[Written, published and copyrighted by The Jewish Times on March 9, 1990]
Not Too Much, Not Too Little
For self-defense, Tai Chi instructor Herb Goldberg prefers a roundabout Oriental approach.
First you learn to walk. In the process, you learn to breathe which propels your movements.
Finally, your mind becomes so disciplined that it guides your breathing.
Dressed in Tiger sneakers, sweatpants and a shirt emblazoned with the Taoist symbols Yin and Yang, Goldberg declines to answer questions directly, in the Western fashion. He explains that he prefers the roundabout Oriental approach that emphasizes process over concision.
Even a question about his age requires an explanation on the way to the answer.
"I'm 950 years old," the 37-year-old Montreal native says in a kind of Tai Chi one
liner. "With Tai Chi, you're not supposed to age."
Tai Chi Chuan means "Supreme Ultimate Boxing," or "Supreme Ultimate Fist." It is a continuous choreography of breathing and slowly executed movements based on eight basic positions and five directions. Incorporated into the system's philosophy and practice are the principles of Yin and Yang.
Yin is inhaling, yielding, receiving; Yang is exhaling, expressing and propelling. Both principles operate at once: if one's body weight is resting on the right leg, it is Yang because it is anchoring the body and propelling its movement. At the same time, it is Yin, because it is receiving energy from the floating left leg. That left leg is Yin, because it is yielding to the strength expressed by the right leg. And it is Yang, because it is exhaling energy.
Each Tai Chi movement is such a channeling of energy, an undulation of Yin and Yang, like the waves of the sea or the crack of the whip. The movements are discrete, yet unified.
"It's stillness and motion'" Goldberg says. "Everything is moving and yet nothing is moving."
A group practicing Tai Chi moves in unison, each person with eyes nearly closed, apparently heedless of the others. "You're like a flock of geese flying in formation," Goldberg says.
Tai Chi, in fact, attempts to approximate movements of animals, and by doing so, frees the mind from human bonds. "You have to suspend the part of your mind that is in judgment. You have to get the point that you're like a bird or a dog in function," Goldberg says.
Goldberg calls himself a spiritual person, although not a devotee of organized religion. He believes, despite appearances, Tai Chi and Taoist thought complement Judaism. "One of the things in Tai Chi is being in order with things. Not too much, not too little," be says. "You are the work you're doing. I can't think of anything that's closer to Judaism. "You don't talk Tai Chi; Tai Chi is to be done. And Judaism isn't just sitting around praying; Judaism is the practicing. It's what you do today. You can live a Taoist lifestyle and be Jewish."
Legend has it that the monk Chang San Feng, a 13th century Taoist sage, created Tai Chi in his dreams. He dreamed of the way a snake and crane fought. Inspired by these agile and fluid movements, he conceived Tai Chi. The art was passed down through the centuries through a secret oral tradition. Some 350 years ago, this tradition was the posession of the Chen family. Their form of the practice was called 'long boxing" because of how long it took to complete a routine, Goldberg says.
About 200 years ago, Yang Lu Cheng learned the Chen form, and so the tradition passed into the Yang family. Some 70 years ago, the innovations of Yang Chen Fu altered the form into the Tai Chi of today.
While Tai Chi began as a martial art, successive practitioners increasingly masked its martial character to preserve its secret traditions, Goldberg said. Yang Chen Fu emphasized Tai Chi's benefits to health and longevity and taught it as a meditative and relaxing discipline, Goldberg says.
Still, in its most accomplished form, Tai Chi can be a very formidable martial art. That's what Goldberg discovered in his first encounter with Tai Chi.
It happened in Vancouver, and the 23-year-old who had learned Judo and Karate as a teenager "saw this guy doing weird stuff on the beach." Curious, Goldberg approached. He was an old man practicing Tai Chi. "He said I could try to hit him. I thought, this isn't fair. I can move 50 times as fast as this guy." So Goldberg threw a punch. "The next thing I knew I was on the ground."
Goldberg learned the hard way that Tai Chi's slowness is deceptive. The Tai Chi master defends himself, not through kicks, chops and feints, but "by being soft, yielding, and mobile to an attack," Goldberg says. By becoming the receptive Yin to the attacker's Yang, then becoming Yang when the attacker's energy has been spent. "You yield to follow his movements, then respond with power in exactly the appropriate way," he says.
When he got back on his feet, Goldberg began studying Tai Chi.
Moving to Atlanta a decade ago with a degree in guidance counseling, Goldberg worked at various jobs and dabbled in stand-up comedy. In 1986 he had what he calls a major revelation. "Why don't I do for money something that I like to do?" he remembers thinking. "It just hit me. The next day I called the JCC and asked if they'd like someone to teach Tai Chi." He also began an adult private counseling practice. "From my head into reality."
He counts among his mentors the 80-year-old Chinese Tai Chi masters who, he says, despite their frailty, display surprising feats of strength and agility. Perhaps some day, he will attain their skills and reap Tai Chi's other reputed benefits: peace of mind, freedom from fear and, ultimately, freedom from the fear of death.
But that's for the future. For today, Goldberg says, "I'm hooked. Doing Tai Chi is like always having a friend around."