Event reviews

Review of Push Hands Hannover for Taichi Chuan and Oriental Arts Magazine: As a newbie to The International Push Hands Meet, what can I say? Ronnie Robinson asked me to write a personal view probably because I’m not an ‘old hand’, and I have to say that I will certainly be back again next year with friends, students and colleagues. I met some fabulous people. The atmosphere was great and the studios, both at Nils Klug’s school and the nearby Kunst Halle are all lovely to work in, really large and light. The whole place is in an arty quarter, and all the events are based in an old bed factory by the river. There are artist’s studios, a radio station, cafes and a tango school.

Hannover seems to be a great city, certainly friendly and quirky, strangely reminding me of Glasgow. However, I seemed to be the only person in the city wearing bright colours in the street. A woman just stopped me on the pavement and exclaimed how ‘shoen’ my (Tom Baker in Doctor Who-style) purple coat was and the gist of what she ranted was that everyone in Hannover was so boring and wears only brown, dark blue or black.

The teaching that I encountered over the week was top-notch and varied across a wide range of studies. Choices of daily seminars and 3 or 4 consecutive half-day courses ranged from looking at joint locks and chin na, fan form, listening and uprooting skills, five elements energies within the form, basic peng-lu-ji-an and their intrinsic qualities, staff, sabre, opening and closing the joints in partner work, grounding, and so on. I had thought it would only be push-hands… Almost everyone practised some kind of Yang Style, and only a couple of people also practised Chen Style, which was a shame, as I was hoping to get some practice of those patterns too. In the afternoon there were also courses, but the big room in the Kunst Halle was for ‘free push hands’. This ranged from the gentle to the robust but was all sincere and from what I experienced, extremely good natured. A kitchen timer was set off every ten minutes, and we all changed partners. No one was obliged to push with anyone else, and there was an area reserved for beginners and gentler pushing. Occasionally Nils had to ask some of the blokey blokes to tone things down in the main hall, but this is just one of the ways he made it really welcoming for the less experienced there. Knowing how much time and energy it takes to organise a week of events, I have total admiration for Nils and the smooth running, great food and rota of teachers that he put together. It is not surprising people always seem to come back each year.

It is still impossible to list the best moments of the week… On a T’ai Chi front, Lauren Smith’s wonderful session and the chance to work with a (then) stranger on a wonderful subtle listening / uprooting exercise. After 14 years of Kung Fu and only 1 of T’ai Chi, my partner was so sensitive and perceptive, both in finding my root and in knowing when I ‘had’ him through the tiniest movements, and was a pleasure to work with. His teacher is Fernando Chedel, who I did not get a chance to work with due to a clash of sessions… I have to come back next year just to get a chance to push with this chap Alex, as we ran out of time.

Conversely, on my first session in the free-pushing hall, I was working with a very strong tall guy who told me he had many years’ experience. Although I practice lots of push-hands of many kinds, this particular kind of fixed-feet pushing on the body was new to me and I was eager to learn whatever I could. Time after time the big guy just shoved me out, ending each time in a hugely awkward lunging posture. For me the experience was educational, although I could not yet neutralise his pushes, or move him. Considering his strength and knowledge, by listening, sticking and using much less effort he still could have moved me. It was my week’s only experience of someone actively cultivating ‘defeating four ounces with a thousand pounds’!

What also jumps to mind is when Sam Masich asked me to partner him demonstrating Ta Lu as it seemed no one else in the room knew it. I was familiar with the first set, but the second set was identical in principle but totally reversed in direction of stepping. A few good years of sticking and listening were of huge value to me at that moment as I bypassed my thought-filled head, stuck to Sam and let him ‘drive’. In the relief of putting down mental interpretation, there, in the midst of stepping push-hands, was a period of quiet alive being-in-the-moment partner work. I wasn’t expecting that to be possible during the hustle and bustle of the week. Perhaps I had gone to Hannover expecting to find more of ‘wrestling’ and shoving, and although there’s always a bit of ‘investing in gain’ around, I came away really heartened. It seems there were as many ways to do push-hands as there were teachers and attendees.

On a social front, so many things were great. It was delightful to have the chance to speak French again with the interesting teacher Thierry Alibert and his student Catherine. Swapping T’ai Chi tales and Ta Lus with James from USA was also great. Singing along to ‘Amazing Grace’ with him, Sam Masich, James and Henk Janssen one night, then improvising all together around ‘The Wind Shakes the Barley’ was a wonderful way to spend an evening. I’ll also never forget watching Brighton teacher Simon and his student Will doing ‘Monkey’ and ‘Bear’ energy to Thierry over too many cherry beers at Kalah Bar…

I didn’t get to either of the galas, but the party on the first night was fun, lots of prosecco and Latin grooves. Despite travel-induced exhaustion and knowing only two or three people at that point, I had a great night of dancing. T’ai Chi folks seem to have some good moves on the dance floor, none of that standing round the edges looking sulky. I thoroughly recommend this event to anyone with the spare time and cash as it is good value for money as well as an excellent event in its own right. In the end, the event is what you make it. I stayed at the hall each night to economise, which was fun and sociable, though my earplugs got regular use. Being woken each morning by the lovely Ronnie to make room for his Chi Kung session was yet another of the happy memories of the festival which I will always cherish.

