Epi van de Pol, having spent nearly 30 years studying taijiquan with a number of eminent instructors recently took a few years sabbatical to work in-depth with two of his most favoured teachers. Here Epi talks to Ronnie Robinson about his wide range of learning experiences and the major changes that have led him to, what he believes, to be a deeper understanding of the art.
What was your initial introduction to taijiquan?
I read a taiji book when I was 22 years old. I had previously studied judo, karate, other martial arts, and yoga so taijiquan was bound to pop up. I also remember doing an introductory class on something called, ‘tai-do’ which turned out to be a funny version of taijiquan.
Do you remember the name of the book and what was it that attracted you to find a class?
Yes, it was a pocket book on Asian martial arts by Don F Draeger. Later I purchased Robert Smith’s books. They both had extensive training in a number of martial arts and regarded internal martial arts as the highest level attainable. They also reported on how difficult it was to find either a true master or to even get basic instruction. The writers were also open in their astonishment about the invisible powers of internal martial arts. I learned the form from, “Tai Chi Chuan: a Manual of Instruction” which was written in 1973 by Lu Hui Ching. She also produced a film of her form and printed many images of the transitions between the postures.
Did your previous martial arts experience help or hinder you taiji development?
In the beginning, they helped me tremendously: I knew how a karate kata was performed so I put in the relaxation I knew from Yoga and made it slow, but without the clear focus that the Japanese martial artists use to put in their strikes and there it was: Taijiquan as good as you can learn it without a teacher. The story of course changed when I met my first teacher. Aikido and Judo had many common ‘internal’ aspects. I had an excellent Judo teacher who could throw me without me feeling what he was doing and I had to wait some years until I met Peter Ralston to experience that feeling again. Western fencing with a sabre combined with the Japanese sword helped me to understand the Chinese weapons and, of course, the actual handling of weapons in the free-fight situation in Kendo and Fencing added to my understanding of human conflicts. In pushing hands, it also helped, because at least I had an idea of different kinds of fighting.
After training for some years in taijiquan, external martial arts started to bother me. I clearly remember that I had problems with blocking. Shotokan karate is strong in blocking, Wado ryu, not so much but taijiquan just doesn’t block, and it was hard for me to train in blocking one evening and stay away from it the next. Even in pushing hands, I noticed a tendency to block got in the way. So I quit the Japanese systems and focused on taijiquan.
How many people in Holland were studying taijiquan around then?
When I first began (In 1975) there were no teachers or students in my area so I initially learned from a book. I eventually met my first teacher in Amsterdam in 1977. Then there were two main teachers in Holland: one was Phoa You Tjiong, who is now considered to be the grand old man of Taijiquan in Holland. He was initially a monkey boxer before learning taijiquan from a student of TT Liang. The other was Kwee Swan Hoo, who was my first teacher. He was initially a student of Phoa, and then met Dr Chi in London, who was a student of Cheng Man Ching. Between them they had around 100 students.
What inspired you to stay with it?
The mystical atmosphere. With my yoga experience, I learned to relax and meditate, but I also found it too passive. I felt taijiquan was good combination between yoga and karate and later pushing hands became a stronger impulse for me as did the work of being a teacher.
What you mean by mystical atmosphere?
Internal martial artists often talks about developing power or skills which are extraordinary: the skill to use the power of your opponent, pushing somebody far away without any visible movement, breaking bones with a simple touch, reading the opponent’s intentions etc. I was never a very strong person so these feats appealed to me. I didn’t like the sweaty muscular adrenaline approach much, but favoured the notion of using a calm, relaxed and yielding awareness to defeat the opponent.
Can you talk a little about what you were taught – how was the form and partner-work taught to you, and what kind of Qigong did you do?
