I am passionate about Taijiquan and Qi Gong. And I am a woman. And I think that women are a bit underrepresented in the Tai Chi and Qi Gong world. I mean, look at all the big masters, they are mainly men! So I want to raise the awareness for all the wonderful women in our community. I met Jamee Culbertson online when I participated in her 100 day practice program. She is also one of the presenters of the Immortal Sisters Conference. And I asked her if she would like to share her Tai Chi story. It’s really a great story!
Jamee Culbertson’s Tai Chi story
The first time I saw Tai Chi in person was at a local YMCA in Connecticut where my brother Bart was taking a class. Bart had been learning Karate and Zen meditation with a man named Master Pi in New York for many years. He loved it even though he came home at times all bruised and battered after a competition. I grew up watching martial arts shows on TV such as Bruce Lee on the ‘Green Hornet’, David Carradine in the show ‘Kung Fu’ and Wonder Woman. Finally a female character who could fight along side the best of them and for good. I was inspired. After years of karate Master Pi said to his students, “now it’s time for everyone to learn Tai Chi, the highest form of martial arts”. This was in the early 1980’s. I watched his class in the YMCA from across the room with great fascination. Yet, it was a few years later before I found my first tai chi class in the Boston area where I lived.
In 1985 the ‘new age scene’ was new and growing fast. It had everything to do with opportunities to learn multi cultural healing methods previously unknown beyond National Geographic magazine or history lessons in school but they were just scratching the surface. Many modalities were popping up that we could learn about by attending classes, subjects that had never been revealed to the western world before. At that time there was only one holistic center in the entire Boston area called Interface, a pioneering community where one could learn about meditation, dreamwork, yoga, the Alexander Technique, qigong, tai chi etc… . When I saw they had a tai chi class I recalled that day in the YMCA with my brother and I signed up right away.
My very first tai chi teachers were Gunther Weil and Rylin Malone. I didn’t know it at the time but I was happy to have both a woman and a man teaching me. Male teachers were always in abundance so having a female teacher was a good role model for me in getting in touch with my own strength and femininity. Gunther and Rylin had a deep mutual respect for each other and for the healing arts. I felt I was in the right place at the right time. Gunther was one of the first westerners to study with Taoist Master Mantak Chia and was teaching us Chia’s Healing Tao System so I learned tai chi, qigong and the beginning meditations of the Healing Tao with Gunther and Rylin. I would come to meet Master Chia a few years later on. My experiences were visceral, tangible. My kinesthetic sense was awakened, my eyes lit up, I felt so much energy. Oh, and I thought it was very cool!
Just a short time later my teachers moved across the country to Colorado so my study from them ended. I hadn’t yet learned the complete tai chi short form so I practiced what I could on my own for a while until I met Marie Favorito who had been assisting Gunter and Rylin in their tai chi class at the time. Marie had become the new tai chi teacher at Interface and she also had a studio of her own. Once again, I reflect in hindsight how I had the good fortune of having a female instructor. I signed up for her classes and picked up where I left off to learn the rest of the tai chi short form and to continue with the healing tao meditations. Opening the Microcosmic Orbit was essential to learning to sense energy and chi flow especially for my tai chi practice. It made so much sense to learn the inner alchemy meditations at the same time while learning tai chi.
I never grew up thinking I would teach these kinds of practices. But because of the remarkable life changing experiences I was having I kept studying more and more and in 1995 I became certified to teach the Healing Tao system. I teamed up with Marie at the Boston Healing Tao School of Taoist Practices where people could attend classes weekly or come to weekend workshops and retreats throughout the year. We would host Master Chia in the Boston area every year for over 20 years.
At the same time I was learning about the Tao I also began studying the Alexander Technique in Cambridge MA, USA with Tommy Thompson. The Alexander Technique is a way to understand how you do what you do. The way I use myself to do anything effects how I function doing it. Learning the Alexander Technique helped me address conditions in my body-mind attitude that interfered with my best coordination. Looking back this was a unique experience – to begin understanding how I do what I do and apply this to my tai chi training. The Alexander Technique gave me a short cut in my understanding of tai chi and qigong. With this increased awareness my tai chi practice deepened and I as able to find the internal connections necessary to access chi flow and express power. I include Alexander Technique principles in all tai chi classes I teach now.
