What is ‘Tai Chi’?: An Interview with Singing Dragon author Peter Gilligan

Peter Gilligan has over thirty years’ experience of Tai Chi, Qigong and the Nei Jia (internal arts), and is a registered instructor with the British Council for Chinese Martial Arts. Peter is also the founder and director of the DAH School of Chinese Internal Arts, the only full-time school of its kind in Belfast.

Here, Peter answers some questions about his recent book, What is ‘Tai Chi’? and shares a sample chapter (scroll to the end).

What first attracted you to the study and practise of Tai Chi?

I was initially attracted to the study of Taiji philosophy through the Yi Jing which I pursued for ten years before taking up the practice of the Quan form. During this time I worked as an Outdoor pursuits instructor but began to desire a form of exercise that did not require special equipment or travel to either the mountains or the sea; my specialisms were Rock Climbing, Sea Canoeing and Archery. Conveniently during one winter lay off a friend told me of a class in Plymouth, where I was living, with John Pollex one of Gerda Geddes’ students. My Yi Jing studies were being frustrated by my failure to understand the fundamental concepts of Taiji, namely Yin and Yang. So the opportunity to study Taijiquan based as it is on the direct expression and experience of Yin and Yang together – with its complete lack of the necessity of special equipment or location – couldn’t fail to pique my interest. I had also bought Feng Gia-Fu’s book, Tai Chi – A Way of Centering and I Ching, as part of my attempts to better grasp the Yin and Yang concepts. Whilst a pretty coffee table book, it did little other than inform that the art of Taijiquan existed. However it did provide the initial impetus to attend the class.

What effect has Tai Chi had on your life?

I would have to describe the impact of Taiji, both the philosophy and the physical practice of the Quan art, as moderately profound. The study of the Quan form certainly kick-started my stalled comprehension of Taiji and Yin and Yang. And I certainly had no expectation at the beginning that Taijiquan would become both my avocation and obsession so that I now find myself a professional Taijiquan teacher. Both the equanimity that the philosophy fosters and the active heath promotion and life extension that the Quan form cultivates proved exceptionally valuable in 1993 when I was diagnosed with a progressive terminal disease. I am literal and still living proof that Taijiquan ‘does what it say on the tin’ when practiced correctly. Treatments began to be developed in the late 90s such that my condition is no longer considered to be as terminal as once it was. Needless to say these pharmacological experiments have not been without their own not insignificant costs. Despite nearly loosing the use of my legs – a tragedy for a serious Taijiquan player because to key to excellence lies in the use of the yao and legs – I have been able to overcome even this. My ongoing regular practice, despite the major neuro-muscular damage, means that unless I choose to mention my problems most people I meet remain completely unaware of any difficulties. And I still enjoy both practicing and refining my expression of the higher levels of inter-personal physical application.

In your new book What is ‘Tai Chi’? you state that the Chinese emphasise the need for a teacher. Why is this?

The Chinese would say that the only way to learn is through direct transmission from a teacher and I agree. It is impossible to truly appreciate the possibilites inherent in our bodies without having direct experience of the accomplishments of a skilled teacher. Words alone can never transmit the experiential reality of Taijiquan any more than words can tell you the taste of chocolate or tomato if you have eaten neither. The Way of Taijiquan requires three phases summarised in the Chinese tag ‘Find, Train, Use’. Teachers are necessary to enable students to ‘Find’ that which is ‘hiding in plain sight’. Then, with advice and exercises, to assist the student in cultivating or ‘Train-ing’ so that dead ends and inefficient directions of practice can be avoided. Finally students need to experience the accomplishments of teachers in order to appreciate what it means to be able to ‘Use’ Taijiquan efficiently and effectively.

What can the practise of Tai Chi hope to teach us about ourselves?

By making us capable of being ‘at home’ with ourselves physiologically, mentally and emotionally the practice of Taijiquan can be of great benefit in discovering both the boundary between Self and Other, building an accurate self image, security and confidence, and the unity of ourselves with the context and ground of our being nutritionally, socially and environmentally. Becoming grounded in our own particular knot of existence – our personal Qi – enables us to respond appropriately to the fluctuating experiences and demands that life and living provide. Particularly in my work with recovering addicts I see the positive effect of ‘coming home’ to the safe place of the ground of our being, own bodies, having major benefits alleviating years of distress and torment from the negative consequences of an positively poisonous background and environment. While theirs is an especially extreme case, it is unfortunately true that far too many of us fail to learn to be either comfortable, or Natural, for much or any of the time. I can hardly put it any better than Yang Chen-fu: “If one realises that there are infinite variations in Taijiquan, with dancing hands and stepping feet then the interest increases daily. With practice over the years, this continuous and unforgettable joy greatly strengthens the body.”

On April 24th, thousands celebrated World Tai Chi and Qigong Day. What would you say are the most pressing issues for this global community in 2010?

My personal view is that the most necessary current task for this wonderful and ongoing project is the improvement in the understanding of the great richness and depth to be found in these arts. A major improvement in the knowledge and information of teachers is to be most dearly wished. My worry is that currently enthusiasm has greatly out stripped practical competence. This worry was a contributing factor in the writing of my book What is ‘Tai Chi’?

Read a sample chapter from What is ‘Tai Chi’?:

Click ‘Expand’ to read the full-screen version.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

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