Under Kwee Swan Hoo the class started with 10 minutes of standing qigong or Zhuang Zhang as most people refer to it nowadays. He used to walk around and push you a little deeper so the legs got quite sore after ten minutes. This was followed by partner exercises to test the relaxation of our arms and legs. We did single and partner exercises stretching exercises and deep squats on one leg, with the other stretched out in front, to build up strength. Then we spent around an hour learning and practising the form; first the whole set and then posture after posture. Hoo also corrected every person in turn, which took several minutes, whilst we held the posture. This greatly added to the soreness of our legs. We were always very happy to hear him talking about the principles as it would give us a break, and would then lead to us learning some new or previously neglected postures. We would then practice some single postures, going over one or two movements repeatedly. Following this, we then performed the entire form once more which was nice. Then we did about 30 minutes pushing. First the basic drills, which were killing for the legs, and then free-pushing where we tended to forget everything and just push the other person. After three hours of training we had to walk down three stairs which reminded us of the pain in our legs, the pain which we had temporarily forgotten about during our free-pushing session. The class finished at 11.00 pm on Friday nights and we would then go to a bar close by, for an hour or so, and then the next morning at 8.30am we were in the class again until 13.00.
Which aspects interested you most?
I’ve often considered this question, at various points in my life, but find it hard to answer. I just loved it. I remember talking with an aikido practitioner who took over my aikido class in Amsterdam. He told me he practiced 17 hours a week and I thought he was mad, but at the same time I was a bit jealous. I was telling this to a friend and he asked how much time I spent training in taijiquan in a week. To my surprise I found that I trained for more then 26 hours a week.
Some people talk about the good feeling they get from jogging, I get it from taijiquan. I was a good long-distance runner but it never gave me that great feeling. However, in doing the form there is only the movement and me, time somehow disappears, and there is only the moment and enjoyment. In theory you could say that endomorphines get released in doing taijiquan.
Besides this, I loved to do pushing hands, not for the good feeling but for the sweetness of competition. Our group was the best in tuishou in Holland and we had healthy competition, particularly between the better students. It wasn’t until I met Serge Dreyer that I realised that a completely different world of pushing hands existed.
What was your involvement in the early days of Stichting Taijiquan Nederlands (STN)?
The organisation was founded in 1981 with the aims of bringing teachers together, inviting visiting instructors and extending the level of knowledge in our country. To this end, we published a regular newsletter, which is now a fully-fledged magazine, arrange teacher seminars and competitions.
I was a Board Member since the beginning in 1981 and became Chairman in 1983. I still hold this position today. And I also was the editor of the newsletter.
You then went on to help to develop the Taijiquan & Qigong Federation for Europe (TCFE)
Yes I helped in the creation of TCFE and I arranged for the TCFE to be registered in Holland through the official channels, with me as the first President.
I felt we should work towards supporting a European competition and possibly create a standard set of rules. We could develop an exchange between teachers from other countries, perhaps to create control over workshop fees and create a defence against external control from Chinese teachers, especially through the modern developments. We could also help to record the history of taijiquan in the different European countries, before the pioneers take their experiences to the grave.
Why did you leave the TCFE?
Being president of the TCFE was a little time consuming the first years. Especially the organisation of the first TCFE European competition, which the STN undertook; It was a lot of work. Furthermore, the Vice-President (Dan Docherty) stretched the limits of the democratic organisation that the TCFE ought to be, to impose his own ideas. I was not willing to put more effort into an organisation where too many political games were played. Besides that, I had reached a turning point in my life and it was time to choose for my own development.
How you feel about the communication between the various European countries.
It could be much better, especially within the TCFE. I never hear anything from the TCFE apart from its bi-annual European competition and bi-annual Congress/Forum. By now it should have had a monthly email newspaper or a small paper newsletter. It doesn’t stimulate national activities of its members. Some reviews of meetings were published in magazines in France, Germany and Great Britain, thanks to the publishers. The articles should be enlisting with the why and how of the TCFE and perspectives of the future and so on.
Dan Docherty has, in some way, opened the eastern European countries, for which he deserves praise but again I see nothing happening. Dan in my view is a far too controversial figure to be President and, as such, the face of the TCFE. He manipulates people and rules to his own end, instead of the democratic way. In the international festivals and competitions a lot of open communication is going on. In the different styles, I can see national style organisations communicate with each other.
How do you feel about competitions nowadays?
Competition is important for several reasons. As a national or international event, it brings taiji practitioners together for exchanging ideas and skills and it enables us to see what other schools are doing instead of merely speculating or gossiping about one another. As a means of education, it lets beginners see an overview of the different styles and aspects like weapons which perhaps they wouldn’t otherwise see. We also get an insight into the many approaches and attitudes that prevail in these arts. With respect to personal training and development, competition provides an opportunity to directly experience how good your level of relaxation is. When your ability is evaluated in front of a jury of your peers, it provides a barometer of how real your understanding of taijiquan actually is. I have also noticed that students who participate in competition train much more seriously than others who don’t enter this arena.
