December 05, 2005

Black Sash

Well, yesterday afternoon I took and passed my black sash test in tai chi chuan, along with eleven classmates, and I’m feeling pretty great about it. For the past two months I’ve been going to eight classes a week to study for it, as well as practicing with classmates on some weekends and lunch hours and studying reading materials at home. It’s the culmination of five years of attendance.

Those of you who know anything about it may have said, “What? Sashes in tai chi?” The fact is, it’s very unusual for a tai chi instructor to rank students and to require tests and uniforms as they do in other martial arts. My teacher is a kung fu guy originally (and still) and he’s often said that tai chi is kung fu practiced slowly; or more colorfully, kung fu is tai chi through the back door. You start out studying it without having any idea that it’s a fighting skill, and then one day you find you have this skill available for use. He’s brought a formal sensibility into tai chi, not without resistance from me and some other students. As he’s instituted sash requirements and testing and tournament requirements and bowing and the use of titles, we’ve been dragged into it kicking and screaming in some cases, and students have dropped out because of it. I’m an informal person and I chafe against the use of titles for any human being, especially the historically repugnant title “master.” (“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master” – Lincoln.) Nor do I want my classmates of several years, who know me as Richard, to start calling me Mr. Cohen.

The other side of the coin is that Tom Gohring is a highly gifted teacher and a likable, charming, decent human being, who has taught me more than any teacher ever did in any school subject. The school is his business to run the way he chooses, and adjusting to his requirements is part of the discipline involved in learning. Plus, as it turns out, having a tangible goal to train for, if it’s a goal you care about, can be a stimulus to learning.

In the immediate term I prepared for the test the night before by going out to the Cactus Café and seeing the wonderful Texas/Oklahoma singer/songwriter/Dylan interpreter Jimmy La Fave. A great show and a highly recommended artist, with a keening, dramatically breaking tenor voice and a repertoire of his own slow songs that can make your eyes well up as soon as you hear the opening chords, as well as rockers that are tightly and excitingly played. Read the blurbs on this guy's website and then take the chance and buy a CD. (I don't know him personally.) He always includes some Dylan in his sets, and last night he did “Blowin’ in the Wind” sincerely and beautifully as few people would have dared to; “Mr. Tambourine Man” starting on solo mandoguitar and finishing with his band as if recapitulating Dylan’s folk-to-electric leap of 1965; and beautiful, strong versions of “Just Like a Woman” and “Not Dark Yet” and “Every Grain of Sand.” We got home at 2 am, but I was alert and rested the next day because I hadn’t drunk any alcohol. But I digress.

The test was three hours long, and before our test, there was a 2-1/2 hour black sash test in kung fu, which was taken by only one student, a teenager. His test must have been more stressful than ours because he took it alone, and he ended it by having to spar Sifu Gohring, but our test was physically as well as emotionally demanding. It began with a 70-minute nei kung routine. Nei kung, which means “inner work,” is a system of exercises for stretching and alignment, based on holding postures for a long time and changing them slowly. It doesn’t look outwardly like much of a workout, but when you do it, it feels like one. It was as exhausting and envigorating as the 75-minute workout I used to do a generation ago at the same karate school as Amba -- and I haven't found an equally rigorous workout at any martial arts school since.

After that warmup, we did the tai chi form several times as a group, giving it our best form at a slow speed. Then, as a break, we answered oral questions about the Ten Important Points of tai chi and their meanings: head suspended; close the chest and lift the back; waist loose; distinguish between substantial and insubstantial; sink the shoulders and drop the elbows; use mind not strength; upper and lower follow; inside and outside coordinated; connected without interruption; within motion find quiet – motion and quiet are one. Then we paired off and did several push-hands routines culminating in freestyle push hands. (Sifu’s eye widened when, a couple of times, I sent my 250-pound partner and best tai chi friend flying ten feet without using any force.) Then, also with partners, we demonstrated the martial applications of each move in the form. Then as a group we demonstrated the tai chi staff form and the tai chi sabre form.

Then we were happy and sweaty and hungry and thirsty and chatty and we took group photos and gave presents to classmates who had been especially helpful as tutors in certain skills.

Then I drove home and the family took me out for an all-you-can-eat diner at the local Asian buffet. Unfortunately they weren’t serving beer because they have had to reapply for their liquor license due to a change in ownership; so after dinner I had some of my favorite Spanish brandy, Carlos I, at home, while listening to Jessye Norman sing Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” (I recently treated myself to an amazon purchase of four CDs of that piece: by Norman, Renee Fleming, Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, and Lucia Popp. I’ve got Te Kanawa’s version, which may be the best of all, on my computer, and I’ve got Gundula Janowitz and Lisa Della Casa in my CD rack. But I digress. What I want now is Eva Marton’s version, the first I ever heard and my favorite, but it’s 50 bucks used. But I digress.)

The significance of a black sash is traditionally twofold, as I understand it. First, it means you’re a serious student. It’s viewed as the beginning of real study, not the ending. Second, it should mean you’re able to handle yourself in a self-defense situation. This is less easy to assess for tai chi than for the external martial arts, where people go around punching and kicking each other. Tai chi is concealed power. But the other day a kung fu student at my school playfully attacked me from the back with chops and a kick, and I instinctively turned and caught his foot in midair, using the move Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain, and pushed him around the room like a wheelbarrow, to his surprise and embarrassment. So I guess that’s all right.

I think I’ll keep studying tai chi.