David-Dorian Ross on T’ai Chi & the Benefits

T'ai Chi master David-Dorian Ross.

If you have questions about the benefits of t'ai chi, let expert David-Dorian Ross be your guide. A seven-time U.S. National Gold Medalist in t'ai chi and holistic wellness expert, Ross is the owner of Full Circle Fitness in Corona del Mar, California. He is also the founder of Full Circle Coaching, a form of life coaching that includes t'ai chi methodology.

Ross has developed a number of multimedia t'ai chi instruction, including the television series, "T'ai Chi in Paradise" and DVDs such as A.M. and P.M. T'ai Chi and T'ai Chi Beginning Practice, among others. He is also the author of the books The T'ai Chi Companion; Power, Freedom and Flow and Exercising the Soul.

LoveToKnow Yoga asked Ross to provide a primer on the benefits of t'ai chi, share the practice of life coaching, and reveal a decadent guilty pleasure.

Benefits of T'ai Chi - David-Dorian Ross Interview

LoveToKnow Yoga (LTK): Please provide a brief snapshot of what t'ai chi is, and what many people gain from practicing it.

David-Dorian Ross (DDR): Think of T'ai Chi Ch'uan as a Chinese martial art which is practiced in a gentle rather than rigorous fashion, and which has many therapeutic effects. But what rescues t'ai chi from simply being another workout, or a meditation, or a form of psychotherapy, is that it is all three of those things at the same moment, but with special activities to be practiced at different times.

In fact, t'ai chi comprises three distinct but inseparable activities.

It can be described as a Chinese martial art, which anyone can do, that combines the fundamentals of self-defense with beautiful and continuous low-impact rhythmic movement. The result is a comprehensive exercise routine that adapts itself to the individual.

T'ai Chi Ch'uan is also a type of non-religious meditation which combines special breathing patterns with rehearsal in visualization and concentration. The result is a mental workout that produces not only a clarity of mind, but also the ability to conserve, regulate, and consciously direct the vital life energy in all of us, known in Chinese as "ch'i," the spirit breath, or life force.

Finally, it is a game in which two people use their hands, arms and torsos to carry out relaxed and "exploratory" pushes, pulls, grabs, and nudges. This game, called Pushing Hands, tests and challenges each player's sense of balance, while simultaneously trying to upset their partner's. Part of learning the Pushing Hands game is learning to listen better. The result is an exercise that teaches the fundamentals of relationship skills, and provides an opportunity to practice connecting with another person. It is a "transpersonal" experience, which can go beyond physical and mental connections.

LTK: What is the biggest misconception of the practice?

DDR: People tend to pigeonhole it. Even avid practitioners will focus on one aspect of this art - it's a martial art, some will say. No, it's a form of meditation, say others. I meet people all the time who ask, "Isn't t'ai chi just a soft kind of exercise for old Chinese people in the park?"

Another misconception that many people have is that the practice is easy - not hard exercise at all. Nothing could be further from the truth. I tell beginners that the practice is not for faint of heart. It's hard work, and I've trained really fit athletes who've said that t'ai chi is one of the hardest workouts they've ever done.

LTK: What three key points should the beginner keep in mind?

DDR: Well, there are actually four key points, or essential characteristics, that you have to integrate. If you do, you will discover real magic!

  1. Keep the spine in alignment, with the crown point at the top of the head in line with the root point at the perineum.
  2. Breath slowly and deeply in sync with the rhythm of the movements of the body. In fact, the breath should lead the movements of the body.
  3. Relax. Release all unnecessary tension from the body and mind.
  4. Practice visualization. The same part of the mind that controls mental imagery also guides the voluntary flow of the qi.

LTK: What style is the easiest gateway to regular practice?

DDR: The Yang style, named for Yang Lu-Chan, originated around 1799 and is the most popular style, and the 24 movement Short Form is the most popular routine.

The Short Form was developed by the National Physical Culture and Sports Committee of mainland China in 1959, and has been taught to hundreds of thousands of people around the world. It's a standard, and therefore one you can find lots of teachers who know it, and a lot of other students to practice with.

However, I usually don't teach a routine right away. I start my students with something more fundamental, such as basic T'ai Chi walking. The walking eventually becomes different kinds of footwork, and then combinations of footwork. After establishing this foundation, the student is ready to learn a routine.


