In 1999, shortly after the Columbine school massacre, a series of copycat bomb threats were phoned into the schools of our small town in northeastern Pennsylvania. The bomb sweeps of the school buses caused two hour delays, and I found myself trapped in morning rush hour traffic while driving my daughter to school. Early morning had been my cherished time for Kung Fu training ever since the 1960s, when I studied under Sifu Kuo Lien Ying in San Francisco. In lieu of my regular regime of morning practice, now I joined a procession of grim-faced, tea and coffee chugging commuters.
Sitting in traffic, I had time to think about the young perpetrators of these prank phone calls. Were they watching morning cartoons and eating Trix during their ill-gotten interlude? Or perhaps they were lying under a tree, watching the clouds drift by between the leaves and branches. But who could blame them for wanting to delay going to school? Most of my time there had been spent gazing longingly out of the window.
Once my daughter had safely entered her school and the parking lot was clear of other parents rushing off to work, I would begin my training with standing meditation. There was a perfect little niche — a bricked-in corner of the building that was protected from the wind. With the mind swept clear, the parking lot or the school playground was perfect for doing warm-ups and forms.
So even after the threats died down, I continued to practice there throughout the school year. Bundled in layers, I practiced in winter’s wan sunlight, watching my rhythmic exhalations in the crisp air. The chilly dew woke up my bare feet in spring and fall, and by June, the gnats would dive-bomb my ears and eyeballs during those slow, slow T’ai Chi forms.
During this period, one of my T’ai Chi students brought a magazine to class with an article about someone in New York teaching T’ai Chi to kids. My student was going to be working with juvenile runaways at Covenant House in New York City, and she wanted to bring her T’ai Chi training to them.
I contacted the writer of the article — Jose Figueroa — and asked him to come out to the Little River Kung Fu school to present his program. Jose came and told us his story — how he grew up in the Bronx, how his brother was killed by a random shooting, and how he was now raising his orphaned niece. But when I asked Jose how to teach T’ai Chi to kids, he told me just to figure it out for myself. His article showed school kids balancing paper cups on their heads while they walked carefully across the gym. That didn’t give me much to go on.
I suggested to the director at my daughter’s school (St. Paul’s Lutheran in East Stroudsburg) that I should try teaching a T’ai Chi for Kids program there. St. Paul’s was one of the last of the one-room church school houses, in which first through fifth graders were all taught together. Our master teacher Nancy Brown made it all look easy, and I had already taught art there when my son was a student. How hard could it be to teach T’ai Chi to kids?
Trial and Error
I soon found out. My first day teaching was a nothing short of traumatic. I couldn’t even get the students to line up and face me. Saying “Line up!” to them meant forming a single file, all facing the door like a fire drill. Shouting it louder produced no better result.
Arranging them so they could all see and copy, tall in back, short in front, would take a good fifteen minutes. But asking the shorter kids to stand in front would cause the boys to fight their way to the center, if not the back. Girls were getting knocked down in the stampede. Clearly being small was highly undesirable!
I discovered that the six to ten year olds could all understand and copy moves at about the same level, so the four and five year olds became a separate a group I called Pre-T’ai Chi. Fortunately, the classes were small; the whole school consisted of about thirty kids, well below the numbers in public school classrooms.
Holding hands in a big circle and then stretching it out into several lines facing me helped them to form rows. We did this for a few weeks before they found their spots on the floor, but then fights would ensue whenever one child would usurp another’s spot. Ironically, getting relaxed and grounded in the space you occupy is one of the essentials of T’ai Chi, but it took many months just to get students to settle down and feel the space within and around their own bodies.
When I showed them how to sink into a Kung Fu posture, some would simply stand up straight, slouch over, or just fall down on the floor, like protestors committing passive resistance. Any hesitation or wavering on my part was an opportunity for them to talk out of turn, jump around aimlessly or just rough-house with each other. Teaching art class had never been like this!
Traditional Chinese Kung Fu Masters taught only the most obedient, self-disciplined of students. My masters would show me a pose and tell me to hold it for an hour, and I did exactly that. One master would kick me in the shins mercilessly. Though I definitely felt like doing this to these young students at times, this was not an option.
