Ch’i at Sea

shapiro-sea1Two rounds of the form after rising, two rounds before retiring. That’s been my Cheng Man Ching protocol for the past 25 years. I’ve been pretty consistent all this time. Weather permitting I practice outdoors on my deck (“The People’s Park”), otherwise it’s the living room. From time to time my wife decides that the room needs a “fresh” look. This is usually done while I’m at work. When I come home and see the new arrangement the first thing that enters my mind is, “Do I still have room to practice?” If not, some modifications are made. Furniture position is slightly changed and/or my commencement spot is altered. Peace and harmony are restored.

Vacations can present their own problems. Not every hotel has quiet, peaceful tennis or basketball courts. I’ve moved beds, couches and chairs in order to assure a continuous practice path. One time a hotel’s gazebo looked inviting—big mistake! After a few minutes I was totally disoriented, I couldn’t find my 4 corners. Too bad I never took up Ba Gua.

Cruises provide unique challenges to one’s practice. No matter how large and modern a ship may be, it will still rock during a day at sea, even in calm weather. As might be expected, the rocking can make balance precarious. A strong wind also adds to the difficulty. Under such conditions practice can be frustrating. All I can do is try my best, and not get frustrated when I stumble. It is what it is.

An alternative is to practice in the ship’s spa. All ships usually have the same gym layout. A sizeable polished wooden floor is surrounded by a line of treadmills, stationary bikes, weight machines, and a large floor length mirror. The floor makes an excellent practice area, but I always have to get there early before the step aerobics people show up. Even at 6:00 AM the gym is filled with vacationers desperately pounding away on treadmills and stationary bikes attempting to stave off the inevitable weight gain that is such an integral part of the cruise experience. I am there at this ungodly hour, trying to create my own peaceful space, surrounded by these sweating fanatics who are going nowhere on their treadmills and stationary bikes. Adding the final bit of lunacy to this ridiculous scene was the “motivational” music booming in the back round, Cher bellowing…..” Do you believe in life after love? I can feel something inside me say I really don’t think you’re strong enough, no Do you believe in life after love? “…This is not what the late TT Liang, an ardent proponent of practicing Tai Chi to music had in mind

Most vacationers come back with interesting stories about their cruise experiences. Some will talk about the quality and abundance of food, others fondly recall shore excursions, shopping, on board activities, etc. Two incidents involving Tai Chi have provided some fond memories.

The Navigator.

I was in the gym, early AM, practicing my beloved Cheng Man Ching form. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some one watching me intently. He wore an officer’s uniform. After I finished, he came over and introduced himself. He told me that he was one of the ship’s navigators. He was lavish with his praise of my form. This proved unequivocally that he was a person of keen intellect and discernment………….to me, anyway.

He said that he had been practicing Tai Chi for less than a year. During his vacation time, he would return to his native Greece to study with his teacher, a gentleman who had studied in Taiwan under a former Nationalist Chinese army general. Could this have been Gao Fangxian, one of Robert Smith’s teachers?

He was on a break, and had to shortly return to his station. He was eager to show me his form, so he suggested that we meet the next morning in the gym. I asked what style he practiced. He had no answer. His teacher never mentioned a particular style. It was just Tai Chi. I told him that I looked forward to our next meeting.

He was waiting for me the next morning. It was his teacher’s practice to commence the form facing north. I will always remember his next move. He proceeded to take a compass out of his shirt pocket to make sure that he was indeed facing north. It made perfect sense. He was a navigator! He then went through a speedy, enthusiastic rendition of the Wu form. At one point, this enthusiasm sent him crashing into a stationary bike. After he finished I was effusive with praise. He insisted that he was a mere beginner, and that one day he could only hope to be as good as me. I really liked this guy! I should have offered him Bai Si right then and there, but I didn’t know the ceremony. I told him that he was practicing the Wu style and that Wu was particularly suited for those with an intellectual bent–I read that once in Tai Chi magazine. He was thrilled that he practiced a recognized style, and that I confirmed he was of superior intellect. I made a friend for life.


On this cruise I noticed that there were quite a number of Chinese vacationers. Later, our waiter told us that for some reason Alaska was a very popular destination for them. I was excited and some what nervous. I pictured myself rising early to go out on the deck to practice amongst them—the real deal! Hopefully they would give me pointers, or maybe they would look at me with disdain—“That is not Taiji!”

Morning came. I went out on the deck to practice. Not a single Chinese person in sight. Eventually some came out along with other passengers. They all went to the cafeteria for breakfast. I was barely noticed. This is not what I expected!

I finished, showered, and went to the cafeteria with my wife. After breakfast, we ambled back to our cabin. Along the way, we saw some Chinese on the deck. They definitely were not grasping the sparrow’s tale or parting the wild horse’s mane. Much to my chagrin, they were standing there circulating their chi by shaking their limbs and vigorously pounding their arms and legs with their fists. That was it! What was wrong with them? Weren’t they aware that Tai Chi was China’s greatest treasure? Hadn’t they seen the Bill Moyers series “Healing and the Mind”—the section on Chinese medicine—where Dr Eisenberg took Bill to Shanghai’s “People’s Park”? Suddenly, a horrific thought crossed my mind. I began to break out into a cold sweat. What if Bill Moyers staged the entire event? Bill Moyers, guilty of deception? That was a hard pill to swallow. Gee—if you can’t trust Bill Moyers– who can you trust? I’ve never been the same since.

Gary Shapiro

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