I have chosen to write about two senior students of Cheng Man-ching – Maggie Newman and Herman Kauz. Both were part of the original group that studied with Professor Cheng in New York in the 1960s. It is interesting to note that they came from very different backgrounds, prior to meeting Professor Cheng. Herman Kauz had a very strong background in Japanese martial arts, and was one of the pioneers to introduce them in America. Maggie Newman, on the other hand, had a background in dance and aikido. Both went on to teach Professor Cheng’s tai chi into old age, and both came to view tai chi as a method for developing human potential, a spiritual discipline.
Maggie Newman -‘Searching for that thread of truth.’ Maggie Newman studied with Professor Cheng in New York from 1964 until his death in 1975. She has taught Professor’s tai chi for over 50 years, establishing classes in Philadelphia, New York and Rochester, USA. Ms Newman was one of Professor Cheng’s six senior students, who helped with the teaching in his New York school. Prior to studying tai chi, she had been a dancer with Martha Graham’s dance troupe, and studied aikido and kabuki theatre.
To give you a sense of Maggie Newman, I will recount a story told by Morgan Buchanan about an experience he had fencing with Ms Newman. On a visit to Maggie Newman’s New York studio, Morgan was fencing with one of Ms. Newman’s students, accompanied by the sound of clashing of swords:
‘”I wonder if you know about sticking?” she asked. To put this in context Maggie is 89 years old and I am 39 with over 20 years experience in tai chi and martial arts.’
Ms Newman had been slowly moving round the studio, and had lain down to rest. But as soon as she touched swords with Morgan, she became alert and lively:
‘She advanced, chasing me all over the room as I tried to mount a defence. And it wasn’t an attack. As soon as we touched swords I couldn’t turn her blade aside. She just stuck to me and controlled me so that I was compelled to move into a bad position in order to try and escape. If you’ve ever seen the video of Professor Cheng chasing students all over the room, with them getting all backed up and being unable to move, and then eventually getting cut because of their own error – it was exactly like that… It was a covering energy - listening, sticking, controlling. I tried turning the blade one way to get her off and she would follow and cut me the other way. It was more than just technical skill, it was her chi that allowed her to control me through the point of contact with the sword’ (willowtreetaichi.com).
Most of this current piece about Maggie Newman comprises an interview with her, which features on a video of her work. I have used this as there is very little to find about her. To prefigure some of the themes of the interview, I found another piece on the internet written by one of her students – Michael Ward - about her notion of ‘blueprint tai chi.’ Michael Ward writes of the risk that long familiarity with the form of tai chi can lead to doing tai chi in an automatic ‘rote manner’, without being fully present.
‘That same familiarity also puts me at greater risk for what Maggie Newman calls “doing a blueprint” Tai Chi form. Maggie, one of Professor Cheng Man-ch’ing’s senior students in NYC, has constantly reminded us of the need to “stay connected” to what is happening in the present moment. She said that the longer a person practices Tai Chi, the more susceptible they are to doing their Tai Chi in a rote manner… The problem with the blueprint, when it is applied to Tai Chi, is that the blueprint is a preconceived idea of what the movement, or posture should be… Because my attention is on achieving the preconceived idea of a movement, I am not paying attention to the present moment feedback being broadcast by the body as it moves. Instead of listening and following, adapting Tai Chi movements to be a part of something that is being newly created in each present moment, “blueprint” Tai Chi designates the “correct” position and then requires us to put the body into that position regardless of its protestations’ (cloudhandstaichi.net).
It’s not that tai chi is improvisational movement, but:
‘The Tai Chi I did yesterday, last week, last year, or even five minutes ago is not the same as the Tai Chi I am doing, Now.’
Tai chi, like life, is new and fresh each moment. Now for Maggie Newman’s own words.
From: an interview with Maggie Newman by Joel Sucher on the dvd ‘Maggie Newman, T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Archive II: Nourishing the Spirit’, 2018 In this interview, Maggie Newman discusses her tai chi philosophy. First, she says, you learn the form of tai chi, and then it becomes about moving the chi, the life force through your body. This takes a great deal of skill.