Most kids don’t choose to learn any discipline at all: they just want to have fun. I spent the next three years struggling to motivate the students to do exercises and forms that require discipline and repetitious practice to master. My project to make kids copy and memorize the slow, methodical movements of T’ai Chi Ch’uan was not working at all.
Yelling and threatening just to get students’ attention overshadowed the teaching of the subject. There was always one student I was forced to bench. “If you won’t listen, you will have to sit over there away from the group!” My goal of achieving peace and harmony through T’ai Chi was fading rapidly. I was becoming exhausted and began to dread facing this band of young rowdies.
The principal had to come to my rescue, shouting threats and orders from the rear of the room more times than I care to recall. The whole idea was backfiring in my face. I needed to create a seamless lesson plan that would eliminate the need for punitive, authoritarian discipline, which was not working anyway. I felt desperate.
Before entering the school to teach third period T’ai Chi, I practiced for my own forms while the kids marched off the school bus. This served the dual purpose for me of preserving my own sanity and collecting my thoughts for the day’s lesson.
I would imagine a Chinese village where children passed the elders doing T’ai Chi every morning on their way to school. I hoped and prayed that the students would become calmer and more respectful after watching me.
The Pre-T’ai Chi group began class with a qigong breathing exercise called “Taoist breath,” longevity breath or reverse breathing. I told the little ones to imagine they were trying to not pee as they inhaled, then to imagine that they had made it to the restroom and were peeing on the exhalation. (I use this analogy with adults to this day).
One four year old simply peed on the floor. Whether she was inhaling or exhaling at the time was unclear. Fortunately all kids in that that age group have a change of clothes at school.
I experimented with teaching the third through fifth graders to do seated meditation. In a quiet, secluded room off the main hall, I showed them the alert Buddha-like lotus posture I had learned at a Zen Center. Like the acolyte in attendance at the center in LA, I gently tapped anyone who was slumping or looking around on the shoulder with the teacher’s ruler.
I came up with the brilliant idea of letting the most still and attentive-looking meditator be the bearer of the ruler and tap others who were slouching or distracted. Those taps on the shoulders were more like whacks, increasing in intensity. Finally I was forced to retrieve the ruler and return myself to the role of head monk.
Parents called the school to complain. What sort of class is this where kids are hitting each other with sticks? I had to abandon this kids’ Zen temple idea quickly. Competitive meditating for the chance to hit other students with a ruler was not to be allowed, although the kids loved it and kept asking to do it again.
T’ai Chi class would always follow after ten minutes or so of qigong or guided meditation. If it was a nice day, students were instructed to line up to go outside. The simple announcement — “Line up to go outside” — created a mad rush to the front door, as if the building was on fire and this was the only exit.
I came up with what I thought was a clever ploy. I pointed out to students that the back of the line was far more peaceful and quiet, with less risk of getting shoved or even pushed over … which then resulted in a mad rush for the back of the line.
Having to drill kids through lengthy, repetitive warm-ups and stretches caused them to tire and lose focus before we even got to the T’ai Chi. Even though they were all still so young, most of these kids were stiff, weak and lacking in energy. I could only get them through about one third of the recommended warm-ups and stretches. Counting those repetitious warm-ups together seemed like a good idea, except that it resulted in lots of yelling and speeding up: a race to finish first.
During waist turns, I told them they were stirring up the food in their bellies and converting it to energy. Then I would ask each student what they had had for breakfast. Some said donuts, pop tarts or sugary cereal. I could hardly blame these kids. They ate what was given them. I lowered my expectations for them to show much stamina or concentration.
As for actually learning T’ai Chi, even as a teenager I was not interested in it. Northern Shaolin Kung Fu, with its high kicks, low stances and flashy moves grabbed all my attention. I read about the T’ai Chi concepts in books, and figured I’d have to do it when I was really ancient like Sifu.
I would only copy the elders as a cool-down after my faster, harder training. T’ai Chi appears to be more time consuming than other forms of exercise. The step-by-step learning process, the slowness of execution and the time it takes to become skilled is daunting to most adults, let alone a child. So I taught them some Shaolin Kung Fu first and then the T’ai Chi afterwards.
