Gary Wragg is one of the foremost exponents of Tai Chi Ch’uan in the UK and senior representative of the Wu Family in Europe. His Academy is the original Wu’s Tai Chi Academy for London, UK and Europe.
He is a founder member and former chairman of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain, and is currently an executive committee and technical panel member of the Union. He is also on the executive committee of the International Federation of Wu’s Style Tai Chi Ch’uan. He teaches in Great Britain and abroad, and has an international reputation for his demonstrations, workshops, and Tai Chi skills.
Gary Wragg is also an artist who exhibits regularly.
Can you tell me about your initial introduction to tai chi, what you were taught and what your reasons were for attending?
I attended my first class in 1973 with Gerda Geddes. At that time I was teaching at Camberwell School of Art in London when several of the students asked me if I would like to join them at a Tai Chi class. I said: “Would you ask the teacher if I could sit in on a session to make some drawings?” The reply was that Gerda agreed and I went to my first tai chi session. She talked about the importance of the square and circle, which related to the paintings that I had been working on. During class she also related her experiences about Taoism, which greatly interested me. I enjoyed the movements and feeling of the forms, so I continued with tai chi and have never looked back since. Gerda taught one-hour lunchtime sessions at The Place in London, teaching the Yang style long form, derived from Choy Hawk Peng who had been a senior disciple of Yang Chen Fu.
Gerda was the first European to teach Tai Chi in the UK in the 1960s. She also knew Sofia Delza who was taught by Ma Yueh Liang around 1950 in Shanghai, and who opened a school in New York in 1951. The first westerner to be taught Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan was a wrestler called Mr Williams who in 1919 was examined at the first Athletic Research Institute in Beijing, graduating ceremony conducted by Wu Chien Chuan.
Gerda was sensitive, gentle and special, and from the tai chi she knew she developed her own unique journey. In the classes what she focused on would vary, sometimes she talked about the eyes and consistent focus in relation to the hand, or relaxing the pelvis and stepping softly, other times about energy or mental attitude, all to substantiate the practice of the form. She once relayed a demonstration she was giving, and halfway through the form she looked at the clock on the wall, went totally blank and stopped. On another occasion she talked about a dream of a candle under an ice lake – warmth dissolving the frozen – to realize how it resolved a particular personal issue. She talked in a life-related way, quite often about the classics, such as the Tao Te Ching. Every class we played the whole form. If you didn’t know it you still followed. There was not a lot of correction.
How does tai chi relate to your work as an artist?
I find that it is only through the medium of painting and drawing that I can even begin to approach the sensations of playing Tai Chi Chuan, not through speech or writing. My paintings have for the past five decades explored Tai Chi Chuan in a variety of ways. It is for me a self-dialogue in tactile and felt terms. Just as push hands and applications are hands on. It is not something that it is possible to explain in words, which is why I make paintings.
I understand you started with the Yang style; what prompted you to change styles and what were the immediate differences between the styles, and teachers’ approaches?
Gerda’s interpretation of the Yang Style, coming from her dance background, included little or no push hands or martial applications. However I greatly enjoyed the feeling of the form, which she taught with much intricacy, often including reminiscences of her experiences and dreams, in relation to the Tai Chi Classics.
Gerda on several occasions did show at her house in Kent a black and white film of [“Johnny”] Choy Kam-man who taught her shortly after his father Choy Hawk Peng had died. He later moved to San Francisco. His form was excellent – it looked very rooted. I remember his footwork from the film. Gerda’s daughter Harriet visited him in San Francisco at some point around the mid-seventies to practise push hands. When she returned she relayed that it was hard, and very martial, not soft as she had anticipated. My knowledge of the martial aspect of Tai Chi chuan grew very gradually, and continued later with John Kells.
John Kells, who taught Cheng Man Ching/Dr Chi form, was rather hunched and there was no weapons training at the time. His uprooting and push hands skills however were excellent and skilful. We practised a lot of very soft push hands – yielding, uprooting and applications. Keeping in mind that I came from a boxing family and that I had studied judo, za zen, escrima and Wing Tsung, the discovery of the martial skills of Tai Chi a this stage opened a journey of connecting with internal energy cultivation which related to my painting. Chu Gin Soon and his top US disciple visited John’s school for a few weeks and demonstrated San-Shou sparring. It was powerful, skilful and impressive. The uprooting sessions inspired in me many paintings that embodied the spiral up/down physicality of specific sensations. John was an interested and constructive teacher, who was less detached than Gerda Geddes and was very helpful in helping to relate tai chi to my painting.