‘So the ideal would be that the energy can float through my body without any obstacle, any obstruction. And so what would obstruct it would be tension in my body. And technically to move from one place to another in the tai chi postures without having any tension is an extremely high challenge. So that’s why it takes a long time for someone to get proficient at tai chi.’
Maggie Newman points out a problem that can develop over practising the same form for decades – it can become mechanical, not spontaneous and alive.
‘when people study 40 and 50 years… the danger is that the form itself begins to dominate the chi and interfere with the flowing of that life force because, if you aren’t careful, practising something over and over will engrave it in stone… and since the chi has to do with the invisible then if you are tense or hard or hold a physical shape too long without changing at the right time, then you are not talking about chi, you are talking about external bone and muscle and movement, which doesn’t have to have anything to do with chi.’
She defines chi as one’s life force, energy, which can flow through the body and be used for uprooting someone and moving them in the pushing hands partner work. Or it can be translated into spirit for spiritual work. It is a feeling, a relationship to what’s around you:
‘[a] relationship with air and with ground and with heaven. So basically I want to be connected to heaven, connected with ground, to have relationship with those and a relationship with the air which is invisible, so that difficulty of starting with something very physically gross and specific…’
She is referring I think, to a kind of trajectory along which, over time, tai chi practice passes, from the substantiality of a physical form to the awareness of the increasingly insubstantial processes of energy and spirit. And it is the unfolding of these insubstantial processes that captures her attention. She is excited about learning to tune into these less physical processes and follow them.
‘…the fascinating thing that captures me is that you’re really dealing with the invisible space. And that space can get to be alive and thick and have power. And recently I’ve been very excited about how the timing and following the changes of the physical form, being able to follow the changes of that in a very sensitive way, will allow you to capture and to catch the wind, or catch the chi. And that’s the beginning I think of working with the chi instead of being trapped in the form in which, if one practices many years is only engraving it in stone which really is going to interfere with the chi flowing.’
She’s trying to catch something that is not solid. You have to be very sensitive to the changes in the form, and if you use force you will come up with an empty hand.
Maggie Newman writes about how she is excited about following the changes in the physical form, as she says, almost like following the wind. However she notices within herself a tendency, a desire, at the end of each posture to finish following the changes, which ends her connection to the chi:
‘So the test or the challenge is to let this thing, once you’ve set it in motion, you set it in motion and there are some things you can do to set the chi in motion… set the flow in motion. One is sinking and the way you use your sinking, not pressing yourself in the ground, not in a teeth-gritting way, but the way you use your weight and enter gravity and the way you drop it sets something in motion and then its like following the changes of that like water is rolling down a rock. That means very, very alert in the mind but then knowing that each posture has a form and a beginning and an end although basically we say there is no beginning and no end and it never stops.’
She reiterates that the new way of doing the form that she has found is about not stopping at the end of a posture, but following the changes, and not holding onto anything:
‘So this new thing is that there’s no end and that if I am alert and can follow these changes, it will correct every defect in my physical form. Because it shows me where I’ve arbitrarily held something too long, because I have the idea that’s the way to do the posture, or I have let it come to a complete stop in terms of ending it. Or I have been like double-weighted, neither here nor there, so the fact that it’s a real koan to me to find out how to do that with my own body, and that also to me makes it a spiritual practice because there’s no way that you can let the chi flow through your body in that way without an obstruction and hold onto anything that you’re holding onto.’
To Maggie Newman to practise tai chi is to become more fully aware that you are an integral part of the universe. She quotes Cheng Man-ching when he said: ‘You borrow 70% from the universe.’ He meant, I think, that you borrow chi from the universe, and it’s very hard to do. Maggie Newman goes on to say:
‘…participation in tai chi is like being an integral part of the universe. Not an idea of the universe, not an idea of the universe, but actually being a part of the universe. That means it brings it back to my body and what I feel and the invisible air – spaciousness inside my body, outside my body, around my body, between my hands, between my arms and my body and all of that invisible is something that I think has to do with, in nourishing my chi.’
