T’ai Chi promotes the whole person
“You were born a t’ai chi master,” says Ray Hayward, master t’ai chi teacher at Twin Cities T’ai Chi Studio in St. Paul. His eyes sparkle above the long, graying beard on his youthful face. He is talking about his journey as a t’ai chi student and about how this Chinese health maintenance system develops the whole person, body, mind and spirit, returning you to your original nature.
“I had asthma, allergies, pneumonia. I spent so much time in the hospital, as a kid, they were going to keep me back in school. I had very bad health. And that was during the Bruce Lee, David Carradine, kung fu craze, so I joined a karate school. That actually turned my health around, started me feeling really good, until I hurt my knee. I was around 13. Somebody said, you know there’s this martial art called t’ai chi. It’s really soft and it’s good for your knees.”
Ray searched for and found the famous Chinese t’ai chi master T.T. Liang in 1977, and he remained Liang’s student until the noted master died at the age of 102 in 2002. Ray was attracted to Master Liang’s great personality and his knowledge. Not only did Ray learn t’ai chi from Master Liang, but he also learned how to teach from him. It was very important to Master Liang that his students be able to share their knowledge.
“He taught what I wanted to learn. He introduced me to so many interesting people, concepts, books and culture. I got the full education, not just movement.”
The full education of t’ai chi includes “the whole person, your mind and your spirit and your soul and your energy, not just the physical movement,” Ray says.
And what does energy mean in t’ai chi? “It’s like the electricity that runs the body,” he says. “Some people call it soul. Some people call it ‘chi.’ The problem with the word ‘chi’ in Chinese is that it has so many meanings. The problem with the word ‘soul’ is that it has one meaning. Energy is a nice way to say lots of things. There’s mental energy, spiritual energy, emotional energy, and you can feel it. You can feel it in your body. You can feel it in other peoples’ bodies. You can feel when there’s more or less of it. And Master Liang had it in great abundance.”
There are four areas of learning in t’ai chi: health, self-defense, meditation and philosophy. In all areas, energy and spirituality are vital. Energy is applied positively or, at the very least, in a balanced and neutral manner. In self-defense, negative energy is borrowed from the other and returned as it was given. In this way, the t’ai chi student becomes a mirror to his opponent. Philosophy requires one to do no harm and to share his gifts with others. In this way, the t’ai chi student becomes a window to the world. Meditation and health also deepen spirituality and refine the student’s natural way of being.
Relaxation is essential to receiving the benefits of t’ai chi. Through relaxation, one is able to truly feel what is inside himself and others. “It’s a scary thing,” says Ray, “yet it is what people really want. Nothing external satisfies.”
Ray does not call himself a master. That is a title bestowed by his peers and his students, some of whom have been studying with him for more than twenty years. Why do they keep coming back?
It’s because practicing the forms of t’ai chi progresses in a circle. There’s a birth, life and death to each form of t’ai chi. While moving through a form, a student must focus on the now. He simultaneously connects the present form to a bit of the past and a piece of the future. Each form is a circle that leads to the next. When that circle closes, a new circle begins.
The philosophy behind t’ai chi helps students to circulate their blood, breath, nutrition and their thoughts. This circulation leads to the relaxation that allows them to be open to their own infinite potential, to others and the natural flow of the universe.