Despite the fact that the rewards are so great (mental clarity, more energy and focus, longevity, calmness, better balance, bone density, circulation, immunity from illness, self-defense skills, feeling in sync with nature and other people — benefits that can be felt immediately) most adults don’t choose to take up T’ai Chi. Instead, they can be found in gyms, jogging away on moving conveyor belts, staring at TV screens mounted on the wall, or sitting on sticky yoga mats tied up in little knots. Most people want exercise to be quick, easy and mindless, not long, difficult and mindful. Thronging into exercise sessions, they look and think exactly the same after training as they did upon entering, except that now they are tired and sweaty. I knew this from direct personal experience.
How could I keep the kids’ attention long enough to give them the feeling of “qi” (balanced life-force energy), let alone to grasp the T’ai Chi form? T’ai Chi’s healing powers are renowned for restoring the energy of youth to the elderly. Traditionally, T’ai Chi masters were village doctors and sages, consulted by emperors for their wisdom. Could this ancient art transmit the wisdom of elders to youth?
In most ways these kids were no different from the kids of my generation. We fought on the playground, tried to beat each other up, and competed for attention. There were leaders and followers, those who dominated the others and those who were dominated by others.
We defined each other (and ourselves) as winners, losers, bullies and crybabies. Most of the games we played were based on beating each other at running and hiding, or else winning in games like hopscotch or Monopoly. Beating and winning.
I looked up the research on violence and bullying and found solid evidence that today’s schoolyard bullies are often tomorrow’s criminals, and that negative stereotyping causes emotional scars that can last a lifetime. Children who were victimized are much more likely to suffer from depression and even to commit suicide.
Kung Fu had been a life-saver for me and I knew it. I was onto something really great, but how was I to get that message across to the kids?
The idea that competition breeds excellence has been an American doctrine for as long as I can remember. Survival has been to us defined as the triumph of the fittest. Plants compete for a place in the sun, and animals compete for food based on their stamina and stealth. But civilized human beings are not plants or animals. In a civil society, cooperation, love and respect breed true excellence.
The amount of pressure on teachers to cram more information into young minds in overcrowded classrooms is staggering. Education equals test scores equals funding. The resulting stress is overwhelming for both teachers and students. Students who are bored and distracted, who can’t keep up or cope are labeled as attention deficit and medicated. As students get older, they often escape into substance abuse and addictive behaviors that are highly dangerous.
I was struck by the irony of teaching students with short attention spans and obesity an art that had survived through revolutions, famines and near extinction. As recently as the mid-twentieth century, Chen-style practitioners had been driven underground by the Cultural Revolution, and kept their art alive only by practicing it while nearly starving to death. My knowledge of the history of Kung Fu had made me grateful for every nuance of each movement that was taught to me.
What has motivated generations of practitioners to keep the forms alive? The training is painstaking. Respect for elders is a keystone of Asian, but not Western culture.
People here are always looking to preserve their youth. Stress has been identified as the main factor in premature aging and disease. Worrying and negative thinking will flip to energetically positive and hopeful projections post practice. The qualitative change in feeling one experiences after training is the main reason T’ai Chi is flourishing in the West.
I began each class with a short discussion of Chinese history and philosophy. I make it as engaging and fanciful as possible, to distinguish T’ai Chi from what I recalled from my own school days — memorizing an assortment of unrelated and one-sided facts, like the dates of the Louisiana Purchase and Columbus “discovering” America.
There is no shortage of tales and legends with which to open each class and explain their symbolism and relevance to the growth of human consciousness — inscriptions on tortoise shells for Bagua symbols, Buddha sitting under a tree waiting for his moment of revelation, Tamo ripping off his eyelids, the seven foot tall Shaolin priest Zhang Sanfeng’s observations of a fight between a snake and a crane, the Boxer rebellion …
Gradually the ideas and forms began to take hold in the minds and bodies of the young students. They loved to re-name the warm-ups and T’ai Chi moves with imagery that was relevant to them. Arm swings were like the rotating action of the washing machine. Repulse the Monkey was renamed Serve the Pizza, and Play the Pipa was dubbed Play the Bass.
Guided meditation was especially easy. There was a collective sigh of relief when I turned off the lights. Students were given permission to go to a place in their heads where they already were — their imaginations. While they lay on the floor in winter or on rainy days (well distanced from each other) or sat on benches or tree stumps on outdoor days, they counted their breaths and they listened to their heartbeats.