She notes that timing is important. And for her tai chi is a spiritual practice. It’s about personal growth.
‘Because you run into every part of yourself. It touches and taps into all of your reactionary self which then you need to deal with instead of putting it out on someone else.’
The principles of tai chi mean you are not fighting with everybody, but, on the other hand, it does not mean giving up your individuality, your own point of view. Maggie Newman goes on to discuss how in her own development as a teacher she used to think the most important thing was to blend and fuse with another person:
‘To become one chi with another person, because basically, if you do you get with them, then you can feel them and you can know where they are; or even one chi with the group… So a lot of my work would be the person developing a skill to be with something else, to get with. And then, at a certain point, I had an experience and felt that in my own development I was an expert at that, but not very good at my own individual confidence and that doesn’t lead to a good place.’
She goes on to speak about the balance between retaining your own individuality, while blending with someone else’s energy:
‘That I don’t have to give up that ego part of me, or anything about me, but that everything that makes up me I will approach this learning process with confidence and then as much as I can I will use my ability to fuse with, to be with, to get with, to accommodate others. This means that already now I’m talking about something of an emotional psychological growth.’
Towards the end of the interview, Maggie Newman discusses Professor Cheng’s ability to push an opponent without using muscular force or li. She describes it as being seemingly ‘impossible’, as if she has been given a physical koan to solve:
‘He did not teach a technique… So he definitely went through the path of feeling and sensing and listening. He used the word ‘listen’ to what was going on in the other person’s body. That means that you can’t have any idea of where you are going but you have to constantly be ready to change and follow what’s happening in the other person’s body.’
Finally she reflects on the differences between Professor Cheng’s six senior New York students, and how each student of tai chi has their way of expressing the principles:
‘But it’s the difference in all of the individuals. So it’s not as if there is the truth, but it’s more like each person has their own way. And it doesn’t mean that I can just do anything I want to and be individual that way but every person is seeking for that thread of truth in what they’re doing…’
Herman Kauz –‘to learn to live more completely in each moment.’ Herman Kauz was one of Cheng Man-ching’s original students in New York in the 1960s. He died, aged 92, on January 30th 2020. He was a student of the Asian martial arts for 74 years, and taught them for 69 years. Herman Kauz gives an account of his involvement with martial arts in his book ‘The Martial Spirit’, (1977), (luckypersontaichi.com). He says he began to study judo in Hawaii soon after World War II,
‘After studying judo for eight years and teaching it for about four, I went to Japan (1956-1958) to continue my training… While in Japan, I became interested in karate and began to study that art daily for about two years… In 1958 I returned to New York and resumed teaching judo. Because of the rising interest in karate, I taught this as well. During this period I practiced kendo briefly and continued studying aikido with a friend who was a teacher of that discipline. I had studied aikido for a short time in both Hawaii and Japan.’
Herman Kauz explains that over the years his interests moved from studying martial arts for competition and self-defence, to an interest in their uses as a method of self-development.
‘As the years passed, my approach to the study and teaching of martial arts continued to change. My earlier emphasis on self-defense and competition began to move more in the direction of training as a preparation for, or an aid in, living as fully and completely as possible. As I reflected on the changes my study of martial arts had made in me, I realized that my training had been something more than the surface, body strengthening, skill-producing kind. I became aware that an inner development was also intended and had occurred. The beginning of an interest in Zen also contributed to this change in my outlook.’
In 1963 he returned to Japan for two more years to study Zen and continue training in judo and karate. When Herman Kauz returned to New York a friend and fellow martial artist introduced him to Cheng Man-ching, whose student he became.
‘Tai chi attracted me strongly because it combined the mental and physical aspects of martial arts training in the proportions I had come to feel were right for me.’
So, we can see that Herman Kauz was one of the pioneers in introducing Asian martial arts to New York. Another judo practitioner and student of Professor Cheng, William C. Phillips, attests to Herman Kauz’s martial ability when he says:
‘Not I nor anyone else I knew, except for the Professor, could get the best of Herman’ (2019, ‘In the Presence of Cheng Man-ching, Floating World Press, p.125).
