Tai chi: chances are the term evokes images of people in a park or at a rec center moving slowly through a flowing set of movements and breathing exercises – which is understandable, because that’s how many of us have encountered it. But there’s something about all that gliding and breathing you may not know.
“It’s actually one of the deadliest forms of martial arts,” explains Mark Bram, the proprietor and instructor at Internal Arts in Pawtucket. In fact, the name tai chi – or rather, its full name, tai chi chuan – literally translates as “supreme ultimate boxing.” Bram has been studying it since 1979, when a chance encounter while delivering meat to a restaurant owner in Boston led to a casual tutelage. That developed into 12 years of one-on-one instruction with Sifu (“master”) Lee Wah Yook, a former president of the New England branch of the Eastern United States Kung Fu Federation. Upon his passing in 1991, Lee bequeathed his system to Bram, who has been teaching it ever since.
Tai chi is ultimately a system for harnessing and directing one’s qi (ch’i, or life force) in ways that can achieve seemingly improbable results. Visit Internal Arts’ website and you can watch video of Bram, a man of average height and build, using the slightest touch to launch a 6’3”, 280-pound student backwards into a mat. This can only happen, he says, when we learn to resist our natural instinct to meet force with force, and instead yield to force then redirect it to our own purposes. Thus, when Bram instructs me to use all my strength to place him in a chokehold, he delicately places his hands underneath my elbows and simply shoos me away with little effort.
Later, to demonstrate the power of qi, he performs what he calls a “parlor trick.” He instructs me to hold out my arms at shoulder height and resist with all my might while he tries to push them down. Indeed, his first attempt is unsuccessful. Then, he does a quick movement that glances several pressure points on my face and effortlessly pushes down my arms. To really drive home the point he instructs me, “This time I’m going to tell you when I’m going to do it so you can push back.” Again, I successfully resist his first application of force. “Okay, now I’m going to do it so get ready.” I do, and even with his advance warning I’m unable to stop him from gently guiding my arms back down.
Such is the power of qi properly harnessed and directed. He’s using his qi to disrupt mine in a way that makes my limbs bend to his will. If it seems mystical, Bram notes that it does have some grounding – if a bit tenuous and theoretical – in quantum physics. “We’re made up of electrically charged particles,” he says. “I’m simply using my electrically charged particles to affect yours. I’m overloading your qi, which distracts your body so it can’t resist.”
Bram also introduces me to “the form,” a long, elaborate set of movements that is slowly built in increments over months and years of training until it becomes a roughly 18-20 minute routine that students practice over and over again. He walks me through the first few moves, then demonstrates other pieces of it. It looks similar to what Bram refers to as “park tai chi,” all flowing arms, sweeping motions, and slow, deliberate steps and lunges, but this is not simply some form of standing yoga or meditation to relax the body. In fact, all of these moves have practical applications, usually unbeknownst even to those practicing them.
Take for example, one of tai chi’s more recognizable flourishes, in which a person slowly lunges forward, sweeping one hand downward while pushing forward with the other. Its practical application is to block an incoming kick and strike the solar plexus of the attacker. That may seem contrary to the peaceful serenity we associate with the folks doing tai chi in the park, but relaxation is in fact a major part of the practice – it’s just that the state of relaxation is intended to keep you grounded in the now so that you can deftly parry an incoming attack and deliver a devastating counter blow without breaking a sweat.
999 Main Street (Hope Artiste Village), Pawtucket