I have always maintained great respect for Gerda and John who taught what they wanted, in a way that they saw fit. John’s classes felt more substantial and serious because of the martial emphasis, in comparison to Gerda’s. He began with push hands, followed by warm-up exercises, the form and then applications and form corrections. We practised always a lot of push hands, both single and double as well as some free pushing, with a lot of partners. The sessions were always full, and there were some good and skilful students. I was practising four and sometimes six hours a day. However after four very enjoyable years of Yang style with Gerda and two years of CMC style with John, excellent though the sessions were, I still felt something was missing.
One Sunday morning in 1979, I went to a Wu Style class in Earl’s Court and immediately I felt I had found the thing I had been missing. It was in the form itself; the vector of the single-weighted and forward-inclined posture felt more stretching, as did the other postures. It felt more genuine to me, and it seemed to relate essentially to the Yang Family Style slanted back that had most impressed me. The system of teaching with the 1,2,3 counting system emphasized rooting on each count and, although hard on the legs it developed powerful internal energy. It was a real eye-opener. Seow’s teaching was impeccable in every aspect of his training and it felt right, although at the time it was still a mystery.
Seow Poon Shing was a Haka Chinese from Malaysia, who was a disciple of Cheng Wing Kwong. His father was a senior disciple. Seow [Simon] accepted very few students and even conducted interviews with each new student, sending many away. It was after a few years that I went to Malaysia and trained at his house with a full day regimen beginning at 5:00am. He had a wonderful quality of touch and style of moving in his Tai Chi. His father provided very helpful advice for training too, as did Master Ong who was also a senior disciple for twenty-five years. Seow arranged for me to train with him in the mornings, and after training we would have a large plate of noodles, where he taught me how to use chopsticks to pick up the slippery mushrooms. He was very generous in teaching me applications by throwing me all over the place, always with a smile. The main difference for me, in working with this style was being able to work with a more emphasized martial aspect. It began for me with the push hands methods, applications freestyle and throws.
With Seow often lessons were at his home in West Ham, London and usually included a meal. Every aspect of the syllabus was given due attention. Mike Acton and Shelagh Grandpierre were contemporaries and very gifted training partners. The 100-days training early every morning at the back of Oxford Street at Shelagh’s fashion workshop was intense.
In thinking about your early days, how prevalent was tai chi in London then and who of the early teachers impressed you?
To begin with Gerda Geddes had impressed me. She was a remarkable and wonderful person. Her classes were very peaceful and she was sensitive, detached and informative about the TCC Classics, the Tao Te Ching and I Ching, offering insight on her connections of the mind, dreams and energy. Her students were mostly from an arts background, particularly movement and dance. Kinthissa was her star pupil, I remember.
At John Kells’ classes there were some great people like Alan Peck and Richard Farmer who were skillful at yielding and uprooting, who went on to become first-rate instructors, exponents and good friends.
It wasn’t that I felt the Wu System to be superior to the Yang or CMC, in fact aspects of Gerda and John’s training were excellent. Gerda knew and had even trained in Wu Style with Sophie Delza in Shanghai and New York, and her daughter Harriet trained with Sofia Delza in New York in the mid 70’s too. But for me Seow’s training in the Wu Style felt just right.
Seow spoke very highly of Rose Lee, but I never met her. Master Chu was going strong then, but I only pushed hands with him once. All had unique and special qualities to offer, but there was a feeling of rivalry among the schools.
When Seow returned to Malaysia in 1981, I continued to run The London Centre of Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan. Dan McGiff, who like Mike Acton for some years now have their own successful schools in north London, then trained at my club until the late 80s, when they both moved to the Shanghai branch of Wu Style.
Eventually when Seow retired from teaching, he pointed me on to Wu Kwong Yu in Toronto, who I visited annually to train with at the Academy in Chinatown, and later at Queen St.
By the end of the 1980s I had built a fully-fledged club with many very good students and we often held regular events at the New World Restaurant in London’s Chinatown. Dan Docherty had recently returned from some years training in Hong Kong and launched his British Open Tai Chi Chuan Competitions.