Herman Kauz sets out his ideas about tai chi in his book, ‘Push hands: The Handbook for Non-Competitive Tai Chi Practice with a Partner’, 1997, Overlook Press.
He sees practice of the tai chi form as offering many of the benefits of meditation.
‘As they do the form, students learn to focus their minds as fully as possible from moment to moment on the form’s changing patterns… Focusing on the form will weaken the intensity of extraneous thoughts and help to teach us to concentrate. This kind of practice, if done over time with no attachment to results, has the ability to calm and settle us. It can open our minds to an increased appreciation for the richness and diversity of the world around us and a better sense of our connection with it all. In short, the many benefits claimed for meditation can accrue to us as we practice the individual form.’ (p.13).
Herman Kauz touches upon Cheng Man-ching’s oft repeated advice that in practising form we should ensure that the chi and the heart/mind mutually guard one another in the dantian.
‘Whatever the explanation for it, when tai chi masters speak of chi going to the tan t’ien, they mean more than energy gathering in the lower abdomen. They believe that a settling and centering gradually occur in our body as we practice… the belief of the Japanese and Chinese is that if one’s energy goes to this lower center one thinks and feels in a grounded, more settled way. This grounding puts us more in tune with the earth. They contrast this with our Western generally more cerebral approach to life, characterized by our body’s higher center’ (p.14).
In discussing the direction that tai chi training is taking in America, Herman Kauz deplores the way in which the partner work, called ‘push hands’ (in our school referred to as ‘sensing hands’) is moving towards ‘sportiveness’ in which competition and winning are the goals. And in China, tai chi exponents engage in full contact fighting competitions:
‘It is again obvious that preparing for such contests calls for appropriate training. Under these conditions, the Taoist philosophical principles underlying tai chi chuan might well receive rather short shrift’ (p.19).
Herman Kauz believes that the practice of push hands strictly in accordance with tai chi principles, over a period of many years, can foster in us valuable changes in our state of mind and state of being. He muses over the reasons why so few tai chi practitioners manage to maintain tai chi principles when it comes to the partner work:
‘…push-hands done according to tai chi principles is alien to us, to the way we conduct ourselves in daily life. That is, invariably if we are pushed we resist. If our own attempt to push meets with resistance, we push harder. But these seemingly natural and reflexive actions can be changed, as can our perspective on things and the way we view the world. Unfortunately for those who hope for results in these areas, changing our conditioned reflexes and our way of seeing is a matter of many years’ training’ (p.20).
Herman Kauz goes on to discuss how tai chi can aid us in learning to see the world differently from the dominant cultural orientation of competition for society’s goods and status.
‘…competition, with its focus on defeating the opponent, runs counter to those objectives of our tai chi training which center around relaxing, letting go and opening up’ (p.39).
It might be thought that simply by intellectually comprehending the attractiveness of a less competitive way of viewing the world and our interactions with others, we will be able to adopt this world view. However Herman Kauz believes we need to move beyond intellectual understanding, and recommends a meditative approach.
‘…during the past few thousand years teachers in various cultures have suggested not just the use of language but the practice of nonverbal meditation as a way to sense the rhythms of the world around us and to integrate ourselves with them. They maintain that as we practice daily over the years we will reach understandings and develop in ways that the language of our culture will probably be incapable of expressing’ (p.40).
For Kauz, tai chi can provide such a meditative approach, both the solo form and the partner work (push hands):
‘As students slowly do the form, they are urged to attempt to concentrate their mind on the gradual change of body, hands, and feet from one position to another, and perhaps on the flow of chi in their body. When an extraneous thought intrudes and clamors for attention, students try to maintain concentration and avoid getting caught… While it seems fairly evident that doing the solo tai chi form can serve as meditative practice, many are surprised to learn that push-hands is just as, if not more, helpful in allowing us to realize ourselves on levels ranging from the physical to the spiritual. Ideally a tai chi student will train using both the solo form and push-hands’ (p.43).
