Learning from a Master

Chicago Skyline

I recently spent a weekend in Chicago with Taoist Lineage Holder Bruce Frantzis. Bruce is the teacher of my teachers, Kathryn and Bill. Since 2010 I have been studying the material that he has passed on to them, reading his books and watching his videos. So you can imagine how excited I was to meet him and learn from him in person.

Chris Cinnamon of Chicago Tai Chi, where the event was held, and his students were excellent hosts. There were about 70 people in attendance. It was really cool to meet a bunch of people who practice tai chi.

We did many partner exercises, and I learned a lot from the other students. Some of them had first studied with Bruce in the 70’s or 80’s. Some had a lot of experience with other forms of tai chi, but were new to Bruce’s material. Others had begun their studies in tai chi and qigong in the past few years.

Bruce was teaching the Old Yang Style of tai chi. I had no prior experience with this form. Attempting to learn a new form after 5 years of practicing one form was a humbling experience. Never mind doing it in a weekend. This was a reminder of how difficult it can be to learn even the basic movements of a tai chi form, something that is important for me to keep in mind as a teacher.

In addition to teaching the form Bruce covered a wide range of internal components of tai chi, and demonstrated some fighting applications. Much of what he taught applies to the Wu Style as well. I learned a lot. Too much, perhaps. I feel I may not fully understand some of the material he presented for many years.

Bruce made two big-picture points about the health benefits of tai chi which I would like to share with you.

He said that based on his knowledge he believes that the most important factor in staying healthy is maintaining movement of the fluids in the body. If the movement of fluids becomes blocked or stagnant in some part of the body, problems will develop.

Bruce was talking about all of the fluids in the body. Many of the body's fluids - such as lymph, interstitial fluid, synovial fluid and cerebrospinal fluid - do not have the benefit of a dedicated organ to pump them around. These fluids are moved around by the motions of the body’s tissues - when we sit around, they don't move much. When we hold tension in our tissues, fluids can't move through them as well. Even though blood is pumped through the body to the extremities by the heart, its flow can become restricted by many factors, and its return to the heart is dependent upon the movement of the body.

Tai chi is designed to move all of the body’s fluids with its rhythmic bendings and stretchings of the soft tissues and openings and closings of the joints, which one can eventually learn to manifest throughout the entire body. This is why even though practicing tai chi does not raise the heart rate, it does improve blood circulation.

While any form of exercise will likely help to create some fluid movement, exercises that emphasize linear movements and muscular contraction will not do so as effectively and efficiently as the relaxed, circular and rhythmical movements of tai chi.

Another point that Bruce emphasized was about joint health. He said that the best thing that you can do to maintain the health of your joints, and to treat arthritis, is circular motion. High quality tai chi is designed to create circular motion in all of the joints of the body.

We spent some time working on circular motion during the weekend. It may sound easy, but to create continuously circling motion even in a few joints of your body at once takes some practice. But it’s well worth it, considering how many people develop joint problems during their lives.

Bruce talked quite a bit about the history of the Old Yang Style, and its many permutations, the Wu Style being one of them. I was impressed with his knowledge of the various lineages and the tai chi masters who handed them down and have carried them to the present day (many of whom he had personal experience with).

He made it clear that more than the name of a style or a fancy title, the quality of tai chi that you can learn from a teacher is determined by how well each person in the lineage has learned it and passed it on to the next generation.

I was inspired by Bruce's dedication to help people by sharing his knowledge of these arts. I would highly recommend training with him if you have the opportunity.

I flew in to Chicago a couple days early to hang out with my brother and experience the city. I also saw this awesome "HARMONY" mural, and had to snap a picture.

Harmony Mural