I registered training with Wu Kwong Yu from 1983,visited Toronto annually from 1985, and in 1989 invited him for his first visit to London to teach at my club, The London Centre of Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan, followed by an honorary event at The New World restaurant in Chinatown. That was when my club became a Wu’s Academy, the first in the UK and Europe and where all those who now teach in the various Wu’s Academies in the UK received their initial years of training. Since then I have continued training with Sifu Wu Kwong Yu as his disciple. I consider it to be a great privilege to be working in this lineage with Sifu Wu. Because of the many good friends and disciples at the Toronto Academy it became my second home where I trained regularly each year. Sifu travelled to my school each year in London to conduct seminars. I have always had great faith in his teachings, he knows what he is doing, and there is always something to re-consider.
What do you feel is the overall purpose of the art and how best do you feel students can achieve its objectives?
The original tenet of Chang San Feng advised followers to achieve good robust health and longevity, and not only martial prowess.
Without good health your martial abilities are going to be restricted. Tai Chi is a system of self-cultivation, helping us to develop wellbeing, qualities that each of my teachers helped me with. The journey of Tai Chi Chuan is a forward venture, and at the same time, literally, going back. Why? Because it is to re-locate and cultivate your original nature, Yuan Chi. It is in the nature and practice of the movements themselves that you intuitively find your bearing, the connectivity that feels right.
One of the best pieces of advice that I received in my early days, training in Toronto, was from senior disciple Nick Langrick who said (in relation to my previous training): “Keep the best of what you have learned”.
Can you talk a little about the system you’re teaching now, what is involved in the curriculum and how the classes are taught?
I teach the Wu Family system as taught to me by my Sifu Wu Kwong Yu, and I teach it to the letter. (The full syllabus can be seen on my website www.wustyle-europe.com.) The classes are taught according to the various levels: Beginners, Intermediates, Advanced and Senior. I teach to improve the Tai Chi standard of the individuals that are present, which is related to the NOW, to enable them to develop from where they currently are. What we work on is dependent on my insight of them, and I teach according to where they are individually at in their level. This is the Wu Family method. It is quite precise at each level, so that realistically you can increase the ‘wattage’ relative to the level of ability. At my Academy there is a grading system at each stage. Each stage prepares for the next level. I have been very fortunate to have taught many talented and gifted individuals over the decades who have progressed well in the art of Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan. At present I couldn’t wish for better or more loyal disciples and students, who are dedicated and train well. We travel to many competitions and events, always in good humour and fun.
The requirements of each level are quite definite. Classes are not that big, and there is always one-to-one attention. This is the Wu Family tradition. The Wu Family system is a complete system and, as I have practised and taught it over the decades, for me, the inner beauty that can result through time and rigorous training belies definition.
My academy in Bethnal Green is open every day with classes for beginner, intermediate and advanced/senior students. It is my priority that members of my academy feel it is theirs to train and enjoy any day of the week, which is why my academy has its own premises. It is a second home to myself, and many of my students, and a unique place where we also hold seminars and guest events.
Some students who trained with me in the 1990s and after for more than a decade now have their own annexed part-time academies in London and the provinces. Many became my disciples and trained well. After some time I eventually nominated some of my senior students to my Sifu (Wu Kwong Yu). Shiou Chuang runs the Regent Park branch, Don Spargo runs the Archway branch, Jae Willis the Somerset branch and Pat Saults the Coventry branch, amongst others.
What essential principles should beginners focus on?
Footwork! Stances then posture, and lastly hands. The progression of learning should be: correct structural alignment, balance, relaxation, smooth co-ordination and looseness; in that order. These aspects are taught and coordinated in the Tai Chi walking, warm-ups, meditation push-hands, applications and form training. I also teach the essential mental principles throughout each session.
At the beginning of each session I light the incense and salute the Great Founder Zhang San Fengand then the Wu lineage ancestors on the wall: Wu Chien Chuan, Wu Kung Yi, Wu Ta Kwei, Wu Yen Hsia, and Wu Tai Hsin. The salute is done with the right fist cupped in the left palm, which symbolises the sun and the moon and a respect for all life. This is a sign of respect for the art and the tradition of its development. The students respect the teacher, and the teacher respects the students. A good teacher will always teach to the best of her/his ability, and a good student will practise what s/he are taught to the best of their ability.
Having taught for many years do you see repeating patterns occur in the things that inhibit the growth of students? What are the most common mistakes and what can be done to stop them?
Often one reason for the build-up of mistakes is that students can be prone to interpreting what they have been taught and begin to distort their practice, and it can happen very easily. As Sifu Wu Kwong Yu often remarked: “If you distort one form you distort the whole form.”