Caroline Ross April 2008

Review of Taichi Caledonia for Taichi Chuan and Oriental Arts Magazine: This was my first Taichi Caledonia, yet over lunch on the second day I met and talked for some time to the tireless organiser Ronnie Robinson who asked me to write something about the week for this magazine. As a newbie to this event I had thought that I might encounter cliques, but instead found the event and participants hugely welcoming. As a regular of art and music conventions in the past as well as other T’ai Chi and meditation retreats, I would actually say that Taichi Caledonia is the friendliest event I have been to. I had heard of the event before, but was not aware that it is the longest running event of its kind in the UK.

I booked long in advance, and had been looking forward to getting my hands on people who had not trained with my T’ai Chi master, his colleagues or teachers, just to see what other folks felt like in pushing hands. I had also been recommended to study with Chen Style Master Wang Hai-Jun. On arrival I found the chalet accommodation at Stirling University cosy and well equipped. With rain on and off during the week, however, we were alternately inside for sessions in the (sometimes noisy) gym or outside in glorious sunlight on the grass. I would recommend packing both a hot water bottle and sunscreen.

For the weekend of taster sessions I was joined by my friend and classmate Hamid. He took part in some of the Qi Gong sessions as well as Chin Na with Dan Docherty and wished that he could have stayed for the whole week. Personally I find 45 minute sessions too short to really get my teeth into something, and sometimes tutors seemed like they felt a little rushed. A particular favourite session was Fa Jin with Victoria Windholtz. By example and careful adjustments she conveyed much more than could be explained in words.

During the weekday mornings I studied with Henk Janssen, a great teacher from the Netherlands. His approach to teaching pushing hands is exemplary and inclusive. As a teacher it is a pleasure for me to see someone communicate something so complex in new and effective ways. Several attendees at Henk’s sessions told me that at their T’ai Chi schools there was either no pushing hands / sticking at all; competitive push hands with little explanation of why they were doing it; or else a culture where there was some great partner work, but that it was a bit too vigorous for them to feel they could find a way in. What strikes me about Henk’s approach, which is similar to my teacher’s, is how the solo work and partner work support and inform each other. Although the odd student here and there would rather only do T’ai Chi solo Form, the vast majority find a gentle and personal introduction to push hands allays their fears. This enables even the most timid student to find a safe way to start moving out of their comfort zone. Henk had people totally new to this work getting stuck right in, surprised smiles abounded. Also, for the ‘free pushers’, it was nice to see that the push – press – rollback – yield patterns were a little bit of a challenge for them too. It is easier applying the principles in practices we do regularly, but we risk getting stuck in a rut.

One evening Sam Masich, Dan Docherty, Wang Hai-Jun and Henk Janssen were invited to talk a little about their approach to push-hands and they all also either demonstrated or got us joining in. A group of us including Henk and I were up late (as it doesn’t get dark until midnight in June) sharing our slightly different versions of push hands, Ta Lu and sabre form. For the two evenings of pushing hands and free pushing I had good fun engaging in techniques and styles more customary to some of the other players. I saw more similarities than differences, and without exception all the partner work seemed to be cultivating something of use or interest.

In the afternoons I trained with renowned Chen Style Master Wang Hai-Jun who taught a short form of 18 moves taken from the original ‘Old Form’. The stances are very low and dynamic but the silk-reeling is very strong and drives all the movements. Master Wang’s teaching was direct and clear with an emphasis on internal relaxation and ward-off energy. A side effect of 3 hours’ low stances every day was that my thighs took on quite a different shape… Over the four days of care and attention, Master Wang took the group of up to 30 of us through silk-reeling exercises, warm ups and the Form. As an introduction to Chen Style T’ai Chi it could not have been better. For the weekend he was also joined by the daughter of his teacher Grandmaster Chen Zhengli, and they both demonstrated Forms with grace and power.

One of my chalet mates raved about her week studying with Calligrapher and T’ai Chi teacher Wang Ning. I heard good reports about all of the other workshops and the general consensus was that the standard of teaching was excellent. It was lovely to feel there were too many interesting options to choose from. It is heartening to spend a week surrounded by trees and seeing lots of other T’ai Chi folk practising whatever they are working on. If we could make any suggestions, my chalet mates and assorted new T’ai Chi friends chose these things: a firmer hand on the catering quality control; more workshops from Sam Masich; longer taster sessions at the weekend and a tweak to improve the indoor spaces used for the workshops themselves. We were all united in our praise for the smooth running of the week, a lot of which was down to the hard work of Karen limb, Ronnie and the team.

I had an excellent time and would highly recommend it to all students and teachers of the Internal Arts. Anyone should come along who is interested in exchange of ideas, widening their horizons and seeing what other styles and approaches to T’ai Chi are like. Hopefully we can all help publicise the event for next year. We have nothing to lose but our preconceptions about other people’s T’ai Chi and a great deal to gain, not least the company of some wonderful people.

Having fun at Taichi Caledonia

Published by Caroline Ross

Artist, maker, teacher of earth materials, founder of Great River T'ai Chi.

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