I sensed immediately that Mary Ann’s tai chi class was what I was looking for.
The fellowship hall of the church had the high sound-damping ceiling and tile floor of many an elementary school. It was large, cool, and hushed with the white noise of air conditioners. It didn’t feel like a gladiator ring and it didn’t smell like a locker room. Of all the places I’ve done tai chi, I think I still like that one best.
I had persuaded my co-worker Bev to come with me, and she was timid so that made me feel brave. There were two women standing by the auditorium stage, unloading bags, jackets, and a CD player. They were chatting comfortably when I marched in. The shorter, younger one, who looked like an art teacher, looked up and smiled at us. "Are you here for tai chi class?" she said.
"Are you Mary Ann?" I asked her.
"You must be Holly," she said cheerfully. She has this wonderful warmth about her. Seldom have I met anyone who is better at making newcomers feel welcome.
The other students started trickling in. They were all considerably older than me (I was 25 at the time, but looked younger and felt about 16); middle-aged men and women with open expressions and good posture. I could see in their faces that they were the kind of people I wanted to be around. They were casually, comfortably dressed. No pretention. No arrogance. They were welcoming and quiet.
It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, but martial arts classes are one place where the saying "water seeks its own level" is glaringly apparent. An aggressive, tough-guy instructor is going to attract thugs. A whiny feel-good instructor is going to attract dishrag new-age types.
Mary Ann was neither of those things. She loved what she was doing and she did it without embellishment. I know now this was the attitude of her teacher, Sit, although Mary’s classes are always geared more toward the health and relaxation aspects of the art, as opposed to the martial part. She started every class with everyone in a circle, while she taught us her favorite moves from the Drifting Clouds qigong set. Often she had meditative music playing. There was light conversation between her and the students as we went through the motions, and with each new move she would stop and explain it to me and my co-worker Bev, whom I had persuaded to come with me.
I don’t want to be too melodramatic, but for me it was a transcendent experience. The moves were round and flowing, in stark contrast to the kick-block-punch nonsense I’d seen elsewhere. The slow, controlled, extended movements activated muscles I didn’t know I had, much like swimming or lifting light weights slowly. The three major stances—horse stance, cat stance, and front/bow stance, were familiar to me from that karate class, but the emphasis on relaxation was something new. It takes very little time in a horse stance to make you understand why Jet Li and can leap tall buildings in a single bound.
It was fun. It was new and different enough that my mind was turning cartwheels trying to grab everything and retain it. I got a tremendous charge out of the controlled movement. I immediately figured out that I could change the intensity of the workout by reaching further and crouching deeper than everyone else (since I was/am still relatively young and flexible, this has always made me look more skilled than I actually am, to the untrained eye). Mary talked about the health benefits of tai chi, including better balance and flexibility, improved immune system, and some of the more esoteric theories like staving off diabetes and Alzheimer's.
After qigong and a little break, Mary and the longtime students demonstrated the "first form" or as we affectionately call it, the "chicken form," because it begins with Golden Rooster Stands On One Leg. Sit arranged the form, using some of the simpler moves from the traditional set. It's a beginners' form, but that shouldn't imply that it isn't serious. All of the moves are legitimate for self-defense, although due to the demographic of the class Mary didn't spend a lot of time discussing application.
She demonstrated a few things, however, using a big teddy-bear of a man named Berkley. That made a big impression on me, watching 5'5" Mary Ann, who looks like your favorite classroom mom, dropping 6'4" Berkley to one knee. Yes, he was a cooperative partner—at the beginning. Yes, each had a prescribed role to play—at the beginning. That’s not the point. It was quite clear they were doing a friendly, controlled demo for the benefit of the class. It was quite clear that Mary was relaxed and in-control throughout the exercise. It was quite clear that although Berkley began the operation in a cooperative manner, at the end he had no control over his body. And I wanted like hell to be able to do that.
Mary Ann’s tai chi class was exhilarating. It was intriguing. It was relaxing, in the way that good exercise unwinds and relaxes you. It was a workout, but not the kind that leaves you gasping for breath, shaky and puking. I worked up a sweat, but it was like skipping all the painful stuff and going right to the endorphine glow. I slept like a rock that night, and when I went into work the next morning, I went into Bev’s office and said, "Do you feel as good as I do?!"
"Oh my God, that was amazing," she said.
"Better than sex," I declared. (Which, for the record, indicates the mediocre quality of the sex I’d had up to that point).
Needless to say, I was hooked.
I started Mary Ann’s class in May of 1999. I had already begun plans to return to college full-time that fall, so I knew I had three months to finish the first form. I was determined to learn it, so even if college and working part-time prevented me from attending tai chi regularly, I could at least practice the form on my own. I am proud to say I didn’t miss a day of class for three months, and I’m further proud to say that I didn’t quit when school started. I managed to finagle my Tuesday nights free from my mall job, and when August rolled around I learned that Mary Ann’s teacher, Chun Man Sit, was holding a fan form workshop on a Saturday, the week before I was scheduled to start my new job.
By then I had the first form down strong enough that Mary Ann started me on the fan form with Berkley and a couple of her other advanced students. I bought a $12 bamboo fan from her, but I had just coughed up my life savings for tuition and I seriously doubted I’d be able to attend the workshop. Unbeknownst to me, my friend Bev at work was organizing a going-away party for me. She and Sheri passed a hat and collected about $40, which they presented to me along with a hand-made certificate that said, "Good for one Phoenix Fan Form Workshop with Chun Man Sit."
And that was my first exposure to Sit.