I’ll start this review as I mean to go on; by laying my cards on the table. I hadn’t been to Tai Chi Caledonia (TCC) before and I wasn’t certain I was going to feel at home there. Although I developed a keen interest in tai chi and qigong over twelve years ago, and have been running classes myself for five years now (I’m a Certified Teacher with the Institute of Integral Qigong and Tai Chi [IIQTC] – more on that later), I was aware my background and opinions perhaps differed somewhat from the time-honoured approach to tai chi training. I can’t claim a connection to any particular lineage and there is nothing martial about me. Was I really going to fit in at TCC?
I’ve spent a lot of my professional life as manager in the pharmaceutical industry. Indeed this is what lead me to tai chi; I needed something to help me relax and stay healthy and (relatively!) sane amidst the stressed-out corporate world. Over the years I have spent time with a number of different teachers (being particularly and memorably enthused by Richard Farmer of Rising Dragon Tai Chi), but prior to my training with the IIQTC haven’t had a long history with any one school. Yes, I’ve spent an enjoyable few years exploring the Yang-style ‘Cheng Man Ching Short Form’ (Dr Chi Chiang Tao version), but I’ve never studied sword or fan or any of the other more martial facets of the practice. I’m interested, excited in fact, knowing there is so much more to explore. My real passion is for qigong though. My main motivation continues to be the need and desire to de-stress and look after my health. And the more I learn, and the more I practice, the more my preference for simple styles and forms grows. I’d seen the TCC programme – a rich variety of esteemed teachers from Europe and the US were attending; between them countless decades of experience, and a myriad references to masters and lineages, families and disciplines. I’d read it numerous times but in all honesty much of the detail continued to go over my head. If I couldn’t even really comprehend the programme was I really going to fit in?!
Sunday afternoon, arriving at the TCC office at Stirling University I’m greeted by a certain Mr Robinson: “Welcome, I’m Ronnie, and I’m sorry but this is how I am”, he explains in his best gruff Glaswegian, placing my chalet key into my hand. “The demos are in half an hour, do get yourself there if you can.”
So I did. The weekend programme of multiple workshops was drawing to an end. There were lots of people and a great buzz in the sports hall. The demonstrations were impressive, showcasing the many styles and talents that were present. Fast forms, sword forms, duo forms. And towards the end some beautiful qigong; I started to relax a little.
Time then to explore my whereabouts. I’d heard Stirling University campus was picturesque, and it really is quite stunning; situated around a lake, a backdrop of hills, with lots of trees and wildlife in the manicured grounds. “Not a bad place to be”, I thought as I returned down the hill to the TCC village – a collection of wooden chalets a few minutes’ walk from the main campus where all the participants were staying. A pleasant evening followed getting to know my chalet-mates, and later on enjoying a delicious buffet prepared by Ronnie and the Italian instructors. I allowed myself to relax into the TCC experience a little further.
Monday morning, 8am. Contrary to popular belief not all tai chi players like to get up early! I was late, caught dashing out of my chalet by a certain Mr Robinson who offered me a welcome lift up the hill. I started to suspect that the gruff exterior was…well, just a gruff exterior really (I wonder if this will be edited out!). With everyone duly gathered in the large sports hall Ronnie introduced us to the instructors. Eight different 10-hour workshops were running during the week, and everybody could chose two of them, with teaching sessions running 8-10am and 2-5pm each day. After plumping for our first session, each instructor chose a quadrant of the hall and the training commenced.
Luckily for me, and admittedly the reason I decided to give TCC a go in the first place, there were two qigong workshops on offer. The first of these, led by Tina Faulkner, focused on two Daoyin Yangsheng Qigong routines for stress management devised by her father Gordon. After providing a touchingly graceful and fluid demo of the routines (particularly impressive as Tina was seven months pregnant), without further ado we began to explore the first “Stress Relief” set ourselves. Comprising of eight movements, it was quite vigorous and dynamic, having been designed specifically to relieve the symptoms of the ‘fight or flight” stress response. In addition to breath control and mental focus, key acupoints were stimulated and I got a tangible sense of tension being gently wrung out of my body; the routine lived up to its name! Later in the week we progressed to the “Stress Prevention” set. This also consisted of eight movements but was gentler in nature (which my de-stressed, yet slightly aching body by now, was rather relieved about!), and there was particular focus on the Five Element theory in this routine. During all four sessions with Tina I found myself completely absorbed by the movements.
Moving on to my second workshop, and it’s cards on the table time again. This was the real reason I had made the trip up to Stirling, as Dr Roger Jahnke, the Founder and Director of the IIQTC had travelled over from the USA for it. Of course I’m biased. I’ve already done a lot of training with the IIQTC and have been a Certified Teacher with them since 2009. I love the approach of this organisation, which is widely recognised as being at the forefront of qigong and tai chi training and research in America. Whilst being firmly rooted in traditional practice and principles, the IIQTC’s mission is to make tai chi and qigong more accessible to
the general population, emphasising how these ancient practices can be a simple, enjoyable and effective way of encouraging people to take greater responsibility for their own health.
Dr Jahnke’s first session coincided with some rare sunshine. An opportunity to practice outside could not be missed, so we positioned ourselves near the lake. Following a series of fun warm-ups, without any preamble Roger introduced his “Nine Phases of Qi Cultivation and Mastery”, a qigong set he has developed out of his 45 years of personal tai chi and qigong practice. The three hour session flew by, and there was lots of contented murmuring as the group returned to the TCC village for the evening. Subsequent sessions combined more practice with discussions about the origins and theory behind the nine movements, focusing on two striking yet simple visual “maps” which quite powerfully knitted together much of the tai chi philosophy I have encountered over the years. Throughout, the message was one of personal alchemy. Of the ability we all have to transform ourselves into healthier versions of our self via focused, sincere and enthusiastic qigong practice. The feedback from the participants was wonderful and perhaps can be summed up as “more please, Dr Jahnke”!
When we weren’t training there were plenty of other things to do: hang-out in the TCC village; indulge in some informal push hands; get involved in evening debates; or head out to explore Stirling. For example, the Wallace Monument was just a short walk away and a group of us headed up to this amazing viewpoint one evening, watching the sun set (yes the sun shone at least twice!) and sharing each other’s forms and infectious enthusiasm for all things tai chi.
And then of course there was the Chinese banquet.
In previous years this has involved a trip to Glasgow, and that was the plan this year too. However, because of various difficulties Glasgow was off, but somehow Ronnie rustled up a last minute booking (for over 60 people!) at a restaurant in Stirling instead. Not only that but he negotiated a great mix of dishes to be cooked especially for us – ordering off the menu was just not good enough! The verdict? Everybody loved it. Apparently it even trumped the high standards of the traditional venue. Bravo Mr Robinson.
The week naturally came to an end. Time for hugs and farewells. I had met lots of kindred spirits, people who also supported the practice of simple, traditional yet accessible, qigong for health and well-being. People I know I will keep in touch with. My doubts about fitting in were very much quashed. If you love tai chi and/or qigong, if you’re passionate about your particular practice (whatever style it may be), and if you engage with it in a sincere, focused and enthusiastic way, I think it’s pretty safe to say you’ll be at home at TCC. A great first trip, it won’t be my last.