The essentials of the art of Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan are:
– Feet in the correct position
– Proper Yin/Yang separation to avoid double-weighting of the body and mind
– Correct understanding of extension and contraction (stretching and bending)
– Han shun ba bei (hollow the chest and extend the back) with a straight spine
– Turning and tucking the hip
– Tucking the chin
– Relaxing the shoulders and elbows
– Relaxing the chest and abdomen
– Avoiding strain and force
– The tongue should be placed behind the top front teeth combined with nasal breathing
Failing to cultivate these aspects are where recurring errors are seen and it can take much effort over the years to rectify them.
When judging at competitions for instance, it is amazing that even with experienced players some of these basic errors still show themselves. No matter what level, no one is exempt from these basics, they are what I call the “recurring problems” that need to be regularly checked. I am aware of the importance of this in my own practice, as were the various masters of the Wu Family and emphasized by Grandmaster Wu Kwong Yu. Also in push hands practice, sensitivity and the avoidance of brute force requires constant application, and going back to the drawing board.
To be able to neutralize with proper focus and power generation and gradually to achieve “Sung” level requires all of the above aspects in practice. As with any art, it is self-discipline and correct practice over time that enables the practitioner to gain the benefits that Tai Chi Chuan is renowned for. This ultimately leads one to the essence of the art.
The calligraphy above my Academy office is of the character “Jen”. It means: humility, tolerance, patience and perseverance. Correct mental attitude is important, and you must also believe in your teacher’s teaching. Both student and teacher need to listen carefully to each other. If this doesn’t happen, then there will be a lack of communication and understanding. Positive and open minded attitude are integral to Tai Chi training. This is an area for many that tends to come and go. If the teacher fails to inspire as a natural part of the pupil relationship, this also can result in dullness and boredom for the students.
Tai Chi training is not about gain or doing it for something, it is a feeling. Playing tai chi brings you alive to energy transformation. It is also important to be open to absorb the accuracy and quality of teaching and to have the humility to persevere. Gradually students learn the meaning of practice, practice and practice, to attain a higher level in the art. Through training with this mindset students can gradually and slowly advance and ultimately learn the whole syllabus. Again, not with anything in mind except to feel, experience, investigate and enjoy the practice. Slowly aspects of the practice will dawn; why the form is the way it is, why the mental principles are so meaningful. The good things that you have been taught will come back to you when you need them. Tai Chi Chuan is about a state of mind and therefore being, and how you develop that is the journey of Tai Chi Chuan. Students who wish to reach the higher levels in the art need to train hard while continuing to learn properly. There is a paradox in that to cultivate the ability to empty out and let go of the baggage, you learn to unlearn to be in the moment. This is to relieve you of self-consciousness. In terms of positive attitude, I sometimes remind my students that life is a gift, to live and appreciate each moment. This is the core of practising Tai Chi Chuan for health, martial and the spirit/energy focus.
There is room for everyone in Tai Chi training, something to suit the varying needs. Students can never be perfect with every movement in Tai Chi Chuan, it is simply a matter of training (properly) and with one’s own relative discipline, to improve from where you are at any given time. Perfectionists tend to become miserable because they cannot perfect each move…. Ego, desire, or undisciplined personal training, neglecting basic internal principles, lack of faith in the art or themselves are often some of the re-occurring reasons that cause on-going mistakes with Tai Chi players. Students can sometimes be their own worst enemies, and can provide obstacles to their own detriment, negativity often being one, particularly at advanced level (what I call the “Advanced Dilemma”). Students can suffer from inflated egos and become difficult to teach. Tai Chi practice means looking at what you are and, as a teacher, you will do your best to help each individual through their own Tai Chi problems and be there when they need you. My students know that I will not suddenly disappear, and I emphasize I am just an ordinary person and I teach Tai Chi Chuan, I cannot offer more than that and don’t want to be seen equal to a psychologist or doctor.
When, as is the case sometimes, students have some physical defect or impediment that they have to live with, I remind them of the heights Wu Chuan Yau achieved with his lame leg. Also Gerda overcame a serious knee accident while skiing, through several years of Tai Chi meditation to the knee area, and continued to practise her Tai Chi after being warned that she may never walk properly again. They are both examples of the power of the mind and positive kung fu attitude.
How important do you feel it is to be close to the source of your material? Having worked in the Wu system, directly with lineaged masters, do you feel it provides you with an advantage?
