I knew karate existed prior to attending college. The prior summer while at the beach in Ocean City I found a paperback book by Bruce Teger about karate. Then several years later my roommate, Richard Durich, began his own study of Shotokan at Temple University under Okazaki Sensei. He showed me a few things so he could use me for practice, but it would be years before I began my own study of Isshinryu karate.
While at Temple I became interest in Taoism and did my own independent study of that practice. During my reading I became aware of the existence of Tai Chi Chaun. But I never saw tai chi performed.
Then one day in August of 1979, the summer after I made shodan in Isshinryu, I saw it advertised that Ernest Rothrock, of his Shaolin School in Scranton, was doing a kung fu demo in his school the next Saturday, it said he was also going to demonstrate tai chi. I decided I should attend to watch.
I knew he was the husband of Cindy Rothrock and her instructor. But knew nothing of his arts or of him. I watched his school performance of their White Dragon kung fu. But what I was interested in was his Tai Chi Chaun. It was the first time I had seen it demonstrated and once I saw it I was hooked, to speak.
A approached him after the school demo, explained who I was a new ShoDan in Isshinryu, and was it possible to take lessons with tai chi with him.
He looked at me, then said, “Sure, it would be a ½ lesson every Thursday evening at $7.50 a lesson.”
I did not realize most of his students lessons were individual lessons either. I could afford that so I said, “OK!”
That was how it began.
I did not realize what I was asking him to do was likely as much fun for him as doing Push Hands with a bag of wet cement. Karate prepares you not in the least for tai chi study, In fact you know less than nothing having to unlearn so much to make progress.
Interesting dichotomy as I never let my karate practice slip during the entire process.
I wasn’t looking for self defense, kung fu or anything outside of studying tai chi. I was only minimally aware there were different tai chi styles.
Ernest explained that what I would be studying was Yang Tai Chi.
When Thursday came around I showed up and paid for my class.
I believe I wore my karate uniform for I did not know what to wear. The associate instructor watched me warming up and I am sure they wondered what a karate guy was doing there? One of them came up as I was warming up while I was doing stretch kicks. He was about to speak when my leg rose above his head. I guess he got the answer he was looking for, as he just backed away.
I was waiting there, not knowing what to expect when Ernest came up to me.
I found out I was the only one studying tai chi with him at that time. He then began having me stand in a stance holding my hands up (what is commonly referred to as Play Guitar) but he just showed me what he wanted and moved my leg into the position and positioned my hands. Then he had me stand on the one leg with the other leg foot toes just touching the ground for 5 minutes. Not doing anything else, just holding the position. I felt it big time in my quads as I stood there. Then he had me change stance, another 5 minute hold. More quad pain. Being a black belt is karate brought me nothing to do that, I discovered you could pull one muscle of your quad standing still, and on each leg.
Next he showed me how to step, slowly, Moving my rear leg into the supporting let, then slowly stepping out till I would place my heel on the floor, then to slowly lower my foot and flow my weight to that foot, to become the new support leg and then repeat the process with the other foot. Then foot step following foot step, finally to learn a new way to turn around with tai chi stepping. It was explained this was also a necessary beginning drill, to learn how to move slowly across the floor, to be use in my Yang.
There were several other drills, all of them done with slowness.
Finally he began my study of the form, Just raise my hands. Slowly drop them down, shift my hands to the left, to allow my left hand to slowly drop down to hold a ball of air between both hands.
That was all, the entire class.
The next week that became the pattern, he would observe me doing my drills, making corrections when needed. Then another small piece of the form.
So it went week by week. Names were not mentioned for most of the movements, I was taught more by tactile feel as he moved my hands through each movement, and also shifted my feet.
Eventually I would learn the Yang form was broken into six sections for learning. Each moving a row of techniques in one direction. West, then East, then West, then East then West and finally East.
It was slow going but movement by movement I learned.
One day I finally learned the first section. Only then was I told I only had the beginning of that section. I would have to learn it two more times. One for the head movements-Eye focus to be used with each technique. Then one for the breathing pattern to be used for each technique.
Those following lessons were most difficult, but they were also the key lessons to the art.
When the head rolls with the movement, the eyes follow a specific moving point, and then the cyclic breathing pattern is established with the movement of the form, you are removing stationary head movement, use of gaze, and use of breathing as crutches to aid establishing balance. This forces you to internalize your balance within your center.
