I would like to start off the fourth episode of my Q&A series by proudly presenting my guest Michael Babin. It’s understandable if you haven’t heard about him as he might have been more well known to the Tai Chi community for one or a couple of decades ago. With his long experience, full of interesting meetings and collaborations, you can learn a lot by listening to his stories and advices.
Long-time practitioner, teacher and author Michael Babin started his Tai Chi Journey in 1975 and studied intensively with local teachers, most notably Allan Weiss, for more than a decade before meeting and studying with experts such as William C. C. Chen, Sam Masich and Erle Montaigue through workshops. All of these certified him to teach aspects of their curriculums in the early 1990s. Since 2002, he teaches his own approach to the Yang style though he still respects all of those who contributed to his evolution as a practitioner and teacher.
Michael has published more than 200 articles in print and online since 1987, written books and has also collaborated with Erle Montaigue both as an assistent teacher and co-author. Michael is not very active teaching nowadays, but still writes on and continue to study Yang style taijiquan. He always addresses this subject with sharp thoughts and a clear-sighted mind which means that I always enjoy reading his blog and articles. For anyone who is sincere in the study of Tai Chi, I highly recommend reading his work. Please visit Michael Babin’s homepage and blog here.
David RL: Your favorite Martial Artists?
Michael Babin: Like most Westerners who got into the martial arts in the 1970s, my initial hero was Bruce Lee. After 40+ years of training and teaching, my criteria has changed more than a little. There are too many in the Yang-style tai chi world to list here but I continue to be impressed with the teaching longevity as well as skill and charm at workshops of William C.C. Chen. How could you dislike a teacher who has been doing so since 1952 which was also the year I was born. That’s an impressive duration of career by any one’s standards much less what often happens in the modern world. Sam Masich, Yang Jun and Liang Shouyu are also teachers who have shaped a more modern approach to Yang style taiji both as an exercise system and as a martial art.
In the non-taiji world I really like what I have seen on Youtube of Rob Poynton’s Systema, Maul Mornie who teaches Silat and Mick Coup who teaches self-defense combatives. All three seem to combine those attributes that impress me the most: a sense of humour, patience with those they teach and a tremendous amount of personal skill.
Your three favorite Martial Arts Movies?
One of the casualties of gaining some real skill at working with weapons and studying martial arts as long as I have is that, somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to enjoy the nonsense that gets passed off as combat in the various martial arts movies that I loved when I was in my late teens and early 20s. I hate to sound like a grumpy old man [though that description often fits] but empty hand and archaic weapons hand-to-hand combat in most movies is just ludicrous. I hope that doesn’t sound too arrogant because I am well-aware of my own limitations in those respects; but, wire-work and clever choreography just don’t do anything for me in the last 20 odd years.
If you could study for any living or dead martial artist for two weeks, who would you choose?
Living martial artist — the gentlemen I have mentioned so far as well as Dan Inosanto because I’ve done workshops with him in the far past and he’s still practising, teaching and has always continued to learn not been content to rest on his laurels.
Dead martial artists — it would be great to have met/studied with the founders of Yang style tai chi as well as baguazhang but realistically they probably would not have been interested in teaching an aging Westerner considering the frequent European excesses of economic and political exploitation in China in the late 19thC.
Why did you choose to study T’ai Chi Ch’uan?
Originally I took up T’ai Chi Ch’uan [mid-1975] because I had tried a variety of hard styles for about five years [karate, jujitsu, Choy Li Fut, Preying Mantis] and was tired of the hard work and hard blows. I had read books by Robert Smith and T’ai Chi seemed a more exotic route that promised good health, meditation and martial magick that took little or no effort.
Forty-three years later I am still at it though I have lost a great deal of my early innocence about what t’ai chi is and isn’t. Oh, and I realized along the way that hard work and hard blows are always essential if you want to understand it — on any level —as a martial art though there are still other excellent reasons to study that discipline… especially for the older practitioner.
Do you have any favourite MA memory or story to share?
Anyone who has taught for any length of time has too many stories to share without boring an audience but these three memories have always stuck in my mind:
#1: At the end of a class during a ten-week introductory course I was giving at a community center in the early 1990s; one earnest lady who had really done her best blurted out, after I asked if there were questions, “Is it a good idea to try and practice these moves between the weekly classes?”
#2: At the end of the first session of a noon-hour qigong class for interested staff at a local psychiatric hospital in the mid-90s; one middle-aged nurse turned at the door as she was leaving and said “I won’t be back though I liked the class. I’m always tired and your voice kept putting me to sleep.”
