Ch’i at Sea Redux

In the course of writing articles for Plum, I’ve had occasion to e-mail Ted and Debbie when I needed some martial arts perspective that would aid my physical therapy practice. They’ve always been very helpful and informative.

Now and then I’ll send Debbie a Youtube link , usually dealing with some aspect of the martial arts. Her responses have ranged from “cool!” to “where do you find these things?”

There was the clipshapiro_chisea2a of the 1945 movie, Blood On the Sun. James Cagney plays an American reporter in pre World War 2 Japan who discovers a letter detailing Japan’s plans to conquer China and the rest of Asia. Without the benefit of a stunt double, Cagney engages in a fierce knock down drag out with a Japanese military officer. In real life, Cagney was a judoka. The realism of the scene holds up well even by today’s standards.

Another memorable video was Kung Fu Cow. A Caucasian Bruce Lee wannabe does all out battle with a very skillful digitalized cow in a wide open grassy field. It was udder nonsense. (spoiler)

Who could forget Star Trek Tai Chi? Some strange dude stands in the back yard of his home, fully outfitted in a Star Trek uniform. He also happens to be holding a sabre. I quote, “Hi—you recognize this outfit so you know I like Star Trek. I also like Tai Chi and thought that I’d combine them together.” Without missing a beat, he performs a short sabre set. This is what happens when you have too much leisure time at your disposal.


It was 8pm. I dialed my voicemail in order to change my greeting. “Hello, this is Gary Shapiro, physical therapist. Please do not leave any urgent messages on this voicemail, I will be on vacation from…” Done! I was at ease. My vacation had officially begun.

My wife and I chose a 2 week Panama Canal cruise. As serious cruise-a-holics we found that one week just doesn’t do it. Time flies by too rapidly. When some co-workers asked about my itinerary, I told them that it was my intention to spend as much time horizontal on a pool side lounge chair reading, falling asleep, waking up again and reading. This routine would interrupted by lifting my supine body from the lounge to order a beverage or two. I must say that I managed for the most part to stick to my plan.

Of course I did my best to get in at least a couple of rounds of my Cheng Man Ching set on a daily basis. As I mentioned in a previous article, practicing on the deck during a day at sea is difficult. The rocking ship and wind play havoc with balance. Our state room had a good sized balcony. Practicing there was more stable. We were aft and this helped eliminate the wind factor.

One day, while in the midst of some serious lounging, my wife came from the pool and told me that she saw a fellow vacationer wearing a T shirt with a Tai Chi school logo. Always encouraging me to socialize (she says that I don’t play well with others) she suggested that I seek him out. This really irked me, because at that moment I was truly at one with the lounge chair. After a few minutes, I relented. “Where was he when you last saw him?” I asked. My wife replied, ‘He’s just a few feet away from us.” Now I had no choice. Reluctantly I came out of my meditative state and went over to him. We exchanged “bonafides”.

He had been practicing for five years, and was an assistant instructor at his school. Something about him looked familiar. I thought that I might have seen him at a Taste of China workshop some time ago. We spoke about an idea that he had been mulling over for quite some time. Why not a “Tai Chi at Sea” cruise? Invite well known instructors to present workshops while cruising. I’ve seen advertisements for various Tai Chi themed vacations, but not one involved with cruising. It would be a unique experience. We discussed the logistics of a such an endeavor and agreed to stay in touch after the cruise ended.

His repertoire was larger than mine (whose isn’t?). He practiced a pre Yang Chen Fu form. He had a 108 posture set , a 24 set, a sabre set, and was in the process of learning a fast/slow set. There I was with my 25 years of practicing the Cheng Man Ching form. Then I remembered that I was a lapsed certified Tai Chi For Arthritis instructor. This provided some solace.

Our styles differed like night and day. His trunk was more inclined and his tempo wasn’t steady. My posture was erect and the speed was even. His form also had more outwardly apparent martial applications.

We did some rudimentary push hands but for the most part we engaged in what could be termed “parallel play”—two children in the same room, both doing their own thing. At one point he demonstrated his sabre set, sans sabre. (You can’t haul a weapon on a cruise ship). “Now it’s in my left hand—now it’s in my right hand.” I showed him some of Prof Cheng’s 8 methods, the ones that I used most often with my patients. He also had a 20 minute set of chi kung warm up exercises. I told him that if I did that, I’d never get to work on time.

As time went by, we discussed our respective professions. He worked for an advertising firm and specialized in web site development. I told him about TV commercials that had. Tai Chi motifs. . He then told me that he, in fact, had made a promotional clip for his company and uploaded it to Youtube. He said that he was an ardent Trekkie and managed to combine Tai Chi and Star Trek in the clip. I froze. I was in a state of shock “Omigod!”, I blurted out. “It was you!!!!” I had to admire him. How many people can truly as the late Joseph Campbell said, “follow their bliss”. By the way, during the cruise I mentioned that I had been an Air Force captain. He never saw fit to divulge his Star Fleet rank.

All good things must come to an end. The vacation was over. We flew from L.A. back to NY, and arrived home at midnight. The next morning, after rising I dutifully went out on my deck to practice my set. Perhaps I was imagining—I seemed more grounded. Could it be that I was used to practicing on an unstable surface and now the stable deck gave me better root, or was it the fact that I had gained ten pounds during the last two weeks? Mission accomplished!

Gary Shapiro, married with two children,  is a former USAF navigator. He has been practicing Tai Chi for as long as he’s been a physical therapist- about 25 yrs- and is interested in applying the practical aspects of Tai Chi to benefit those with which he works.

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