Early on I’d have to put certain martial arts instructions through my ‘Alexander translator’. The Alexander Technique is more about intention, conscious choices and allowing while many tai chi instructors give orders as to how to position the body. Since I dropped in on a few different tai chi classes with different instructors from time to time I could see a teaching style that was more about issuing commands. These instructors would often say things like ‘sink the chest’, tuck the pelvis, open the armpits – in such a way as to hold a quails egg under the armpits…etc. I would notice students in classes become so postured and stiff while trying to attain what these commands asked of them. But they could never be soft and find flow in their movements with so much holding and posturing. Most students try to posture themselves by these commands and end up holding their bodies in positions that can cause damage over time. Posture is often put upon the body from the outside-in while tai chi is movement that flows from the inside-out in relation to the space around you. Finding flow from a held posture is contrary to where one wants to go with tai chi.
Something must have been lost in translation from Chinese to the English language because while tai chi masters are trying to tell their students how to position their bodies in order to get into a ‘tai chi flow state’ these commands, (spoken in english), for posturing is really a description of what it’s like after one gets there, after connections are made and chi is flowing – what the master looks and moves like.
This kind of ‘command teaching’ is common because it’s how these instructors themselves have been taught to learn. But it reinforces excessive tensional habits of trying to know what you don’t know yet. This learning style is one reason so many martial artists end up with painful knees and joints etc… Standing and moving in a natural state of unity comes through consistent practice of tai chi but it can come more easily if you reduce conditions that create excess tension in the body in the first place. These come from unconscious patterns of holding in addition to one’s drive to get it right before they even know what to learn. How can you ‘get it right’ when you haven’t learned it yet? Greater benefit comes from being in a process of learning.
And so, I would translate these commands through my growing knowledge of the inner initiation of movement I discovered via learning about the Alexander Technique. I could then find flow a lot easier and faster and move with less stress to my body. When you are aware of how you go about doing what you do, you can make choices that lessen conditions you unwittingly impose upon yourself. I continue to practice in this way.
Around that time in the mid-nineties I also met Tai Chi Master Wei Lun Huang with whom I would study with for the next 20 years. We brought Master Huang to Boston twice a year as well going to week long seminars he held. We trained in the yang style tai chi long form, sword form, Lui He Ba Fa, Ba Gua qigong and other qigong forms. Master Wei Lun Huang was a remarkable practitioner until his passing in the summer of 2016. As I write this I’m feeling tremendous sense of gratitude for having been a student and friend of his over so many years, gratitude as well as a deep sadness with his passing. When a good teacher comes your way it changes your life in unexpected ways. What Master Huang taught me lives through me now.
At first tai chi was about coordinating my bodily movements, arms here, legs there, weight transfer etc…and learning to feel a flow because I opened the microcosmic orbit in my body. But everything changed when I met Master Huang. He never really cared if I learned the actual form, his emphasis was learning the connections through my body, the Earth and sky. While I first learned about function and flow from the Alexander Technique which I always employ when I practiced tai chi, Master Huang showed me the importance of staying connected while moving. If I discovered holding in my body he helped me go inside the tension to release it rather than turn away or compensate for it so I wouldn’t feel the pain of it. More often than not if I disguised the pain I would create another hold somewhere else and it was impossible to feel in balance and experience flow. Better to include the tension, go inside of it while staying soft everywhere else. This gave me the experience of moving without leaving my connections. Eventually I was able to open my body so I could do more of the challenging tai chi movements with an inner coordination. If I ever pulled a muscle, which I have, this was my way to recover from injury which enabled me to return to coordinated balance and in relationship to the environment around me.
