White Crane Spreads Its Wings

Two years ago I wrote a column about taking up the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, said I'd report back after a year. Last year. I checked in, promised an update in 12 months' time. Here we go again.

Tai Chi and me are an inexplicable match. I have an aversion of verbal mumbo-jumbo. Sentences like, "If the flow is swift it is difficult to resist. Coming to a high place, it swells and fills the place up, meeting a hollow it dives downward," scrape against my eardrums. I am not a patient man. Getting good at Tai Chi requires decades. Progress is imperceptible. There is nothing in my background suggesting that in the maturity of my life I would flounce around a public park attempting to move my invisible chi from one limb to the next. And yet, I've been taking Tai Chi three times a week for two years, and lately, have been practicing six days a week.

I am a student of the Yang form of Tai Chi, which has three sections and 108 movements. I wrote, two years ago, "Within one or two decades I should be able to demonstrate for you the Grasp Sparrow's Tail, White Crane Spreads its Wings, Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain, Needle to the Bottom of the Sea, Wave Hands Through Clouds (five times), and Snake Creeps Low. Kindly check back then." Now, after two years' study, if I hold to my current elevated pace, I should be able to perform a passable rendition of the foregoing moves in ten years' time. This is hurling toward perfection at reckless speed.

I wish to be accurate. After two years' study, I have learned three sections and 108 movements on the right side. "Learned" means I can lurch through a set, but it is nowhere close to the real thing. The difference between a Sifu's Tai Chi and my Tai Chi is the difference between a mule and a Kentucky thoroughbred; you can tell they're somewhere related, but it's hard to tell exactly where that where is.

This year I'll start learning three sections and 108 movements on the left side. There is, up ahead, reverse breathing, moving chi within the body, weight shifting, and...more than you could possibly want to hear.

My first teacher is a man I'll call Yee Yuen. He's been practicing Tai Chi for 50 years, is a master, gives workshops in Germany, England, Israel, Hawaii, and all over the United States. He's small, maybe five-foot-five, bald, has a slight belly, and speaks with a Chinese accent. Before we get dewy-eyed, Sifu Yuen is also a retired Los Angeles high school teacher, lives in a modest house furnished in college-freshman flea-market decor, is married to an overweight real estate broker 30 years his junior, shops at Costco, and carries a cell phone on his hip. His Tai Chi is slowly moving water, one continuous flow.

Sifu Yee Yuen holds classes in a city park, and I thank him for that. Tai Chi is meant for outdoors. Class runs 90 minutes, breaks down as a half hour of standing meditation, half hour of Chi Gung (exercises meant to cultivate your mojo), and a half hour of Tai Chi Chuan.

After a year and a half, I left Yee Yuen, not for his Tai Chi, which is impeccable, but because of his old-school Chinese-style teaching. Yee Yuen does a set of Tai Chi, you follow, he might say a few words at the end, and then you go home. This style obviously works; it's been used for hundreds of years, but it didn't work for me.

Now comes one of his ex-wives. She showed up to teach class while Yuen was doing a workshop in England. Mireille, 49, was born in France, left home and hitchhiked to Nepal when she was 17, stayed there a few years with side trips to Afghanistan, India, Indonesia, then on to Morocco, then England, then to Venezuela, where she began teaching Tai Chi. Then, California, where she met and married Yuen. There goes 20 years.

She and Yuen had two children, she became a Tai Chi master, they divorced and found new partners. The pair treat each other with obvious affection because they have children in common. Each reeks of integrity and they work at it.

She is a brilliant, enthusiastic teacher. She will break down one move into parts and, most importantly, will tell me the same thing 1000 times. I credit her for moving my Tai Chi from stumble up to lurch. I would hand over my last dollar if she asked for it.

I always practice outside. I've developed a stash of beautiful places. I drive to a particular spot, depending on my mood and the weather. I don't feel enlightened or blissed or righteous during or after practice. I practice Tai Chi Chuan because I'm drawn to it. I don't ask why.

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