As the school-year progressed, the bigger kids began to mentor littler ones, like mini-masters with their even tinier disciples. This occurred only after they started to grasp T’ai Chi and had something real to teach. Instead of bullying and ostracizing the smaller kids, the big kids were now taking the younger ones under their wings. They adopted certain ones with whom they felt a connection, which was a huge validation and a milestone for the program. This proved that bullying could be transformed into compassionate engagement with the right factors at play.
I taught the kids how to hold their ground by relaxing and sinking their weight into the gravitational pull of the earth. They loved being able to hold off an adult three times their body weight. Trying to push over a willing adult with all their might was another rare pleasure; suddenly T’ai Chi took on new relevance.
Inspired by the kids’ uninhibited reinventions of traditional names of movements, I renamed Brush Knee, Twist Step (which sounded pretty mundane anyway) and called it Traffic Cop. I taught this move in the form as a stationary push hands drill, which we also called Come Here, Go Away. This was one of the original games (since abandoned) in a series of nine games now known as the Pushing for Peace Project.
Toward the end of the school year, the kids would line up for a chance to play push hands with me. With blissed-out expressions on their faces, a look otherwise seen only during the first lick of an ice cream cone on a hot June day, they were elated to realize that might doesn’t make right, that relaxation and awareness can triumph over tension and aggression.
My goal was to present the kids doing the form together on the playground to the administration and parents at the closing day as part of the field games. But when June rolled around, potato sack races and cold lemonade took precedence, so I humbly faded into the background. I was not to see these games come to fruition for another ten years, in Northern California, where Asian culture and the T’ai Chi community are both firmly entrenched.
Games for the Twenty-first Century
The Pushing for Peace games have evolved over the years. As this goes to print, my daughter and most of her friends who were in the original program are in college. A new generation of students has been introduced to T’ai Chi through the P4P games.
Bagua has been the basis of some of the most fun games of all. In one summer program, students came up with an entirely new one based on a partnered bagua game called Push the Turtle. They named it themselves — Don’t Break the Chain, and groups as large as seventy-five have played it altogther with everyone moving and observing the whole simultaneously.
Learning made fun is the new paradigm. Unlike the fear-based construct for learning, in which poor marks brand you a failure, the games present a model that works on many levels. Being calm, patient and observant — the prerequisite for doing T’ai Chi — will help for learning how to deal with real problems, in school and in life.
Retaining useful information for not getting knocked down in the playground by a bully is a highly relevant skill for students. The kids actually begged to get tested for this. They wanted to see how the forms worked and to play with them, just as I had for so many years with my training buddies. When I was Instant Messaged by two of my summer school students, who were together and practicing Kung Fu with each other, I felt truly elated.
The Pushing for Peace games expose kids to the profound ideals of T’ai Chi. All of the people who try this training, from kids to teens to adults, report feeling calmer, more centered and grounded and a significant increase in pure energy and feelings of well-being. By using the mind and body together, and then sharing that heightened awareness with others, each student gets to experience owning his or her space while respecting the space of others.
Pushing for Peace is a program that teaches T’ai Chi movements and philosophy to help prevent violence and increase mental and physical health. Practicing T’ai Chi causes a significant shift away from the bully/victim paradigm towards a mutually beneficial exchange. It provides an opportunity to practice on a level playing field, a safe space where there are no winners and no losers and everybody gains.
The P4P games are based on Zen and Taoist meditation, T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Qigong and Bagua. They were created over a twelve year span of time in classes with kindergarten through seventh graders, and are the result of the interaction between me and the children and with each other. The games ultimately derive from the ancient ones who developed these arts, coming through me in relationship to these children.
The games are taught in an orderly progression. They start with each person looking inward, and then progress to each person connecting with one another with their palms, eyes and awareness. The slowness allows the mind to direct the movement and to reflect on the pleasant sensations derived from that connectivity. Participants partner with each other in many of the subsequent sequences, which culminate in a whole-group, synchronized movement.
The basics of T’ai Chi Ch’uan are all here: relaxation, the movement of energy, centering, grounding, sensitivity, compassion for others, respect, balance, awareness and focus.