>In The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes, "What everyone knows is not called wisdom." When most Westerners hear "tai chi," very specific images come to mind: serene practitioners – seniors and women primarily – moving gracefully with slow, synchronized precision.
This is tai chi, but it is neither wisdom nor mastery. It is only a beginning.
Why tai chi?
The roots of all forms of tai chi chuan (or more properly, taijiquan) extend across centuries to Chinese general Chen Wangting, who developed it originally as a grappling art for close-quarters combat.
"Most Western schools teach Yang-style tai chi, emphasizing the low-impact fitness benefits," says author and educator José Figueroa, who, with his fiancé Q Moet, is co-owner of Dark Raven Studios in St. Paul. "Authentic Chen taiji is similar to Yang-style, but with lower stances and a mix of slow, fluid movements and explosive movements designed for self-defense and combat training. We emphasize coiling and uncoiling techniques, called silk reeling, which give Chen taiji its power."
The result? A great aerobic workout that does triple-duty as self-defense training and movement meditation. Figueroa gets all kinds of students, from seniors concerned with longevity and quality of life to young thrill-seekers looking for a chance to prove themselves.
"I’ll work with anyone, but Chen taiji requires a good foundation – it’s not about power or what moves you know. It’s about a basic approach and fundamental techniques done well," Figueroa says. "Most martial arts are checkers; Chen taiji is chess."
Flight of the raven
Figueroa came to St. Paul from New York City with the idea of founding a holistic wellness center with Chen taiji at its core. Dark Raven Studios’ namesake, the raven, has long captured the imagination – a cross-cultural representation of portent, magic and cunning. In life, ravens are known for their intelligence, resourcefulness, audacity and "street smarts." In legend, they are benefactors and thieves, moving freely between darkness and light, known and unknown, here and hereafter.
Over the past two decades, Figueroa has seen this yin-yang duality manifested. As an educator and author, he has enjoyed the smiles of Bronx youngsters learning tai chi in gym class and patients recovering from serious spinal injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. As a student and competitor, he has endured bruises and broken ribs from world competition and the stern tutelage of Chen Taiji master Ren Guang Yi, a student of Chen Taiji grand master Chen Xiaowang, 19th-generation descendant of General Chen himself. The smiles and the bruises complement each other; neither is possible without the other.
Figueroa’s passion for Chen taiji has led him to develop teaching methods for children, adults and seniors alike. His techniques are less "hands-on" than his master’s, but no less effective. Figueroa literally wrote the book on teaching Chen taiji to children. Released in late 2005, Tai Chi for Kids presents the results of a decade of testing and teaching Chen-style taiji in New York City public schools.
Non-violent conflict resolution
Figueroa’s classes emphasize non-violent conflict resolution, stress management and wellness, while still giving kids that authentic kung fu kick they love. He has since adapted the curriculum as an after-school program offered to students at Linwood A+ Elementary School.
"I’ve also developed Run Fu, a practical form of self-defense that takes advantage of taiji’s hidden movements," he says. "Many martial arts rely on punches, kicks and throws that are easily read and countered. Chen taiji’s movements are more subtle. We focus on prevention and awareness first and foremost, followed by effective techniques for leveraging an attacker’s force against him."
Known as "the dance of the immortal," tai chi is recognized for advancing health, life and longevity. According to Figueroa, Chen taiji doesn’t stop there. It is an open door always in front of you, meeting you where you are and taking you as far as you want to go, promoting confidence, character and quiet, coiled strength.
At a Glance: José Figueroa
What he is: educator, martial arts champion, author, actor, film producer, fight choreographer, journalist, entertainment correspondent for Kung Fu/Qigong magazine, founder of his own school, Dark Raven Studios in St. Paul
Training: Chinese martial arts forms, gymnast, wrestler, boxer
Successes: Working with children, adult learners, students recovering from post traumatic stress disorder, spinal cord injuries and substance abuse
T’ai chi: Known as "the dance of the immortal"
Founded: Tai Chi Holistic Network in 1992
Consultant: Veterans Affairs Hospital’s Psychiatric Department
Core faculty member: Omega Institute of Holistic Studies
Debut as martial artist/film actor: feature-length film Manhattan Chase, with Cynthia Rothrock and Loren Avedon
Author:Taijiquan 38 Forms and Application, Tai chi for Kids and Tai Chi Basics
Off-Broadway choreographer: premiere of composer Fred Ho’s Journey Beyond The West: The New Adventures of Monkey at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
Current project: directorial and acting debut in his first feature martial arts action film Shadow Lords.