There are also some negative aspects about competition, especially in pushing hands. Pushing hands is only one of a number of exercises, within the taiji syllabus which allows the practitioner to develop a particular aspect of the art. One should bear this in mind, pushing hands is just that, an exercise, it is not fighting. Often there can be a tendency for pushing hands to change to wrestling. It is particularly difficult to win a pushing hands competition with skill alone and, as a beginner or mediocre practitioner, the situation can quickly change and then the base instinct of applying strength kicks in. This in turn, creates a similar response in the opponent. Taijiquan is taijiquan. If we resort to wrestling then any wrestler or judoka would beat us because it is another skill and they’re better at it.
In pushing hands exercises, you are learning to handle the forces of an opponent, in conjunction with your own efforts, in a relaxed, balanced, grounded, centred, and calm way. All body movements should be connected and synchronized. These aspects should also be recognisable during competitive push hands. There has to be absorption or yielding, combined with a neutralisation of the forces being applied on you, in a relaxed grounded way, without losing your balance or seeking physical support from your opponent, by gripping his/her clothes or limbs. The same goes for pushing; quite often you see the pusher struggling to maintain his balance because he reached out too far in order to push the other person, or even both contestants fall to the ground clinging on to each other. This is okay in a free-fight situation but not if you want to call it pushing hands.
The techniques practised during pushing hands are in fact, only ward off, roll back, press, and push. Some routines also use pluck, split, elbow-stroke and shoulder-stroke.
In order to provide the best arena for all interests in push hands, I believe we should stage a number of different levels in competition:
This level should remain very true to the art with points against you as soon as you violate the principles.
This level would be similar to what we see staged at most events today, not so highly-regulated with respect to the adherence to principles as the 1st level.
This level would be a less restricted pushing hands competition which allowed sweeps and throws for practitioners who prefer a more free-flowing approach.
This level would have minimum restrictions and would therefore be close to a full-contact fight and, as such, leave just the framework of push hands.
By offering these different levels, every taiji practitioner would find something that suited their preferred approach to the art.
Some winners use their accomplishment to promote their school, which is often ridiculous, when they were only with two or three contestants in their category.
You’ve worked with a number of different teachers – why?
It has been my strategy to start with a broad canvas to allow me to explore the range of approaches on offer and, in time, when I know what I really want to concentrate on I will narrow things down to work at a deeper level, on that which really interests me most. As there was no real master in Holland when I started, we invited teachers from all over the world. However, nobody impressed me enough to devote myself completely to their method of teaching or practising.
Can you talk in detail about what aspects of the various teachers’ work that particularly interests you to continue working with them?
I learned to sink with Wang Yen Nien who had a rhythmic exercise of going up and down for extended periods. William Chen inspired me a lot. I could talk with him and he tried to explain the same thing differently every time. I could push with him and in the boxing class, he’d let me hit him as hard as I could without any effect. He also always managed to maintain as pleasant and diplomatic mood.
Serge Dreyer a student of Wang Yen Nien has also been an important influence. He lived in Taiwan for years with his master, could talk Chinese, worked hard and became one of Wang’s top students. Whenever Serge was in France, I went to his workshops. He was able to explain the purpose of the movements and I couldn’t touch him in pushing hands.
Chu King Hung was an important influence. He is one of those people who could push students far away without a clearly visible push. I went to his workshops in Germany and enjoyed it a lot. I felt like I was entering university with all the information and possibilities. For the first time I felt what it was to be repelled by my own force. The harder I came in the further I went – sometimes even for 5-6 metres. If I relaxed as much as possible, he was unable to push me through my arms. Only after he had gone through all my yielding defences and was able to touch my chest, I would then be pushed for one or two metres. I thought he was great. We would walk and talk but in time there was too much money and political games involved and it became time to quit.
Patrick Kelly however, who I met around 1992, was able to push me through my arms while I tried to relax my arms as much as possible. I was very surprised that he could do that repeatedly. Clearly, he felt something in my body that I was not aware of. Patrick talked about the concept of returning forces, of which I had no idea. He also talked about mind intentions, which I could perhaps understand, but not control. This being the case, Patrick never showed me things that Chu King Hung could do like just stand and returning my force back at me.
