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T'ai Me Up, T'ai Me Down 

An 18th-generation t'ai chi master reveals the power of this ancient form

click to enlarge Gu Ping struts his stuff - GEORGE MERWEDE
  • George Merwede
  • Gu Ping struts his stuff

Relax, relax ... very good," says sifu (teacher) Gu Ping softly as he finishes another series of t'ai chi movements with his students.

After relaxing a moment, Ping says "again," turns his back to his students and resumes one of the three main styles of t'ai chi, as I and a half-dozen students try to shadow Ping's movements.

We are not as smooth as Ping, though; he's the epitome of fluid motion, performing every movement at the same slow speed, each movement flowing seamlessly into the next. Because Ping's English doesn't extend far beyond "relax, relax, very good, again," during the forms he'll sometimes speak soothingly in his native Chinese. Though only one student understands it, his sing-song Chinese melts on our ears like a silk caress. After a while you almost forget the language barrier.

Gu Ping is not your average t'ai chi instructor. Despite his youthful appearance and glistening brown eyes, the 36-year-old from Guangdong, China is considered royalty in the world of t'ai chi. Ping is an 18th-generation t'ai chi master, who can trace his family's lineage in t'ai chi back to 1641.

"To have the type of professional as Gu Ping here in Colorado Springs is a most priceless gift," says Kyoshi (master instructor) Terry Bryan of the non-profit American Black Belt Association, who is sponsoring Ping's visit. After two years of correspondence with Ping, Bryan -- himself an eighth degree backbelt in karate, who has been practicing t'ai chi and Shaolin (kung fu) for almost 40 years -- finally convinced him to visit the United States to share his wisdom of t'ai chi.

When Ping arrived in the United States around two months ago for a yearlong visit, he watched videos of some highly respected American t'ai chi instructors. "Americans teach t'ai chi like dancing," Ping says through interpreter Jean Yu. Ping shakes his head.

In Taoist philosophy, one tries to strike a balance between the yin (soft) without the yang (hard), and according to Ping, it's important to learn both applications of t'ai chi. The application that Ping sees lacking in the technique of most American masters is the "hard" martial side. If done correctly, and faster with more power, the forms and movements of t'ai chi become a very effective form of self-defense.

Ping describes the slow form of t'ai chi as "a massage for the inside of your body." It works by moving energy called qi (or chi) through the body via pathways called meridians, which all emanate from a central point located about where your belt buckle is. Many practice t'ai chi to promote internal health -- both physical and psychological.

"Do t'ai chi to help you get well, look younger, have a long life," Ping says. Indeed, after a t'ai chi workout, rather than feeling tired, energy flows more freely, leaving you with more spring in your step, and a sort of inner-calmness that stress has a hard time penetrating.

Between practicing forms, Ping usually takes a moment to demonstrate for his students the "hard" applications of t'ai chi, which definitively reveal the physical existence of qi.

He motions for me to join him in front of the class. He shows us a t'ai chi move where one arm comes down from above the head while the other arm comes up from the side, passing palm-to-palm around chest height. Now he motions for me to throw a punch at him with one arm and kick him with the opposite leg simultaneously. I do as he asks, and with deceptive effortlessness, his rising arm brushes my punch aside, while his descending arm hooks under my leg and lifts it up until I'm ready to fall backwards.

Next he points to his qi center and motions for me to punch him in the lower abdomen. I take aim and let go. Just as the blow is about to land, his lower abdominal muscles pop out to meet my fist. No reaction from Ping. "Again," he says. I hit him again, harder. Again no reaction. After a half-dozen blows, my fist is getting sore, yet Ping stands there unfazed, protected by his efficient use of qi.

Next, he motions me to grab his arm and try to pull him across the room. I tug. Nothing. I pull harder. Still nothing. He weighs around 130 pounds, a good 50 pounds less than me. Yet, I cannot budge him, cannot even shift his balance. I lean almost horizontally, straining to move him. His feet never move. Finally he relaxes his stance for an instant, which sends me reeling across the room.

The last demonstration was an example of the "rooting power" of qi. Ping is also trying to use that rooting power in a more visceral way -- to become a permanent citizen and settle down in Colorado Springs with his wife and 12-year-old son before his visa expires 10 months from now.

"For American and Chinese people to learn t'ai chi together would be very, very nice," Ping says.


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To learn t'ai chi under the guidance of Gu Ping, call the American Black Belt Association at 598-0398 for more details.

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