I also had the benefit of learning meditation at the very start of my tai chi training. Having learned sitting, standing and moving meditations the energy flow was more apparent to me during my tai chi practice. Having gotten in touch with my emotional energy through qigong and meditations, namely the six healing sounds qigong and the fusion of the five elements meditations, I could transform and neutralize excess emotional stress and find a better balance within and in my relationship to the world.
Master Huang used to say, ‘everything is tai chi’. This one sentence has enormous complexity and simplicity mixed together, something I could ponder on for life! As I consider this I can see how everything always changes, everything is in flow lest I interfere with experiencing that flow. Yin and yang is alive. We go up to go down, left to go right, in to go out….and such. Even one day when I was explaining the Alexander Technique principles to Master Huang he would reply…”that’s tai chi” to each and every one of them directions, intentions, giving and receiving, multi-directional-simultaneous movements, expansion based on gathering…it’s all tai chi! Oh, I miss my time spent with Master Huang!
Early on in my tai chi journey I learned a lesson that I keep dear to my heart. This lesson came from an inner guide one night during sleep. In the dream I walked into a dojo. I was alone standing in the middle of the room. Around the walls were weapons, photographs, certificates etc… All of a sudden a warrior appeared from the left wearing what looked like African dress. He wore a mask and hair was flying wildly around him as he danced around the room. Before long he danced over to me, he stood directly in front of me and poked me in my belly with his finger and said, “This is where Buddha’s teacher lives”. I looked down at his finger and….my lower ‘dan tien’. And then in a instant he moved away continuing his power-filled dance out of the room. I stood there rather stunned by the experience and again I looked down at my belly and put my hands there. When I woke up I knew exactly what he meant. Buddha found his teacher within. Don’t go to ‘Buddha’ or in my case to any ‘Master’ for answers. Rather, do what the Buddha did – go inside to find my own answers within. Learning and applying this lesson has made it easier for me to be a student without giving my power away, without giving up my sense of self. It also relieves any teacher I choose from having to live up to this kind of authority. Many teachers won’t like this and prefer some kind of worship but I learned early on the limitations of this style of student-teacher relationship and I chose to follow the wisdom given to me in this dream.
As an artist I’ve studied acting, music, filmmaking and martial arts. More recently I created a full length documentary with another Tao instructor. It’s called ‘How it All Began, Origins of Master Mantak Chia’s Universal Healing Tao System’. It’s a story of early Taoism in America, how Taoist Master Mantak Chia came to introduce ancient Taoist knowledge to the western world for the first time in the 1970’s. You can learn more about the film here and it is also available on Amazon*.
Over time I studied more and began to teach what I learned. Students and opportunities showed up! It’s best to learn from an instructor but if you don’t have someone near you DVD’s and CD’s or online classes can help you begin to learn. With my interest in videography I created some educational tai chi and qigong programs for Marie Favorito and the Boston Healing Tao. Any of these programs can be found at the Boston Healing Tao Store.
And now I find myself with the honor of working on the Organizing Team for the Immortal Sisters Conference happening August 25-30th, 2017. I’ll also be presenting a workshop entitled: ‘Tai Chi Coordinates’. How wonderful to be able to meet with so many other female practitioners of the Tao! As women we’ll enjoy an atmosphere of support where we can learn from each other rather than compete for who knows the most etc… instead we will challenge each other in order to help each of us grow stronger. We’ll encourage each woman to stand in their own individual power all the more because we stand in a circle of feminine power together. You can learn more about the conference here.
I’ve been lucky to have had both female and male teachers over time. The best of them cultivated a good balance of yin and yang within them. As we learn to embrace both the light and dark aspects of ourselves, our humanity, we can learn to ‘master our circumstances’ rather than try to master or control another being. Live and let live. Practice tai chi. ;o)
Dear Jamee, thank you for sharing your story! My take-away is that I really should get into Alexander technique! And I agree that female teachers are different from male teachers. My first teacher was a woman, too, and I still miss her!
If anyone wants to find out more about Jamee Culbertson, check out her homepage! And if you want to read more about other Tai Chi and Qi Gong women, here you’ll find all the interviews on my blog.