This summer I had the pleasure of attending the 14th annual Tai Chi Caledonia 2009. The event took place from the 3rd – 10th July 2009 and was hosted in the beautiful setting of the university campus in Stirling. Being a Caledonia ‘virgin’ and having never even visited Scotland before I had no idea what to expect. On the 7 hour train journey up to Stirling from the south coast of England I was extremely excited and kept rereading the program and trying to finally decide which workshops I was going to attend.
On arrival I discovered that Stirling campus is breathtakingly beautiful with a loch in the centre and surrounded by stunning hills and mountains. That first night after settling into our chalets we had the opportunity to meet up with lots of friendly Tai Chi people some old and some new. We shared a glass of wine and I tried a local delicacy for the first time a haggis supper. It was great to finally put a face to some of the names that I had read about many times and to hang out with lots of like-minded people. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there were students not just from all over the UK and Europe but also from Alaska, California and even one guy from Chile.
The next morning we attended a welcome meeting and met the event organisers and our instructors for the week. The weekend consisted of a selection of 45-minute taster sessions covering a wide variety of Tai Chi related material as well as Chi Kung and other Chinese Internal arts. This was perfect as it gave everyone the opportunity to work with a wide range of subjects and also get a feeling for which instructors they wanted to work with during their week. All the workshops were held either in the Sports Centre or whenever possible, outdoors in the beautiful surroundings and the (mostly lovely) Scottish weather.
After much deliberation I decided to attend two sessions with the famous Faye Li Yip from China. Her first workshop was my first taste of the internal Chinese art of ‘Xing Yi’ and the second was an introduction to some of the sword techniques of the Wudang style. I found Faye a highly experienced teacher who was warm and very encouraging to all her students.
Dutch teacher Judith van Drooge was another excellent teacher whose workshops I attended. She has a very warm and smiley teaching style and is instantly likeable. We looked at her unique take on the ‘8 Brocades Of Silk’ adding some interesting variations to the version that I had studied previously. She also added some great warm up exercises including one for loosening the wrists and a whole body shaking exercise, which was similar to the yogic ‘Kundalini’ shaking. In her second session we looked at some martial applications for ‘Holding a Ball’ and ‘Ward Off Left’. Judith also shared with us a fantastic take on the Yin and Yang aspects of the form. She described the Yin aspect as feeling as if you had forgotten something before suddenly remembering as you perform a yang movement.
I decided to attend two ‘Pushing Hands’ classes with Paul Silfverstrale from Sweden. Paul is another great teacher who brought a fantastic sense of fun to his sessions. As I am a Cheng Man Ching style practitioner I had only ever practiced fixed step pushing hands before and really enjoyed the opportunity to learn the ‘7 stars’ stepping form and exploring the different push hands exercises from his style. As well as how to step inside and outside of your opponent we also learnt techniques for leg sweeping, leg trapping and even throwing a partner.
Bob Lowey is a Scottish teacher who is warm, friendly and extremely likeable. In his relaxation workshop he taught us some Chinese massage techniques. We studied various acupressure points and we went on to practice massage techniques for the hand, shoulder and head with a partner.
The charismatic co-organiser of the event Ronnie Robinson taught a workshop introducing students to the two person ‘Da Lu’ form. This is another great ‘stepping form’ and we learnt both the aggressor and defender parts and a few of the opening moves. Ronnie is a patient teacher with a great sense of humour.
Another session was the intriguingly named ‘Tai Chi Boxing’ with the German teacher Nils Klug. Nils also had an interesting take on the Yin and Yang aspects of Tai Chi movement. He likened it to feeling as though you were sleeping and then suddenly waking up. His workshop was a lot more martially orientated than I had ever experienced in Tai Chi. He taught us various ‘boxing’ techniques including how to spiral through our arms and how to punch with our hand open. We explored how a punch was much more powerful if our fingers led the movement and our fist only closes at the last moment.
Perhaps my favourite workshop of the weekend was with the incredibly talented Italian teacher Franco Mescola. His ‘Chin Na’ grappling techniques and Tai Chi applications were simply fantastic. We also studied a ‘micro-cosmic orbit ‘Chi Kung exercise, breathing techniques and various ‘spiralling’ exercises.
After the workshops had finished each day we had an opportunity to attend demonstrations by the instructors as well as talks and discussions after dinner each evening. There was an opportunity to put our new skills into practice playing pushing hands with lots of new people. There was the opportunity to train with (and get pushed over a lot with) the European champion as well as the Dutch and Italian National champions.
After much discussion with my new Tai Chi comrades and changing my mind more times than I can remember I finally decided to stick to my original plan for the week’s workshops. In the mornings I decided to study ‘Chin Na’ and applications with Franco and in the afternoons I decided to attend Sam Masich’s ‘Jue shou’ or ‘Sensing-hands’.
Before the workshops each day we had an opportunity to attend early morning Chi Kung sessions with some of the other instructors who were attending the week. As well as being given the privilege of teaching one of the sessions myself it was great to learn some ‘5 element stretching’ with my old teacher Simon and to study the 16 section ‘Shibashi’ system with Pam.
In the morning workshops with Franco we explored a ‘3 circle’ style of fixed pushing hands practice, how the Yin/Yang symbol can be used to evade an attack and how to issue energy (Fa-Jing). We also learnt the opening moves of Franco’s unique form in which he emphasises ‘Dynamic spiralling’ and looked at how these moves translated into practical self-defence applications. At the end of the week we put everything we had learnt into practice by exploring Tai Chi ‘Randori’ where we each defended ourselves from multiple attackers. Franco is a fantastic instructor who is very passionate and open with his teaching. He was assisted throughout by two of his senior students Tony and Massimo who were both very patient and highly skilled.
In the afternoon sessions I had the opportunity to train with the Canadian teacher Sam Masich. Over the week, we studied the first five energies of the Yang pushing hands syllabus. The first two techniques were ‘resting’ and ‘supporting’ and he taught us about using our ‘hip track’, how to remain in a comfortable, relaxed structure and also about waiting and using his ‘lag time’ technique. We studied ‘pivoting’, transferring from wrist to elbow, exchanging from one arm to the other and about relative and carried movement. I have never seen such a talented teacher and Tai Chi practitioner as Sam and after a week of training with him I am honestly still trying to take it all in. As well as learning practical techniques for pushing hands, Sam talked about the reasons for practicing Tai Chi and demonstrated his vast knowledge of the Tai Chi classics, human physiology and Chinese language and calligraphy.
In conclusion I would like to thank all the people who made this fantastic Tai Chi event possible, the organisers and volunteer assistants who all made us feel extremely welcome, to all the instructors for all their wise teachings and to all my new Tai Chi friends who helped to make this week an unforgettable experience. My only regret is that there was never enough time to learn everything or to train with everyone. I would like to take this opportunity to recommend this fantastic event to anyone who is interested in expanding his or her Tai Chi knowledge in the future. I am looking forward to seeing you all there next year. In the meantime happy training!
Author: Matthew Ward
is based in Brighton, Uk where he trains with The Inner Harmony Tai Chi School