How many years have you been practising tai chi?
Since 7th September 1987, a day that changed my life in many ways. What stimulated your interest? Connubial loyalty. My wife Margaret, who was recovering from a heart attack, saw an ad for a tai chi class. She said, “I think I’d like to try that.” I said, “I’ll come with you.” Simple as that.
What does tai chi mean to you?
As well as transforming my movement, my breathing and the way I look at the world, it has helped me through three traumatic events. I was diagnosed with tongue and neck cancer in 1999. Thirty six hours after the operation I was in the deserted dayroom before breakfast, practising nei kung exercises. Recovery from a coronary bypass in 2002 took a little longer. The third crisis was when Margaret’s heart finally succumbed to the attack that had first brought us to tai chi. The love and support from our tai chi “family” was as important in my grieving as the practice of the art itself.
What is the most important aspect for you?
I remember once moving into “grasp the bird’s tail” and for the first time, instead of turning the body, shifting the weight and pushing the hands out, I just allowed the focus of my body to change and let the arms extend to their natural length in the new direction. It was a revelation. Ever since then, the quality of movement has been the most important thing for me, whether it’s in forms, fighting applications, pushing hands or standing still.
Who or what inspired you?
My Aunt Elsie, who did her Swedish exercises every morning and lived to 101. Every student who ever left a class saying, “Thanks, Don. That was good tonight”. And my sifu, Ian Cameron. I have met other teachers – some of them worldrenowned. I have seen them in the flesh and in action. I have not yet met one who has seemed to me to be more skilled than Ian. His inspiration over many years is still as strong today.
Do you have any personal goals in Tai Chi?
None at all.
What do you make of Tai Chi’s current popularity?
In 1988 we were the only club in town. Now there are probably 25-30 classes on offer each week. But with all this apparent explosion of interest, the public is no more knowledgeable about the depth of the art and any media coverage is no less superficial or trivial.
As a teacher, how do you feel about the martial aspect of the art?
It needs to be taught to every student to some degree – at the very least, demonstrated. Even my little old ladies are taught how to make a proper fist, whether or not they hit anyone. They know that tai chi chuan is essentially a martial art which, practised properly and regularly, can be of great benefit to their health.
What are your views on competition?
Forms competition is just dressing up and showing off. Surely pushing hands is a training method, where “winning” should come second to learning. The only meaningful competition is fighting – but is it a test of tai chi chuan? I have fought in the past (though not under TCC rules). I still like to watch any kind of contest and I find a lot to admire there. Practising techniques and sparring are important, but I believe that fighting of any kind is more a test of courage, aggression and conditioning. I was pleasantly surprised to read that such luminaries as Wong Kiew Kit (The Complete Book of Tai Chi Chuan, p.140)and Nigel Sutton (Searching for the Way, p.78) each quote a Chinese saying that almost exactly matches my thoughts.
What direction would you like to see Tai Chi going in the future?
Less insularity in styles and schools. I’ve often invited other teachers into my class and whenever I’m away from home it’s my pleasure to find a class somewhere, stumble through their form and join in their partner practice. Please don’t let tai chi become an Olympic “sport”. The surge in interest would be great for business, if tai chi is your business, but the silk suits and somersaults would turn tai chi from a martial into a performance art. By the way, if any little old ladies are upset by that description, I am fully though reluctantly aware that I could be described as a little old man.
Don Wells teaches in Aberdeen and Ellon. He has a page on the Five Winds School’s website and can be contacted at 01224 310904 or email Don Wells .