Published as a feature article in Qi: The Journal of Traditional Eastern Health & Fitness, Autumn 2003 and as lead article in Empty Vessel: A Journal of the Daoist Arts, Fall 2003
The Martial Art of Health Preservation
by Cassia Berman
When I first began T’ai Chi Chu’an in 1977, its health benefits were always spoken of, but the school I attended was more oriented towards the martial arts. I experienced healing from the very beginning—the chronic bronchitis I’d get every winter never came back, my spine relaxed and straightened, my mind became clearer, and my immune system in general became strong so that I stopped catching every cold and flu that was going around. But at the same time, I was learning to punch, do self-defensive movements, even swing a sword, and in Push Hands I found myself facing off with big guys who wanted to get me off balance and throw me into a brick wall. (Not exactly the point of authentic Push Hands, but that martial arts school, at least, tended to attract people who wanted to fight.)
I came from a dance background, and had started T’ai Chi thinking I was going to learn a graceful form of Chinese movement, so being faced with “martial arts,” which I’d never had any desire to learn, was unexpected and challenging. I asked my friend Bob Lumish, who was my elder brother in the practices and later my second teacher, how could a martial art also be a healing art?
“Well,” he said, “I’m really practicing T’ai Chi Chu’an to heal myself. But if someone wants to fight with me and take my health away, I know how to defend myself.”
A few years later, the first Indiana Jones movie came out, with that great scene in the beginning when the hero is walking in the marketplace of some Middle Eastern country and a swarthy guy jumps out dressed in exotically ragged ethnic clothing and does all these fancy, threatening movements with swords and daggers—until someone takes out a gun and shoots him dead, putting an end to his elaborate “martial arts.” When I started T’ai Chi it was evident that most of us were not really ever going to need T’ai Chi movements to defend ourselves, and they certainly wouldn’t be useful in modern warfare such as it was.
For me, learning the martial aspects of T’ai Chi at first became a way of experiencing where I wasn’t fully inhabiting my energy field and the implications that had in daily life. Where I was off balance, too weak, too strong or too tense, I would get thrown physically in Push Hands; I started being able to see, each time that happened, how that reflected in the way I “held myself” in relation to people and situations in the rest of my life. As I relaxed and became more centered by following the principles of T’ai Chi, life in general became easier, less confrontational and more harmonious.
But it was the healing aspect of T’ai Chi that I was most interested in pursuing, and seven years into my practice, I was blessed to meet a fifth-generation Chinese master of healing who taught T’ai Chi when he first came to this country. When Master T.K. Shih would demonstrate the fullness of a kick or a strike, he would often say, “But we don’t practice this for fighting—we practice energy!” As his school in America developed, he went on to teach us how to use energy, Qi, for healing and spiritual development, which is now his exclusive focus.
Master Shih helps his students experience and understand how Qi’s potential for healing is limitless. Some Chinese masters have called Qi healing, or the emission of universal energy from one person to another, superstitious and impossible, and the western mind has little basis to understand it either. But those of us who have worked with it, as taught by Master Shih and other masters, have seen for ourselves that using pure energy in this way can do everything from removing a backache, to shrinking a tumor, to calming the emotions. “Using Qi for healing is science, not superstition,” Master Shih often says, encouraged that research studies in major medical institutions worldwide are gradually finding a rational, linear explanation for what the ancient Chinese sages were able to discover through the higher development of their intuition.
The ancient principles of yin/yang, five elements and the interconnection of all life, which form the basis of Traditional Chinese Medicine, have already been rediscovered, in other terms, by quantum physics. In the highest teaching of the ancient Chinese tradition, this subtler science of using energy alone for healing also involves the personal work of making the mind peaceful and opening one’s heart as an instrument of kindness. Only then can energy from the Universe flow within oneself and to another. There is every indication that, in time, western science will be able to understand and accept what might seem like the field of religion or personal development, but is actually the missing link that integrates humans and their potential into the great scheme of things, which the Chinese call the Dao. When the expansive relationship of life energy, mind and heart is understood scientifically, the field of western medicine will be able to develop its healing capacities in helpful ways, rather than the inadvertently harmful treatments that sometimes result from incomplete understanding of our totality.
Although Master Shih no longer teaches T’ai Chi, I have continued to practice as well as teach it, with an emphasis on the healing arts rather than the martial arts. My own daily practice is mostly Qigong, but when I return to the T’ai Chi form, it is like an old friend whose martially-inspired movements have become for me the subtler and very enjoyable experience of awakening and extending my energy in this limitless Universe itself, where life moves in circular, ever-shifting patterns of yin and yang.
I have come to trust that practicing T’ai Chi and Qigong, and continuing on the path of self-development in which they lead, is the best form of health insurance I can have—it is many years since I’ve needed to go to a doctor, and as I continue into my fifties, I am not experiencing the effects of aging that many people my age do. “There is no limit,” Master Shih said recently, “to the healing power Qi can have if we align ourselves with the principles of the Universe.” Which brings me back to what my old friend and teacher Bob Lumish said about T’ai Chi helping him defend himself “if someone wanted to take his health away.”
Who would have dreamed 25 years ago that the most serious military challenge facing us would literally become someone wanting to take our health away, i.e. germ warfare?! As I listen to news that the vaccines we could use against these diseases might be toxic to some or not even effective, as the world tries to find ways to cope with mysterious new diseases like SARS, which sprang up from Chinese soil itself, I think of the ongoing studies at clinics in both China and America where Qigong is being used successfully to treat seemingly incurable diseases like late-stage cancer and other serious illnesses.
The fact is, there are cases on record worldwide, from the time of the black plague to present-day AIDs, where for some unexplicable reason, people have been immune to virulent contagion. There is a human capacity we don’t understand to not die from deadly diseases; it might be, as science researches these techniques developed in ancient China, we will find the key to understanding it.
We don’t yet know to what extent opening our hearts, minds and bodies to life energy through Qigong can protect us or heal us from the most life-threatening illness. But cultivating ourselves through the seemingly antiquated martial art of T’ai Chi and the internal art, Qigong, from which it springs might yet be the best self-defense we have.
To say nothing of its ultimate potential for generating peace.
Cassia Berman is a Qigong Therapist and Qi Healer certified by the Chinese Healing Arts Center. She teaches T’ai Chi and Qigong in classes and private sessions in Woodstock, NY, and can be reached at (845) 679-9457. A writer who has published articles on a wide range of spiritual subjects, she is working on a book about Qigong.
Master T.K. Shih is author of several books on Qigong, and director of the Chinese Healing Arts Center in Danbury, CT and Kingston, NY where he teaches Qi healing and other Qigong healing techniques