Luke Shepherd

Luke Shepherd

How many years have you been practicing Tai Chi?

16 with my first teacher and 14 under my current teacher Patrick Kelly.

What stimulated your interest?

Taiji’s highest philosophical principles appealed to my idealistic world view. Yielding and neutralizing in body and mind fascinated me, How could an old practitioner overpower a young opponent? What was going on here?

What does Tai Chi mean to you?

Taiji’s meaning has changed. At first I believed awareness to be of prime importance, and my initial training was almost exclusively awareness based. But awareness only monitors what is taking place. Later, intention became important, as the force needed to direct changes and refine subtle body movement. Later still, the meaning of how both awareness and intention can be either superficial or stem from the deep part of the mind and the effects this can have on the subtle control of oneself and one’s partner. It’s meaning keeps changing, as aspects are further trained and refined.

What is the most important aspect for you?

Connection. I believe that Taiji can create genuine connections: Between different parts of the body. Between human and earth. Between intention and subtle body control. Between people. Between nations. Between our external and internal worlds. Between our superficial minds and our deepest selves.

Who or what inspired you?

My first teacher Richard Farmer pointed towards freedom through becoming a ”whole person”, unidentified with ego. This was stimulated by Buddhist philosophy and the training made connections between heart and mind. It was a liberal and inspiring training and included elements of both taiji and self-growth relevant for daily life.

My current teacher brings a precise and authentic tradition alive through a clear, yet demanding training methodology. The exactitude of his teaching is a huge inspiration as subtle and complex internal aspects become lucid. However, genuine inspiration for me comes from alignment of one’s deepest motivation with that of one’s teacher.

Do you have any personal goals in Tai Chi?

The training that I am following offers a direction towards a deeper internal understanding and development. This is an aim and a motivating force, without the need for a goal.

What do you make of Tai Chi’s current popularity?

People love art. Refinement. Engagement with a process of development. The popularity of taiji means that it is easy to talk of the highest philosophy of the art and attract students without necessarily offering a training methodology that can achieve these aims.
Students eventually seek what they need – according to their perseverance and intent.

As a teacher how do you feel about the martial aspect of the art?

I offer a training to help first develop a secure connection to the ground. This can only be achieved through letting go of external strength. Forces in taiji are developed from internal releasing and aligning which allows the body to merge with gravity and stack from the ground upwards, like a pile of falling tiles. The muscles condition form a springy stretched connection to the ground and enables the practitioner to “borrow” force from the earth. When students can feel this internal intrinsic strength, which is completely different from the strength associated with contracted muscle groups, they begin to get a flavour of the martial applications. As a martial system at a higher level, the partner’s forces are neutralized by being brought onto one’s own internal changes, not simply external movement. As the partner is becoming under control, one’s own forces are developing through a stretching chain of muscles from the ground to the point of contact with the partner. This creates the situation from which fa-jing can occur. Without training of the relaxed issuing forces the practice is incomplete, as it’s training stimulates a deeper and more subtle connection between body and mind than can be achieved without it.

What are your views on competition?

Did you say contemplation or competition? Theoretically, competition could be valuable to test one’s level, if seeking to ascertain if internal practice is truly taking place. Unfortunately, all competitions are judged by external methods i.e. the first to step outside the lines. This may be achieved with either exquisite internal skill or with brute force with no differentiation being made in the points scored. When I see a school has won competitions, I am rarely impressed, as I have no way of knowing if subtle jins are being trained and refined or if the competitors are relying on well co-ordinated contraction and timing to off balance their partner.

I hear of people winning medals after 5-7 years training. Unless they are exceptionally gifted it must be obvious that with this limited training they are using external strength and contracting forces to overpower their opponents. Is this what the classics ask us to train?

To develop stretched elastic forces takes many years of internal mind and body training. To be able to co-ordinate these internal changes (without reverting back to external contracting ie muscular habits) with the timing of one’s partner takes many more years. To empty one’s mind of any idea of pushing and to allow the partner’s force to passively stretch the body takes further training and faith in the deepening process. Will we gain deeper understanding through encouraging the winning of medals – whatever force is used to obtain them?

What direction would you like to see Tai Chi going in the future?

It is vital that every practitioner maintains a thorough link with a teacher. As a student of taiji, I feel a responsibility to honour my teacher by training to the best of my ability. As a teacher I have a responsibility to the development of my students and to ensure that they are as clear as possible, so that they can train without confusion. Being as stable a link as I am able between my teacher and my students will ensure continuity in the development of taiji and this will give it the correct direction for future development, irrespective of my personal preferences.

Open Palm Taiji – Freedom in Movement