Following the Flow

LTK: Tell us about your first experience with t'ai chi.

DDR: What a great question! I've written about this in my book, so here's an excerpt from the prologue.

Stepping backwards a pace, she slowly shifted her weight to the rear foot and drew her hands past her hip. "Grasp the Bird's Tail," she said.

One by one, I followed her delicate, deliberate motions, moving slowly, softly, silently. Like the fog. Standing in the middle of the class, I could feel the heat generated from the forty-plus other bodies: old men and young women, young college students, someone's ten year old daughter, Caucasians, Asians and Blacks, a football player and me. We were a sea of motion, our hands the constant waves.

Without warning, heat that sizzled like electricity, or like the flush from taking too much niacin, surged through my body. My temples began to throb, although not painfully like a headache, and I heard a loud humming in my ears. Darkness crept in around the edges of my vision; almost immediately it was replaced by the perception that every detail around me was illuminated and highlighted -- the teacher, the students, and the thin film of green moss covering the red bricks of the courtyard.

I have read that the hair of people who survive being struck by lightning stands on end for a day or two. As the sudden light and sound slowly subsided, I could feel the tickle of every hair standing up along my arms and legs and on the nape of my neck. These movements, stumbling and imperfect as they were, had somehow triggered one of those magical times when we leap ahead of our personal evolution, a moment when my body and mind united with a vital energy that had been dormant, yet always present, inside of me.

LTK: What sparked the awareness that this would be one of many paths you'd walk in your life?

DDR: Well, originally I stumbled on t'ai chi by accident - I was actually looking for a different way to learn meditation, because I sucked at sitting. Then, I fell in love with t'ai chi. And over the years I have just learned so much about life itself through my practice that now it is the cornerstone of my work as a writer, life coach, and master trainer.

Like some exotic animal you might discover living deep in the rainforest, perfectly evolved and adapted with unique characteristics of form and function, so t'ai chi has evolved over the generations to become a system that step by step teaches you to develop harmony within the physical body, your thoughts and emotions, your vital life energy, and your spirit.

New Beginnings...and Chocolate Cake

LTK: You've mentioned in your blog that you are reconstructing your practice. Why?

DDR: The Chinese have a saying: "Miss by an inch in the beginning, miss by a mile at the end."

When I first began studying t'ai chi, I was very uncoordinated - not in my body at all. In fact, it took me many years to understand the technical mechanics of movement. In the meantime, I developed little ways to overcome weaknesses in my muscles and posture - what we technically call "compensations."

Over time, I got so good at compensating that very few people noticed, and I could perform at a very high level. But last year, after winning my seventh national gold medal, I realized that I felt like I still wasn't getting all that I could out of my practice. I think there is a level of deep "magic" I could still get out of my practice if I can eliminate all my compensations, and finally correct all my imbalances.

LTK: In addition to owning a gym, Full Circle Fitness, you are a certified life coach. How do you merge the two together for whole wellness?

DDR: When people ask me to describe what a life coach does, I often use the basketball analogy. A basketball coach helps his player learn to overcome obstacles and win at the game of basketball.

A life coach helps his clients learn to overcome obstacles and win at the game of life. Some people who come to our studio are looking for help finding answers to deep questions: Who am I? What's the meaning of life? Will I ever find a soul mate? Why don't I have everything I want in life right now...and how can I get it? With these clients, we focus on coaching, a deep and more strategic process.

However, most of our clients are just looking for a feeling of ease and command within their own bodies. With these clients, we focus on training, a more surface and tactical process.

My version of life coaching is a process I developed called Full Circle Hero Coaching. It merges the hero's journey metaphor with learning t'ai chi.

LTK: Moment of truth here: share a guilty pleasure or two.

DDR: Wow! Well, I really love chocolate cake with chocolate fudge icing. And I've been known to veg out in front of the Sci-Fi channel for a whole night. If you want more than that, well, you'll have to use your imagination.


More About T'ai Chi

To help you experience the benefits of t'ai chi, the following resources may help.

~Tracey L. Kelley

The author of this article received a promotional disc of "A.M./P.M. T'ai Chi" to complete this interview.

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David-Dorian Ross on T’ai Chi & the Benefits