Peter Ralston is, aside from William CC Chen, by the best internal arts fighter I have met. He developed his own style, Cheng Hsin, which is a complete internal fighting system. The basic precept of his work centred on his body exercising taiji principles, whilst mentally connecting with what he refers to as ‘enlightenment’ experiences. I really enjoyed every class I took with Peter which, for me, it a combination of meditation, yoga and martial art. I also think he is very funny and I always have to laugh when he explains his techniques, especially when he gives his opinion about other martial arts. Other people might call him arrogant, but I just think he is mainly right in what he says. Peter made me realise that it is possible to relax in to a ridiculous degree, and in doing so, become better at what I do. Being honest to myself in whatever I do, is the key word and it goes very far.
I’d like to touch a little on the idea of arrogance which you say many people consider Peter to have: I’ particularly interested in coupling this question with that of being true or honest with oneself. Many years ago you told be that you believed yourself to be a ‘bloody good teacher’, in retrospect do you see that statement as ego, arrogance or confidence and would you still say the same thing today?
It does not sound like one of my expressions but I still consider myself a good teacher. Now about the honesty part: considering myself as being a good teacher does not mean that my idea of taijiquan is right. It only means that I understand what I understand in such a way that I can explain what I understand in different ways. I can also analyse what the student does, or doesn’t understand and help to become clearer with the material I’m teaching. I also have patience and am sympathetic to the fact that some people are very slow to understand things. Now the real important stuff is the honesty about my needing to be a good teacher. Is my self-image dependent on the idea of being a good teacher? Teaching can be a way of proving one’s self, getting sympathy or public approval. As soon as I identify myself as being a good teacher, I’m no longer honest with myself. Consequently, there will be a double layer in my teaching process: what I teach can become secondary to why I teach, i.e. money, sex, insecurity, status etc.
There is a story of Lucifer selling his soul to the devil for many advantages. Being dishonest with one’s self is, in a sense a similar process. It is much easier to find an excuse or to blame somebody else in a situation, than to realise what went wrong in our own behaviour, especially when we start to believe our own excuses. Then we have sold our soul. It gets in the way of real improvement and happiness and, if you want enlightenment, which is after all about realising whom you really are.
Do you want enlightenment? Do you see potential for ‘inner’ personal development in taiji and, if so, how would you say you’ve evolved in this way?
Enlightenment? Yes. I’ve always been taken with Yoga stories about those who were enlightened beings. In 1979 I travelled around in Europe with Swami Hariharananda. He once demonstrated a Kriya Yoga technique in Germany a bit too well and, as a consequence, he entered the state of samadhi. First, he was just a pitiful old man lying on the ground, but I will never forget his eyes when he awoke and the first words he spoke to me: “People think I am human but I am God.” From this experience and from the books I read, my impression was that enlightenment was something extraordinary which involved a complete change of identity. In a week long “Contemplation Intensive” at Peter Ralston’s school in 2002, I was concerned by this external approach. It took me 5 days of 24 hours a day asking the question “Who am I?” to realise that it had to do with who I was, not anybody else, but just me. – Not more, but less. Just ‘Who am I?”. It has nothing to do with God or some other blissful identity, but just me in all my simplicity. I could feel I that was getting very close but the enlightenment experiences didn’t really happen. However, the work on it brought me back to the normal happy feeling I enjoyed, prior to my divorce. I discovered somewhere on day two, that through the years I had identified myself with my wife as ‘us’ rather than as me alone.
In learning taijiquan postures and principles there is similar process going on. In order to relax, the body has to obey the natural laws of the forces of gravity, and realise how nature found its own way to handle these forces. The more you realise what your body is, and become truly aware of the forces going through it, the more you can relax. The same is true with the mind and with the ‘Yi consciousness. Doing pushing hands, and obeying the laws of the principles, instead of having the consciousness of winning attitude, can also be compared to the enlightenment process. Peter Ralston gives a very good example in when he suddenly understood what Judo is, and how this realisation created a huge escalation in his skill level. To really understand what taijiquan is you have to put in a lot of practice and contemplation.
