai chi and stood up to show him what I had done earlier in the evening.
I started performing the Yang form with him seated before me when suddenly he asked me to stop. “Vic, that was curious when you did that movement I felt a wave of energy wash over me, could you do it again?”. So I restarted the form and when I reached the same point he stopped me again. “Wow, each time you did that I felt that energy wave…” We then discussed this and he explained that he had been working on the Chinkuchi drills he had studied on Okinawa with Shimabuku Shinso and felt that they had sensitized him to ‘feel’ my tai chi practice.
In time I completed learning the first row the 2nd time and had begun to develop some rough balance in my practice. I had progressed from partner single push hands to partner stepping push hands too. Then I was told I would now relearn the first row a 3rd time. Who said the study of tai chi chaun is simple?
So I’ve somewhat learned the first sections movements and have learned where to shift my head an eyes as I do the form, it can’t get worse than that right? Wrong, for now I had to learn the first section with the correct breathing pattern.
Again movement by movement relearning the form when to inhale and when to exhale. The first result was my balance was again lost. By focusing on the breathing, with the head – eye movements, you were less using your hearing and discovered it must have been a component of your balance too. In turn further forcing you to find your balance from your center and not your head.
Then the day came I was ready to begin studying the 2nd row of techniques. At this time I was expected to use the experience on the moving head/eyes and breathing to each new movement of the form. From this point on each row would be studied one time.
In time the 2nd row became the 3rd row.
I was practicing my tai chi 3 days a week and one day decided I should try and do something else. In addition to my karate instruction and practice and my tai chi study and practice I was competing at maybe 20 karate tournaments a year and judging as well. Many times when judging competitors using Chinese forms I wasn’t sure I had enough knowledge to do so accurately. I decided to ask Laoshi if I could study some Chinese forms to become a more knowledge able judge.
He agreed to train me further and asked what I wanted to study. While his schools were teaching Pai Lum, he had an extensive background in other systems (Sil Lum, Tai Tong Long and was actively studying Faan Tzi Ying Jow Pai at that time too). Having no idea what I should study I asked him to pick so he chose a Northern Shaolin form as my starting point. Again ½ hour a week and of course for additional fee. (eventually I studied a bit in a number of Northern based systems N. Shoalin, N. Mantis, N. Eagle Claw and Pai Lum). I never became a kung fu expert but did reach my goal becoming more knowledgable even to the point of competing with those forms several times).
Yang Long Fist Tai Chi Chaun was difficult for me with much deeper stances than the more upright Isshinryu. Those studies in other Chinese forms were all Nothern systems and they used some of the same deep stances. In time they helped my tai chi stances and further down the road made my legs much stronger form my Isshinryu too.