Monday, January 31, 2011

The Real Deal

Erle Montaigue, 1949--2011

The martial arts world lost a real giant last week. Erle Montaigue passed away on Wednesday, January 26th. He was a genuine Master of Taijiquan, yet he refused to accept any such titles. His friends and students span the globe. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to train with and get to know him before he left this plane.

Sincerity is a big thing for me. And if he was anything at all, Erle Montaigue was sincere. When I was composing this post my initial thoughts were of that sincerity. And I had to resist the temptation to compare him to some of the shysters I have met in my martial arts experiences. I considered relating some of those experience here, but changed my mind as that would serve no good in the end. Rather than disparage those who easily disparage themselves, I decided to focus on the positive. Getting to know Erle and to learn the system he taught has been a big positive for me.

Although he was one of the most talented martial artists on the planet, Erle was a very humble and unassuming man. As I noted, he insisted that he not be called "Master" or "Sifu" or "Sensei", or any other title that would place him above anyone else. Rather, he treated all his students, even the newest newbie beginner, as an equal. He taught and practiced in his street clothes. He has the largest offering of Taiji training videos known to mankind, most of which were recorded in his old barn or his back yard, with kids and dogs and chickens running around, clothes hanging on the line in the background, and his loyal friends and students all playing a crucial part in the lessons, and all as humble and as unassuming as he.

I am a bit of a latecomer to the WTBA world. But still, Erle treated me as if I had been around forever. We conversed several times via email or Facebook about Taiji and/or music, and I had the opportunity to train with him and Eli (his son) last May in Maryland. Each time, he spoke to me as if he had known me for years. But at the same time, he must have known a million people--easily. His students come from all over the world, and he apparently treated each and every one with the same level of mutual respect and admiration.

He will be missed. But, that being what it is, we must all carry on. Eli is now running the WTBA without Erle. But he will always be with us in spirit. I personally still have a long way to go in that system. But there are tons of videos to reference, lots of willing and qualified teachers, and opportunities to continue. The WTBA-USA will be gathering again this May in Pennsylvania. It should be a good time. Eli will be leading the training. And I feel quite certain the old teacher will still get a few lessons in after all.

I think it is a shame to lose such a treasure. But at the same time, I feel honored to have had the opportunity to have met and trained with him, and am thrilled to still have opportunities to continue in his system. Erle Montaigue was, without a doubt, the real deal.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Nonverbal Attributes of Taiji

A central component of most Taiji practices is the Taiji form. And although there are various forms in the wide world of Taijiquan, they all convey the energies and principles of Taiji in such a way that we can practice, learn, and improve even if we practice alone. As we begin to understand our particular form, it should begin to speak to us, to teach. Accordingly, it should speak to those observing the form as well. This is one of the nonverbal attributes of Taiji.

Often the messages of Taiji are understood, but are not necessarily conducive to ordinary language. Of course we need teachers, and the imparted wisdom of those more familiar with, or with varying perspectives on our tradition. We could never start upon our paths, or follow them intelligently without informed guidance. But our teachers are not always with us. And typically, as we progress we move figuratively, and often literally, further from our teachers. We often don't have easy or frequent access to them. But we still have the need to learn, to progress. Therein is the beauty of Taiji's nonverbal attributes. We can still learn, we just have to teach ourselves to listen the right way.

The nonverbal attributes are not limited to the Taiji form. I have found much wisdom, strength, and knowledge inherent in Zhan Zhuang practice. As a matter of fact, as I mature in my Taiji practice, I am finding much more information in the simple practice of standing. Often, in various Qigong and Taiji forms, we will stop and hold a position. At that moment I can feel the latent power of Zhan Zhuang waiting to express, and concurrently to speak, to teach. Sharing that feeling is hard, because one can only feel it to understand it.

I did not begin my Taiji training with this knowledge, waiting for it to manifest. Rather, it just happened. Eventually, I caught on and started to listen. Of course, mindfulness, openness, and equanimity are essential for this type of listening. We need to be present, to reside in our bodies, and to receive the message(es) with discernment.

A further, and perhaps easier to understand nonverbal attribute is the listening of push hands. In this case we are still listening to our own bodies. In fact, for martial competence it is crucial that we listen to our own bodies in any partner practices. But, in following the tenets of push hands practice, we are also listening to our partners. The goals of this listening are manifold. We are listening for advantage, or for understanding those with whom we are engaged; we are listening so that we can instruct our partners, or others; and we are listening so that we can nurture our training partners as we nurture ourselves. None of these goals are obtainable without listening to the nonverbal attribute of push hands.

Considering the nonverbal attributes of Taiji broadens our practice. Further, it offers depth. And it opens the possibilities for knowledge way beyond what we may have thought possible. That is a good thing--the way it should be.