Kauz outlines the developments made possible from the non-competitive practice of tai chi’s partner work (called ‘push-hands’, or ‘sensing hands’). He notes that training in push-hands for fighting, by learning to stick to an opponent’s attack, blend with it, neutralise and simultaneously counterattack, is a highly refined method which takes years to develop. Push-hands alone would not be enough to adequately prepare yourself for fighting. It lays the foundations for a fighting system but you would have to train a full range of fighting techniques such as kicking, punching, grappling etc. He asks, if that is so, what is the value of doing push-hands? His answer:
‘To put it simply, tai chi push-hands is the best training method I have found for helping students to see themselves and others more clearly, and to learn to live more completely in each moment without diluting these moments with thoughts of past or future. Coupled with the individual tai chi form, these training methods seem to help students’ minds and spirits to open to a broader and deeper grasp of what life is about, and bring about behaviour changes that benefit, or at least inflict minimal damage on, our lives and living space’ (pp. 49-50).
That is the good news. The less good news, at least for those of us who seek quick gratification, or who feel under time pressure in our fast paced society, is that the positive developments envisaged do not come quickly.
‘But I have found that these developments will not occur or even be approached unless you are willing, over many years of tai chi practice, to follow tai chi principles, perhaps most importantly that of non-resistance. Practicing push-hands gives a chance to put Taoist philosophical principles to work in a way that goes beyond merely dealing with them as abstractions or as intellectual concepts, to incorporating them into our being’ (p.50).
We will look more deeply at Herman Kauz’s explanation of Taoist philosophical principles and their expression in tai chi.
Kauz explains that Taoist philosophy is one of the foundations of tai chi. At it’s root lie two classic texts – the Tao Te Ching (Classic of the Way and Power), attributed to Lao Tzu, and another text often referred to as the Chuang Tzu. Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu are traditionally regarded as the authors of these two ancient texts, but modern scholarship considers them to be the work of a number of authors over a few centuries. To these two texts can be added the Book of Changes - I Ching.
As philosophical texts they avoid exactness, or systematically reasoned argument in favour of a poetic, allusive quality. In part this is due to the nature of the Chinese language, in which the characters are pictograms made up of several elements which combine to be layered and suggestive, with multiple implications and open to multiple interpretations. In part the nature of the texts derives from the nature of the divine principle, the Tao, which they aim to elucidate, and which, as it is the ground of being, including our own natures, defies definition or encapsulation in language. As Alan Watts remarks, a knife cannot be used to cut itself.
Herman Kauz draws attention to a number of principles suggested in these texts that apply to our tai chi.
‘To begin with, the Lao Tzu urges restraint and avoidance of any sort of extreme. So it becomes important in any endeavour to take care not to overdo. Intemperateness in doing anything is considered extreme and will have unwanted repercussions’ (p.59).
‘Another idea springing from the basic avoidance of extremes is that of simplicity. We are told to live as simply as possible instead of making our lives complicated… Contentment with what we have and with what we are doing seems connected with the suggestion to live life simply’ (pp.59-60).
‘Modesty is another favoured attribute of Taoist thought… We must learn to hold back, lest overreaching, even in our thoughts, will have an effect opposite from one we desire. Remember, the Lao Tzu maintains that going as far as one can in one direction can’t help but bring about movement in its opposite direction’ (p.60).
‘Yet another important aspect of Taoist philosophy as it relates to tai chi chuan and to push-hands in particular is that the soft, the yielding, overcomes the hard and rigid’ (p.60).
Softness, flexibility of mind and body, non-resistance, and yielding to a direct force - all are of importance in practising push-hands.
Taoist thought, as well as being a practical guide to preserving life during the tempestuous historical period of inter-state conflict and warfare, in which it has its origins (the Warring States period of Chinese history), also has a transcendental and mystical dimension. This dimension influenced the development of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism.
