Meet Jenny Smith

How many years have you been practising Tai Chi?
14 years – I started in February 1993 enrolling with the Taoist Tai Chi Society.

What stimulated your interest?
An Australian girl, just passing through in 1975, showed me some Tai Chi moves she had learnt in London and that was it. I was hooked although I didn’t start learning it till 18 years later – I felt it was always there just waiting for me. I remember, too, seeing a demonstration in Leamington around 1976 but nothing else ‘live’ til I started in 1993. I was a bookseller for the first 20 years of my working life and always contrived to stock as many books as possible on Tai Chi, Taoism, Oriental Philosophy etc. But as everyone knows this is not the same as practising and having a teacher. There really wasn’t that much in print on Tai Chi in those years though, however for many years it was the best I could do and the closest I could get to it. In spite of that when I did start I had not expected the impact it would make on me. My first and most important instructor, Cliff Slater, was an incredible inspiration to me as he has been to many other people. His dedication, generosity, energy, skill, teaching ability, respect for humanity, and professionalism were/are exemplary – a great role model.

strong> What does Tai chi mean to you?
When I read this question that I’ve been asked to answer – my mind went blank. I suppose because much of what Tai Chi means to me is something felt, and in many ways beyond semantics but with a language of its own in which there are no words. On one level, really good teachers do make a difference, but at another, possibly, higher level, it is nothing that can be caught, taught, stolen, explained, described, captured, owned, freed, honed, practised, promised or copied. It simply is and for moments at a time one has the privilege to tap into it and know that there is something very special about this space and that if one practised it a great deal (as opposed to just enough) this is the sort of energy that could make significant changes in the way one lives one’s life and the way one dies one’s death. It has already restored my lost health, and I think keeps me alive when over the years all sorts of unpleasant symptoms have come and then gone as a result of additional practise. On a mental level it has bought me into the here and now, neither worrying about the future nor regretting the past and much more able than at any other time in my life to deal with things as they happen. One of the things I noticed after practising Tai Chi for the first six months was what I tend to call ‘the lobotomy effect’. All the inside head chatter was gone, just peace inside which is rarely invaded. At the same time I noticed that I really hadn’t got a clue what was going on half the time but somehow, and in spite of everything, became more efficient, more, unaccountably, punctual, things one planned moved into place against all odds, and curiously my sense of direction, which had never been too bad, mysteriously seemed to heighten to what was almost another sense. What does Tai Chi mean to me? I think it means if I was ever looking for a path I found it and just to be on it is enough.

What is the most important aspect for you?
No doubt about it – health. . I have had personal experience of how the practise of Tai Chi can seriously affect one’s health for the better. Additionally I am constantly delighted by the aesthetic beauty of its simplicity coupled with economy and efficiency of movement continually proving that less is more.

Who or what inspired you?
My first Instructor, Cliff Slater, through his introduction to Tai Chi inspired me initially. I sometimes wonder if I had not had that particular quality of teaching at the beginning whether I would have quite ‘got’ it. He had had many years experience of other martial arts before studying Tai Chi which he came to after having been injured in karate. Cliff is an inspiration to so many in every way. He has spellbinding skill and technique along with an understanding and study of that skill and technique, and he also had the ability to teach it as well as demonstrate it. He has professionalism and commitment while teaching but combines it with a mischievous sense of fun making each individual within the classes (which were always huge) feel included and wanting to work hard and get on – and they did. We laughed a lot and never noticed how hard we were working. He was very much a role model; an inspiration not only for his personal practice of Tai Chi but the way he taught it. I learnt so much in those first two years and he communicated such enthusiasm, (not just to me but to many many students). I am still trying to practise a lot of the stuff he taught me 13 or 14 years later, I could not do it then and still can not do it now! I do feel incredibly privileged to have had him as a teacher right at the beginning because although I have chosen a different path since then his introduction to Tai Chi remains for me something of a gold standard.

Do you have any personal goals in Tai Chi?
On a physical note, ‘to be able to do snakes like Cliff ‘ was something I wanted to be able to do right from the beginning and am still trying otherwise, and to continue learning and working and getting nearer the source of my own original nature and the ancient teaching of Tai Chi and the Tao. On a more spiritual note – I would wish to die in my own time. A great luxury, in today’s world, but one I have always aspired to and I really do believe that if you do enough Tai Chi you can choose when you die.

What do you make of Tai Chi’s current popularity?
Its practice here there and everywhere through every age group and part of society must necessarily be beneficial but there could be a concern that being over popularised might lead to being over simplified and that great and wonderful intrinsic components of this extraordinary art might not only remain unappreciated but be lost. Increasingly it may be difficult to distinguish the charlatans from the serious students and practitioners. But then…who decides… in the end I suppose it has to come down to lineage.

As a teacher, how do you feel about the martial aspect of the art?
This is quite complex. I learnt a form originally where the only physical contact was push hands and that was definitely taught as ‘sensitivity training’ and in no way for fighting. We were not expected to do anything that would hurt someone or put any one on the floor but if you worked hard you could get a lot of torque on the spine thus strengthening it. Absolutely no fighting at all, just the form, although if you began to push hard and forgot the softness it might develop into a competition!

However, understanding the posture of a move from a martial aspect is absolutely vital if you are to get your hands and feet in the right place in relation to the rest of your body in almost all moves and understanding the logic behind the move gives you a physical security and confidence. As a beginner my instructor told us that practising the Tai Chi style we were learning would balance our energies and that, as a result, we would be unlikely to want to attack anyone and unlikely to be attacked. This did make perfect sense to me. Isn’t it true that as we go about our daily lives we unconsciously compute judgements about people in relation to their energy? As we walk down a street, into a shop, in a queue, in a traffic jam, in our home, everywhere, we decide without thinking about it…is this person a possible danger to us, will they help us if we ask, can I ask in such as way that they will have to say no, can I ask in such a way that they will have to say yes, will they leave us alone and get on with their own business but still be ready to interact if approached? The ability to be able to sense who will help us as well as who will harm us is as much a martial aspect as the fisty cuffs side of things in that your life depends on it, if not your life, then the quality of your life. Shall I cross the road now? If I ask my boss for a raise today will I get one? Perhaps I should leave it til next week when I might feel stronger? Intent not intense, I was taught and try to teach. Being able to get on in Society matters so much in life as we go about our ordinary day to day business that it seems to me all part of the same thing whether one is aware of it of not. Can I ask this person if they have change for the parking meter or should I ask that person? Why do the people on the street who ask ‘have you got 10p for a cup of tea’ ask one person and not another? How do they choose? It must be part of the same thing. Its not actually martial, its not war, but its something about energy interchange, taking or giving by force, lending or borrowing with good heart, and something about a very genuine life skill which can impact on your health both mental, physical and spiritual. We’ve all met the person who talks so much and so inappropriately that you think you will die if you stand there any longer listening to them…..I think that’s a martial activity – the talking – unconscious though it may be. There is often no sensitivity to anyone else except themselves and I have known people who, even if you were bleeding to death in front of them, would still keep talking and never notice! I do try to avoid these people though. A good martial ploy I feel and continue to feel that the sensitivity training we learn in push hands can help in this area.

What are your views on competition?
Competition can really push someone to their limits and as a result it can be chillingly beautiful to see something done with excellence. Competition in itself doesn’t interest me – it’s the high standards that may come out of it that fascinate me.

What direction would you like to see Tai Chi going in the future?
I don’t know, sorry…..maybe North, South, East and West?