There are many reasons for taking up taijiquan; you may be doing it for your health, to learn how to fight, to reduce stress, as a system of moving meditation, for social inter-action, or simply because it feels good to do it. In all of those reasons, there is an inner personal development, simply because you have to put in effort in order to get results. You cannot do taijiquan for one reason alone, without these other factors coming into play. Most practitioners do a little taijiquan for their own benefit. Only a few people sacrifice their lives to taijiquan in order to fully understand the art or to get enlightened. I did it for two years and it feels like I want to do more, at least for periods of around three months intensive a year.
You recently took some time out to study more in-depth, what discoveries have you made since then that perhaps you couldn’t have come to without taking the time out?
Around 2000 it became clear that my taiji development had stopped. I did not progress any more. I had a very busy life, besides being married, so my individual training was not the many hours a day that it should have been. In fact, I only trained when I was teaching or when a visiting teacher came to Holland for a workshop. I also noticed that in an interesting workshop, whilst I understood several things at the time, other more deeper, principles remained a mystery. Training ought to be the solution to understanding these deeper principles, as well as training the body in the patterns that allow these principles to naturally express themselves. The problem was that I had to return to my own classes and, after a few weeks, there was no more training in these principles. This was because one of my guiding principles is that I wouldn’t teach anything that I do not personally understand. In the year 2000 I went through a number of personal and professional changes; I left the board of the TCFE and, to my surprise, got divorced. Instead of trying to pick up my life from the ruined remains, I decided to take a sabbatical year.
In 2001, I gave my taiji classes to my advanced students, and my naturopathic practice to a colleague, and left for New Zealand to train with Wee Kee Jin for three months. This sabbatical year became three years, with each year spending three months indoor training, two months travelling in Europe with Jin, and one month intensive training in Texas with Peter Ralston. Jin was the only person, of those whom I respected, that could offer me an extended period of training that I could financial afford.
What was your training routine with Jin?
Training with Jin in New Zealand consisted of 6 – 8 hours a day. He gets up at around four in the morning for his own personal training. I got up at five and would train until around seven. Then we broke for breakfast and, depending on how many people were there, we had either a 30 minute private class or a 2 hour group class with about 10-15 minutes of personal corrections. We then had a 30 minute sword class, followed by 30 minutes practice time. In the afternoon, there was a pushing class of 2 hours and twice weekly, there was an evening group class. In between, the classes there were work-outs with college students, practicing alone and free pushing with Jin whenever he felt like it, which was mostly every day. I also spent at least 30 minutes a day writing up my notes on the material I was taught. I slept in his house, and if I was lucky, I got a small private room otherwise I slept in a bigger room with other overseas students. My biggest training routine was dealing with the wonderful food. Janice, his wife, cooked lovely Chinese dinners for us all and the last time I was there she cooked a different meal, every day for 90 days!!!!
Most workshops in Europe with Jin involve six hours daily training. I went with him twice a year to Osnabruck, Munich, Copenhagen, Randers, Stockholm and of course Holland. During these times we had lots of laughs.
Can you describe the nature of the work that you did with Jin and how it changed what you had studied for the previous 25 years?
The first time I travelled to New Zealand was in the spring of 2001. I started as a beginner, although I had previously trained with Jin for ten years. In the early morning, during my 30 minutes private instruction he looked what I had learned and gave me another movement. I was then supposed to train that movement for the rest of the day. Next morning we worked on the same exercise, but with more in-depth information. We worked this way every day for the first week. He was very thorough and the work was definitely not boring. (Actually, at times, the work was tediously boring). Within three months, I’d been corrected on the five relaxing exercises and the first part of the form. In group classes, we went through the whole form which, of course I could roughly follow.
For me, the hardest part was getting rid of old habits, which hindered my progress. Even at the first mechanical level I did many things wrong. This was a disaster as I was generally used to drifting off in a meditative state in my own form. Now I had to constantly pay attention to the small details of the movements and therefore lost the good feeling that I always got from doing the form. I didn’t like that, but I had to do it in order to learn this system well. The old habits were deep in my mind, in my nervous system and very hard to break. Even if I tried my very most best, after some time Jin would still correct stupid little things and sometimes even big things. It was very frustrating. It is so much easier to learn something completely new then to relearn the same thing. There a roughly three levels in learning the form:
Here is where you work with the many little details of where to hold the hand, place the foot etc. In correction at this level you are confronted with the so called ‘inch form’. Every detail has to be right within the inch.
