Chapter 1




 Mindful Practice


It is January. In the long evenings while the valley sleeps I shall venture to speak from within my practice of TaijiQuan. This little book will be in the form of notes, following the daily rhythms of a practicant; these I will intersperse with a composite selection of reflections from my years with the taiji since 1976. In that year, I began learning the Yang Style 108 long form from Gerda Geddes, known to her students as Pytt, for whom the T’aiChi was a guide to the living of life on this earth, and a preparation for the journey beyond. The allegory that she read in the symbols of her chosen art was inspirational to many who came to study with this Norwegian lady who pioneered the teaching of Yang Style T’aiChiCh’uan in England.

The old Norse gods never quite let her go, and perhaps her teaching was the deeper for its trans-cultural vision. She above all taught me friendship with one’s body, and companionship with one’s breathing. The dutiful Asian student that I was, I wrote down just about everything she said in the classes that I attended — first, as a weary dance student at The Place, the school in London which taught the Martha Graham technique — then, as a T’aiChi aspirant, from 1976 until 1989. Pytt enjoyed telling stories in her lessons, including accounts of her dreams. One which all her students will be familiar with was her Dream of the Baskets, from the time when she was working through the section where the snake casts off its skin.

The last time I saw her was in early March 2006. She had been expecting such an event, that a stroke would befall her, and she had prepared well for it: there was in her handbag a letter asking that she be allowed to die naturally, and to be given neither food nor water. To the tremendous credit of the doctors and nursing staff at the hospital, and the perseverance of her family, she died in the best way she could under the circumstances. When I saw her on her fifth day without food or water, her touch was the same as the one I had treasured for years: cool, dry, letting one be. Her eyes were both here and elsewhere. Her right hand kept reaching for the sunlight outside, just as she had recounted of her childhood game, of going from shadow into the light. On the eighth day she joined the dao. I am sure she shot goodness into the universe with her last golden arrow.

By 2006, I had been studying TaijiQuan intensively for ten years under another teacher, Chen XiaoWang of the Chen family. The death of my first teacher curiously freed me from dependence on the teacher. Pytt had said to me again and again in those last years, “You do not need a teacher. You must become your own teacher.” Her insistence on this point had irked me countless times. I valued Chen XiaoWang’s instruction so much that I had gone to Sydney in Australia every winter for seven years. Perhaps Pytt and Chen XiaoWang were two pulls and when one let go, I let go of the other.

In profound gratitude I dedicate this book to my two teachers, the Hon. Gerda Geddes and Grandmaster Chen XiaoWang. They taught me deeply their art, and have set me on an open road to the mountains, the uncharted land beyond the confines of style and form.