Tai Chi: Stillness in Motion – Motion with Stillness
with Tai Chi instructor Angela Hsu Cantafio
Interview and photos by Christiane Klinner
THE JOW GA-ZETTE
Volume 2 No. 2 June 2005
published by the Head Academy Kung Fu & Health
Born in Taiwan, with a Hong Kong family background, Angela Cantafio, born Hsu, first came to Australia to do high school and university and has since lived here. The tiny, fine-boned and unassuming Tai Chi teacher, who wouldn’t reveal her age until she’s 70, is married to an Italian and has two grown-up sons. Her mother calls her Anjing, which means peace and tranquillity.
Angela belongs to the Better Health Tai Chi Chuan school in Hurstville lead by Dr Paul Lam, whose renown Tai Chi program is endorsed by the Arthritis Foundation of Australia, America and several other Western countries.
Angela meets up regularly with her masters around the world and is involved in Dr Lam’s program. She teaches Tai Chi at the Leichhardt Kung Fu academy on Saturdays at 12.15pm.
C: It is said that Tai Chi is an internal martial art. What does this mean?
Angela: There is a lot of philosophical discussion about what internal means. For one, there are the internal organs. Tai Chi is a form of internal massage. Internal also means bringing your mind to guide your movements. You’re very focused - as in the external forms. But Tai Chi is at all times soft, loose and relaxed so that you’re able to breathe deeply, which enhances the meditative aspects of Tai Chi. What I try to achieve with Tai Chi is stillness in motion. That’s why practising Tai Chi in a hall or in nature has a different feel. Ideally, you should be in nature.
C: Why is it important to practise Tai Chi in nature?
Angela: Tai Chi is mostly practised for health. It has a very long history of using the mind to think of the Qi flowing in the body along the meridians. You are to be in touch with this aspect of your health and of how you interact with the Qi outside. Naturally there is more Qi in nature.
C: What is Qi?
Angela: Qi has several meanings. In Tai Chi, Qi means life force or internal energy and also breath or air. There is also Qi outside in the cosmos and Qi essence that we are born with. One Chinese idea of health is that your life force needs to flow freely through a relaxed body and deep breathing. Blockages
of Qi are what contribute to illnesses. You need to observe certain principles in terms of posture, your joints being loose and your spine being elongated so that you enable the Qi to rise to the top of your head. This central point, Bai Hui, at the top of your head is a very important meridian and acupressure point.
C: So, what does ‘Tai Chi’ mean?
Angela: ‘Tai Chi Chuan’, the Wade-Giles phoneticisation of Chinese, does not reflect its meaning as clearly as ‘Taiji Quan’, the Pin Jin form of phoneticising the Chinese characters. Tai means great, supreme, Ji means ultimate and Quan means fist. Many people don’t worry about the Quan, because they are not doing Tai Chi for self-defence but more for health reasons.
C: Is Tai Chi related to Qi Gong?
Angela: Tai Chi is a form of Qi Gong. Qi Gong means ‘the art of breathing’; Qi is breath and Gong is art. If we think of Qi Gong as a continuum, Tai Chi is the dynamic end of Qi Gong and at the other end you have the static form of meditation. In-between is a range of semi-static forms of Qi Gong.
C: Can you tell us a bit about the historical roots of Tai Chi?
Angela: Qi Gong has been practised in China for well over 2000 years as part of Chinese medicine and health care. Its philosophical roots are grounded in Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. The kind of Tai Chi that we practise today has evolved fairly recently and has been credited to the Chen family from around the 18th century. Yang Lu Chan, who learnt the technique from the Chen family, is credited with founding the
present most popular Yang-style Tai Chi. In 1956, the Chinese National Sports Committee in Beijing decided to standardise Tai Chi, based on the Yang-style. So the ‘24 Simplified Forms’ came into existence,
which is regarded as an ideal Tai Chi form for beginners.
“Tai Chi is at all times soft, loose and relaxed so
that you’re able to breathe deeply.”
C: What are the health benefits of Tai Chi?
Angela: One of the important things when practicing Tai Chi is the tongue position. The tongue has to be
slightly curved and in touch with the front of your palate right behind your teeth. That stimulates saliva. In Chinese medicine saliva is very necessary for health as it nourishes the body. I have a friend, who has cancer of the salivary glands. His glands have largely been removed and he can normally not produce any
saliva. The only time he can feel saliva flowing is when he practises Tai Chi.
Also Tai Chi stimulates the internal organs and the hormonal production. There are heaps of other health benefits. It enhances your body posture, your balance and your internal and external strength. That’s why Tai Chi is very good for the elderly and disabled and for people with arthritis. The beauty of Tai Chi is that it can be done at pretty demanding but also at very gentle, basic levels.
As opposed to pure static meditation, Tai Chi incorporates mind and body, thus brings into play other effects on health. It helps your joints; it’s good for flexibility and helps release tension. Your body follows your ‘mind-intent’. One of the messages you’re constantly giving your body is to sink your shoulders, sink your elbows and extend your joints.
Continuity of movement is another important principle of Tai Chi. Tai Chi believes that you have to constantly keep your body in motion like water flowing down the stream. It has rhythm but it is for ever flowing until the whole form is finished. The 24 Tai Chi forms merge into one soft movement.
C: How often should one practice so as to benefit from Tai Chi?
Angela: If you’re dedicated, every day! Because I teach so many classes, I am practising every day. On Sundays, when I don’t have a class, I go out to my roof-terrace and practice by myself for at least an
hour. I tell my students, “When you practise, find a nice patch of grass where there are trees, even if you can only do 10 minutes a day.”
C: Is there a particular time of the day that is best suited to do Tai Chi?
Angela: In the morning is best. One of my Qi Gong masters said to me, “Just at dawn is best because the cosmos, the Qi, the Ying and the Yang are in balance at that hour”. Some of the instructors get up, practise
and then go back to sleep for a little bit.
C: How long have you been doing Tai Chi?
Angela: I dabbled in it 15 years ago and started practising seriously from only 10 years ago. Back then, my mother invited me to Beijing to attend the 3rd World Conference of Tai Chi Training and introduced me to her masters. That set me on the path to doing it more passionately. Now, I believe so much in Tai Chi that I would like to spread the message about its health benefits and how wonderful it is to bring tranquillity and serenity to the spirit.
C: What is your professional background?
Angela: I’m an educational psychologist and work part-time as a District School Counsellor.
C: Can you integrate Tai Chi principles into your counselling activities?
Angela: Tai Chi is very good for [hyperactive] children to slow their metabolism down, help them focus and be calm. In Hong Kong they have introduced mother-daughter, father-son programs in schools where they
encourage parents to do Tai Chi together with their children. There’s more togetherness, sharing of experiences, which helps children with behavioural or learning difficulties. Without parents, it is hard to get young people to do slow forms because their bodies are so hyped.
I want to bring these ideas to Australian schools. I’ve yet to find out more about them.
C: Thank you for the wonderful opportunity to talk to you, Angela.