#3: A former senior student had had a particularly frustrating private push-hands session with me despite being fit and taller than me as well. As we came out of the room together he muttered. “I don’t know how anyone who looks like a broken-down Santa Claus can toss me around so easily.” Then he realized what he’d said and looked sheepish as he added “I mean that as a compliment.”
Do you have any favourite Martial Arts concept?
I’ll start with good advice from the Bible “Tis Better to Give than to Receive” but I will admit that the original concept probably didn’t refer to striking an attacker. Seriously though, It’s depressingly easy to be a competent martial artist in the Chinese internal arts: just be competent at striking with your hands, kicking with your feet, elbowing and kneeing people as necessary as well as knowing how to grapple, knocking people down and throwing while having a great ground game and being in great shape through continuous training. See, it’s easy!
However, if you’re a normal practitioner or teacher, train whichever of these you’re best at and accumulate some practical experience at using that skill to counter all the others when someone trie them out and you. Or learn to walk away from fights, as most adults should be capable of doing.
Do you have a short term goal in your art?
At the moment, I am doing a three month project to get my version of the 48 Posture Taiji Form back to my satisfaction. It’s been a few years since I trained in that one regularly and I wasn’t happy with what had happened to it since I stopped practising it regularly. Not that I am planning on competing in any Tai Chi events; but I liked that particular modern choreography more than others that I learned and practised a decade ago. As an aging, long-term practitioner, I find it good for the mind and body— in terms of solo practise — to periodically learn or re-learn solo forms as it is a good way of challenging the mind and body that can get stuck in ruts if you do the same form day-in and day-out, year after year. Our bodies and minds need some variety to stay fresh though there is also no doubt that you have to focus your efforts in a limited number of directions.
Do you have any long term goal or something particular that you want to achieve?
I am 66 and have stopped teaching beginners but I still train two to three times a week with my former senior students and enjoy the martial activities that I can still do safely; particularly swordplay. I hope to keep doing so as long as my partners last and with any luck I can drop dead suddenly while doing the solo forms that I love best or while “playing” with swords or being flung against a wall.
Please can you share a good advice to Tai Chi and Internal Arts practitioners?
In terms of the martial training in tai chi, one of the biggest challenges is finding a balanced approach to the issue of “being soft”. Many teachers, famous and not-so-famous, still tend to advocate that you can’t be too soft and I don’t think that’s correct. On the other hand, being too hard and turning your discipline into a series of techniques that you trot out stiffly is also not correct. As with many issues, you can’t verbalize the correct approach, you have to experience it with your teacher and with a variety of training partners to be able to eventually do it yourself.
For example, the tai chi classics hint at the correct path by suggesting that “you seek the straight in the curved.” but that phrase won’t be of much use unless your teacher can demonstrate him or herself why it can be useful and also verbalize to you in a meaningful way how to approach doing it yourself.
Speaking of verbalizing, It’s also important to remember that much of what has been translated in the last 50 years or so was originally written only for a teacher as his own notes or for family members he might be training as well as his senior students. They were NEVER intended [until the modern age in China] for mass consumption by beginners. Also, as with modern ‘technical’ manuals, you had to already know the jargon to some extent to be able to get the most out of what was written.
It’s also important to realize that what was written publically or discussed in secret — no matter how profound — was, and is, only a small part of absorbing the essence of any style of taijiquan. You can’t learn such a discipline by talking about it or discussing it; though you might find that hard to believe if you watched a typical class in which there is more discussion about moot points than there is repetition of forms; much less the two-person work that should be a part of any taiji course that claims to teach martial skills.
I’ll finish with one of my favourite quotations about teaching from an article I read almost two decades ago:
“I see myself as a guide. I am a just a tool for my students to know how to teach and share the knowledge according to the student’ specifications and abilities. … This days (sic) many people think only about fighting. Fighting is something natural for the human being and learning how to use your skills in combat is part of the traditional kung-fu but it’s important that teacher also teaches how to avoid fighting, In a way by learning how to fight we also learn the value of not fighting. self-control is very important. I would strongly advise not to intellectualize the art. Kung fu can be intellectualized but the real practice is what is important. It takes more patience and hard work and less words. Finally, as master Wang Xiang Zhai said, ‘he who learns from me in an original way will benefit, but he who always copies me mechanically will suffer’.”
[Li Jian-yu, Secrets of Internal Kung-fu, May, 2001]
Thank you Michael Babin! Thank you so much for taking time sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it a lot and it has been very interesting to hear what you have to say and what you wanted to share here to the Tai Chi community.