After learning that first form 3 times, you were expected to apply all of that with the subsequent lessons.
I was about a year into my study, having completed sections 1,2 and 3. I thought I as making some progress. In addition to the tai chi form Ernest had also taught me the stationary single hand push drill, the moving single hand push drill, and the turning and moving single hand push drill. I was also beginning the stationary double hand push drill.
But then he added a twist, for I was told before I would learn the last 3 rows of the Yang form I had to learn the Yang Straight Sword form (I did not know for a decade that it was just the beginning of the form it was quite complex in its own right). So I obtained a wooden sword, and found the beginning was using the pattern of the 1st row of the Yang form in part, then things grew more hinky.
The thing of the Straight Sword was that the only control for the sword was your wrist. I was told in the Chinese Arts, they considered the Straight Sword the most difficult one.
Eventually I learned the sword form, and considered it the most difficult thing I ever learned. (But as Ernest knew dozens straight sword forms from many sources, this was a most simple one for him. I on the other hand….) In more time I got through it.
Perhaps I should mention here I also did considerable practice. As much my tai chi as my karate practices.
I should also mention never, ever did Ernest ever talk about chi in the study and practice.
Just the flow of the form, the eye movements, the breathing pattern. And there were times hand and I did practice together, Me just trying to match his speed. He told me his instructor did the form for 45 minutes. He told me he could approach 25 or 20 on his best days. I was lucky when I made it past 15 minutes. It is very, very, very hard to go slow.
So 4 followed 3, then 5 followed 4 and finally 6 followed 5. I made it through the entire form.
Push hands training went further too. From the stationary double push hands drill, to the moving double push hands drill to the final turning and moving double push hands drill.
Things were starting to make some sense.
That was my training, the day came when I was told I now knew the Yang form, and I had the burden, joy to practice and practice.
Most of his students were only there for kung fu lessons. They did not have much interest in tai chi at that time.
Ernest told me I was the 2nd person that he had taught the form to.
What did I know, not so very much, it only took me 2 years of weekly lessons to get there.
The real lessons were just beginning.
Shortly after Ernest moved to begin another school in Pittsburgh. I did travel there to train. Along the way be became friends and I began studying forms to gain more knowledge about the Chinese systems.
The next few years, whenever I was able to train with him I always let him see my Yang, but did my best not so show my Yang straight sword. I was frustrated at how difficult it was for me, and felt I had made little progress.
Then I moved to New Hampshire. We still saw each but far less frequently.
I knew his studies in N. Eagle Claw progressed. His Eagle Claw instructor got him to study other tai chi including Wu Tai Chi.
One day after 10 years, not having worked tai chi together for many years, we worked together to demonstrate the first 3 rows. It was filmed and I was doing very much the same thing he was. My practice remained true.
One day years later he suggested I begin to practice faster. Unto doing my Yang at full speed.
Then one night after 15 years he demolished everything I was doing, in minute detail Then he showed what I had to do to correct everything. Very logical, very powerful, and he was shown that the same way after 15 years.
He never really showed me how to use my tai chi studies martially.
There are several reasons for that, for me because I had karate for martial use, and never was interested in that for tai chi.
But the world keeps turning, I had discovered the advanced tai chi books of Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming and his extensive uses for tai chi self defense.
I was working a great deal on my karate kata application studies, and I was teaching a small tai chi group as I was.
So one day I began to work after that class with the guys on tai chi application ideas from Dr. Yang’s writing. The simplest of moves called the Yang Roll back. I was working slow with my partner, and in slow motion almost caved his chest in, then not believing I did that, did it again also in slow motion. Nothing I ever expected.
I called Ernest and described to him what happened.
He replied laughing: “Didn’t I never tell you to do that to your own students?”
Him knowing we never discussed use of tai chi for self defense.
My self studies continued very carefully. Never my primary focus for tai chi, I could of course use it effectively. Another tool in the tool box.
I once read a good book on tai chi can compress 50 years of knowledge into that book. BUT it can also take 50 years to understand what was written.
Now having to have modified my Yang to continue my practice. I most often begin my day with Yang Row 1, and at times I do more.
But the more I practice, the more I realize I have more to study and keep plugging along.