Of course. Definitely. You feel the direction and realize the benefits of the art, which results in the sense of well-being and enjoyment of practice. The osmosis from each teacher is something that stays with you. The various members of the Wu Family that have helped me in my regular past visits to Toronto are of course very memorable. Every once in a while something will be remembered from the treasure chest they have given, to keep practise on track.
You were involved in the very early days of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain, what prompted you to join the organization and what keeps you actively involved for so many years?
I co-founded the organization in order to obtain some clarity and to improve the situation of tai chi life in the UK. In challenging times I have often asked myself why? There was something in the air in the late 1980s. Nigel Sutton and Dan Docherty were actively teaching in London also, and sometimes we would meet. Nigel came up with the initial idea of the Union and at the beginning of the 90s we got the main instructors together at my studioin West Hampstead, London, and formed the TCUGB. Many a time it has been a thankless task, but to see the initial aims gradually realized is hugely worthwhile and satisfying. There was a particular time early on when one Alistair Drane and myself were the only members present for a meeting at a café in the Euston Road. We were not quorate. Dan was out of the country and Alistair was his representative. This happened several times and the TCUGB was hanging on a shoestring. It could have all fallen apart there and then, but little by little it grew and gained support.People like Ray Wilkie, and later Chris Thomas and Bob Lowey became involved. In those days too, there was much rivalry between schools. This is something that over the years the TCUGB has replaced with good, better and friendly interaction, with many different schools taking part at festivals and competitions.
Essentially it has been because of the efforts and commitment by the people who were involved initially that the Union was able to begin growing. I was a founder member, an active member, and have been there at all the stages of development and improvement. I have seen members come and go. I have been Chairman twice and all through with leaps forward, to the benefit of the TCUGB instructors and students alike.
To see the Union through to the present time is not a rational thing, but it is satisfying. Basically it is a feeling for the art, and the people involved. Of course there have been a succession of Chairman who have made significant contributions who have helped to create the TCUGB organization as it is today and are now household names in the UK and European Tai Chi communities. The vibrancy of the art here in the UK is very much due also to the accumulative and ongoing work of the TCUGB Executive Committee and Technical Panel members.
The introduction of our magazine was the most important development by far, with the expertise and huge continued efforts of our editor, Ronnie Robinson. The magazine has been so instrumental in conveying the news, events, personalities, articles (such as this), letters and so on. Dan Docherty is the present Chairman, and he has contributed huge time and effort over the years with major input in a variety of ways. It is largely thanks to all these people that we have such a good Tai Chi community here in the UK.
What are your feelings on competitions, how they are staged, the quality of judging and competitors, in the UK, Europe and beyond?
Again, it was Dan who broke the ground here with the British Open Competition in 1987. Initially push hands bouts were held on a high platform, in old traditional style. There were many injuries with competitors being thrown off the platform and landing badly. I remember when one of my students, Peter Gravett, a doctor, was called in to assist with injuries. In time the platform was lowered to a reasonable level, and then eventually, as is the case these days, they compete on mats. The competitions have improved and are improving, but still have a long way to go, in my opinion, particularly the judging, and this is exactly why since 2005 I have been running the Judges’ Seminar Programs, to train qualified judges.
There is a mysterious problem here: with over eight hundred instructor members, let alone their students, a miniscule number are interested in becoming qualified judges. Yet the complaints still happen at competitions here in the UK and in Europe, Russia and China. There are many who judge, but who are really not versed in the necessary criteria of the variety of styles they are judging. It is not fair on contestants who spend a lot of effort and money and it is their right to be given a fair deal. It is in many cases that an arbitrary opinion rather than an informed one is given.
The competitions that are available do however bring many diverse practitioners together to provide the incentive to improve their skills in Tai Chi Chuan. The staging and organization generally is continually improving, and if the organizers continue to find ways to better the conditions then we will eventually arrive at some kind of Olympic level. Since 2008 I have been hosting our annual London Competition for Traditional Tai Chi Chuan which incorporates the Judging Seminar Program and provides experience for trainee judges alongside experts from each style. We would welcome input from potential judges and participants next year (details: http://www.wustyle-europe.com/competition.html).
How do you feel about the way that tai chi is taught and practised today and what do you think about the place the art will hold in the future?
It is very, very good generally, and it is gaining popularity. It will evolve as it always has, that is to change to be the same. I would like to think that many people throughout the world will benefit with better health and well-being because of Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong. It is now respected and known as a formidable martial art.
You van visit Gary’s website here: www.wustyle-europe.com/index.html
With particular thanks to Steffi Sachsenmaier and Rich Davies.