Let’s look at relaxation as an example as one of the main principles. Firstly you have to be able relax and then you have to relax in a wave through the body starting from the feet. This is often referred to as sinking. After mastering one wave another wave of relaxation comes on a deeper physical level.
This is when waves travel mentally and are felt throughout the body and, if possible, outside the body. In the past, I used to let a wave of relaxation or sinking go down to my feet. Now I was instructed to turn it around. It wasn’t that hard to do in the five relaxing exercises but much more difficult in the form and pushing hands. The sinking from below would just lead me back to my old habits.
I also found the inch form very hard. Through the years, I always told my students to hold the hand or arm where it felt right for them. Of course, I did also structural power tests so that they had an idea of which position an arm was at its strongest but it was always based on a feeling. Now I had to follow a stupid rule and I didn’t feel why. Jin explained things and showed me why but somehow that didn’t not satisfy me on a deeper level. I had to really force myself to do these things, especially in pushing hands patterns – it was terrible. I felt so stupid. It was like learning to kiss without touching someone else’s lips or, even worse, without the feeling of being in love or aroused. So I internally extended my body until it felt it extended to the limit. The other person yielded and that was it. Normally I would have touched the other person in a stronger way until I had him all the way down to his feet and then push in a way that was very hard for him to get away from. This gave me a feeling of control. Now I was more or less pushing the air. In time I learned to feel the other person’s feet with a much lighter touch and get a much better feeling of when I was about to lose my own balanced strong position. In the past I was more focused on the other person, now I was doing pushing hands with myself, and it became very interesting again. To be able to reach the other person’s limit it became necessarily to take a small step.
How did the intensive work affect your taijiquan?
For the first time ever I had the feeling that I was learning taijiquan. In the beginning, I was frustrated. After a while, when I started to see the advantages of the training, I could let go of my strong points, and became bad in free pushing hands, because I didn’t want to experience those processes in my body, that usually made me successful in push hands. Doing the form like I usually did it in the past was unsatisfactory, so I stayed with the piece that was taught to me in detail, and corrected it. This meant that for the first two years I got only to the first crossing hands or 5 minutes of form. Now I know the whole form (15 minutes) but it has not been corrected completely. I went from considering my self to be one of the top practitioners in Europe to a complete beginner.
I can now see a railroad in front of me with different stations that I have to reach. I cannot see where the journey ends but I’m at least clear with the first couple of stations in front of me. I know that I’ve just left the first station and maybe I am a quick traveller with all the experiences I’ve gone through over 30 years of practising. That is, if I really can let go of the old habits. Earlier in my taiji experience, I was in a nice field with lots of flowers to enjoy and of course, some rocks but I never saw a clear route or direction. Now I can see what I have to master internally step-by-step.
Are you still teaching?
Yes but only intensive weekend or week-long workshops as I still travel a lot and want to use my time to train to a deeper level of before I start a teaching a regular class again.
What is your main focus in teaching?
Principles and matching internal movements with the external movements. I work with four basic principles: Relaxation; body alignment; differentiation between yin and yang and moving from the centre. Each principle contains enough material to spend at least two weekends working full time. I work a lot with partner exercises which are designed to identify, and therefore avoid, having a false sense of relaxation or accomplishment. These exercises also help to focus students on how they respond in situations, – that is if they don’t start babbling. I dislike the typical Chinese way of teaching where you learn form, more form, and some more form with no explanation of the principles. I tend to do less and less form and focus more on the internal movement.
I watched you in Jasnieres last summer regularly indulging in sword-play, or fencing which you obviously got a lot of pleasure from, what is it you like about it?
Ah the sword!! I remember as a child that I enjoyed Ivanhoe on TV and we made toy swords so maybe my motivation comes from then. As a student I did western and Japanese fencing. I also have an interest in knives. I like to look at them in shops, have them in my hand, and sharpen them etc. although I have never learned how to fight with them.
The Chinese sword (Jian) is an interesting tool and fits the taijiquan principles quite well. It is not really suited to block with it and at its top it is razor sharp so a light cut is already damaging tendons etc. It is light and fast. At the same time it is so strong that it can cut through bone and armour with the right cutting method. It takes a long time to learn to fight with it. The farmer soldiers were given cheaper sabres and lances which were much easier weapons to handle and to survive on the battlefield for one minute more.