It seems evident that both Taoism and Ch’an Buddhism shared the ideas that we cannot put into words what the underlying reality is all about. Spiritual cultivation for human beings in these systems entailed doing one’s daily work as well as possible without overdoing or underdoing and without attachment to results. When we live in this way we learn to give up making distinctions between things. We become one with the Tao. In this state, everything is part of everything else, all objects are imbued with spirit and the experiencer and experienced are one…problems we may have had will still be there, but we may no longer regard them as unpleasant and unwelcome intrusions in our life but in some way that indicates a recognition of their naturalness and perhaps usefulness in furthering our development’ (p.61).
Herman Kauz ends this discussion by speculating that many may feel that a two thousand year old philosophy may not be relevant to us today. However he feels these ideas of softness and avoidance of conflict, not overdoing, living modestly and content with what we have may serve as a counterpoint to the greedy and exploitative attitudes towards our natural resources that have brought us to our current global climate crisis.
To return to the place of these ideas in tai chi, Kauz notes:
‘Both the tai chi form and push-hands can help us internalize the concepts found in these Taoist writings. As we practice daily, in accordance with the principles our teachers suggest, the Taoist ideas that underlie our training and that we recognize as useful somehow become part of us. With the passing of sufficient time, we seem to react to life’s unfolding in a way that accords with the philosophical ideas we favour. This process is the work of some years and is, in fact, never ending’ (pp.62-63).
Looking at tai chi’s partner work, notably the sensing hands (push-hands) we can see how these ideas play out. The most important principle is to give up resistance. This can have the effect of causing your partner, when she does not meet the expected block, to over-extend, resulting in her loss of balance, or causing her to withdraw. Both of these reactions make her vulnerable to a counterattack. In counterattack be careful not to overextend – remain within your area of balance, within your universe. In the partner work:
‘You will see clearly that resistance to a push will almost always result in loss of balance or in some other undesired development. Overextension in any direction will disturb your balance. Bad timing will make any move ineffective and contribute to defeat. Elaborate moves usually take longer to perform and provide the opponent with additional opportunities, because your hands, usually in such instances, move too far away from your body. The further your hands stray from your body, the weaker your arms become and the more vulnerable your body is, because your hands and arms no longer form a protective shield to an attack. All of these lessons, constantly reinforced, and taking place on a mental as well as a physical plane, gradually bring you to a real understanding of what the Taoist concepts mean, and in experiencing their value serve to make it ever more possible to internalize them’ (p.63).
In closing For Maggie Newman, tai chi begins with learning a physical form, but ultimately offers a path to experience the life energy ‘floating’ through the body without obstruction. While practising form, life energy, or chi, leads to the invisible space around the body becoming alive, thick, and having power. A relationship with chi involves a relationship with everything around you - the air, the ground, heaven – an experience of being an integral part of the universe.
For this experience of unity to arise it is necessary to keep the tai chi form fresh, and not fall into a blueprint physical performance. We listen with sensitivity to the chi. The chi flow is set in motion by letting go of obstructive tension, by sinking, surrendering to gravity, not holding onto anything that you hold onto. Maggie Newman notes that Professor Cheng did not teach tai chi as a technique. In the partner work he taught feeling, sensing and listening – letting go of any preconceived idea of what you are going to do, instead following the changes in the other person’s body.
For Herman Kauz, tai chi transcends the martial realm of overcoming others to become a form of moving meditation and inner development, as he says: ‘an aid in living as fully and completely as possible.’
In the tai chi form and sensing hands concentrating on what is happening leads to an ability to let go of extraneous thoughts, to settle and centre the body and mind. As the chi settles in the dantian we come to think and feel in a calmer, more grounded way.
For this development to occur we must, over many years, embrace the tai chi principles of non-competition, non-resistance, so that we are able to relax, let go and open up. Simply thinking about these Taoist ideas will not bring about these changes. Tai chi offers a way to experience Taoist principles and to embody them - principles such as the avoidance of extremes, simplicity in living, contentment with what we have, modesty, and the understanding that the soft and yielding overcomes the hard and rigid.
In this view, ultimately we don’t just ‘do’ tai chi. We become tai chi.