For me the weight of the sword adds to my feeling of sinking to and connecting with the ground. To extend my consciousness to the tip of the sword is a nice feeling. Handling the sword from its centre of gravity or from the tip is like doing a kind of pushing hands with the sword. I have to adept my movement to the qualities of the sword, otherwise I will muscle the sword around.
Handling a sword gives a better feel of how to handle objects in daily life. It also gives a better idea of focus because it is longer then your arm so even a slight misalignment clearly highlights any deficiency in your posture. Swordplay is fun because it is much lighter and quicker than pushing hands. To cut and not to get cut is the game and because of this it is very good for increasing your awareness which should travel out to the tip of the weapon, to the opponent, whilst simultaneously staying with your own flesh. Being in the moment and being free to respond to whatever happens is what martial arts are all about and swordplay offers that. Women who are not so fond of pushing hand quite often like swordplay and I’ve even seen some changing into tigers who want to see blood.
Finally, after 30 years of training you now feel you’re getting closer to what you believe to be the true essence of the art, do you feel it takes 30 years to get to this point, or could you give a few brief words of advice to help others to either speed up the process, or at least, avoid taking unnecessary detours from the right path?
The right path is a difficult issue. First of all what do you want out of taijiquan. Is it health or enjoyment or learning a martial art or for spiritual reasons?
Health can be found in many taiji classes as long as the teacher watches the alignment of your joints especially the knee.
Enjoyment is depending on what you call enjoyment; find a group and a teaching system you enjoy.
To learn true internal martial art is hard. There are not too many taijiquan martial artists around and of those internal martial artists a lot are in fact using external martial art because it is hard to stay away from muscle contraction in a conflict. If you are looking for a good teacher see if the person can do good uproots where people fly away with both feet from the ground and with a surprised expression on their face because it is unclear to them why they are in the air. That is why taijiquan is called a soft art: you don’t feel it until it is too late.
In the spiritual realm the change that a guru like sifu takes over your life exist which can be bad or good. To reach deeper levels in the mind, movement can be distractive as well. Doing the form can bring me in the present time and in my body and mind. When this happens it gives me a happy feeling inside as I have said before. The next level that I can see happening in this realm is the enlightenment as stated before which is simply realising who you are. Some teachers state that Taijiquan is for becoming a better person in this life or will give you a better prospect for your next life. If you want that fine but it is not my motivation to do taijiquan to obey the Christian principle to be a good boy now and get my reward in heaven. I do taijiquan because I enjoy it in my body, mind and soul
My general advice is to first see many teachers, read books about the subject, go to international meetings or competitions, and from there make a choice which style or which teacher suits you best. A teacher within a line of tradition does not have to mean anything but mostly they can offer a “complete” system. Study the classical texts and discuss them with your teacher. Be true to the art don’t study external and internal martial art at the same time. If you have the possibility train in the school of your teacher for 6 hours or so a day and do this when you are young. Consider it an education like going to school every day in order to get a diploma.
My slowness is due to too many teachers, developing an own form in time, not training for myself anymore but only teaching and too many things to do besides Taijiquan.
There are no short cuts. A good teacher, a lot of hours available for training, an investigating mind, a long motivation, a mind over a good body, discipline and a group of collegues to train with, that is what you need most.
When I started my taijiquan my first teacher said it would take 25 years to learn taijiquan. Huang Sheng Shyan said that he understood the deeper levels of the art after he became 60 years old. It seems it takes just a lot of time.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to continue what I am doing; train everyday for two, three hours and do intensive workshops with Jin and Peter. I am joining Jin and a group of his students in July to visit and train with the different schools of Huang Shen Shyang in Malaysia. I am working on a book on Cheng Man Ching with a lot of pictures and interviews with his direct students. After that I want to publish a book on my taiji experiences before 2000 and one after 2000. Also I enjoy going to international meetings and I enjoy giving workshops. I do not want to have weekly classes because that would prevent my travelling around. I would like to go to China once more for a longer period of time
Epi van de Pol is based in Hilversum, Holland and you can visit his website at www.epitaijiquan.nl