Why do people come from around the world to learn tai chi in Orillia?
- by Shen Guoxiang (English translation and editing by Xin Yan and Ian Sinclair)
Why would people, who could go anywhere in the world to learn from the most famous masters, come to Canadian "cottage country" to study this ancient Chinese art?
It's because of Ian Sinclair, a local tai chi expert who has spent 4 decades devoted to the study, teaching, and development of this ancient art. He has been quietly making a name for himself here and overseas, and has accumulated quite a following.
Sinclair knows that students could learn from more famous masters in China, and insists that he is no great master. But over the past 40 years he has developed an international reputation for his unique understanding and a unique way of teaching. His approach seems more scientific approach than many others. Also, he stays away from the esoteric terminology that one usually hears in tai chi classes. He seems to have an open mindedness that enables him to go where others fear to tread. He is also surprisingly willing to transcend the boundaries of standardized style and family lineages. He calls it "Making the pedagogy serve the student instead of the teacher."
His students vary from absolute beginners (often referred by various medical professionals) to teachers and experts of other martial arts. They also include professional athletes, musicians, and health care professionals. Doctors, massage therapists, and physiotherapists are among his students. Police and military personnel also come for personal and professional development. War veterans and survivors of other trauma come for health and relaxation. He does not have any regular children's classes. But he does sometimes accept children for private lessons when there is a particular need, such as in cases of bullying or other issues.
This is not your typical tai chi school, or a typical martial arts school.
Sinclair strong advocates for the health benefits of tai chi. But he is also one of the few teachers who is thoroughly committed to the martial aspect. He says that this comes as a surprise to some people because there is a common misconception about tai chi as a martial art, and about martial arts in general.
"People think tai chi is either a martial art or a health regimen. But the two are not contradictory. I think people somehow assume that martial artists are training to be violent. But that is the exact opposite of what a martial art is about. Violence is what happens when you DO NOT practise a martial art. To quote Leo Rosten, 'It is the weak who are cruel. Gentleness is to be expected only from the strong.'
"To assume martial artists are training to become violent, is like assuming that doctors are training to become sick. A martial art is, at its core, the perpetual search for peace, balance, health, empowerment, and understanding.
"The arts I teach are, first and foremost, about cultivating self-awareness and compassion."
Ian Sinclair, seen here in his
younger days, above Vancouver.
"Not every student is right for every school, and not every teacher is right for every student. We often get applications from people who, through no fault of their own, just aren't a good fit for this school. Chinese teachers will sometimes refer to what you in China call yuan. [ 緣 yuán (ed) ], that kind of synchronicity, destiny, or karma. It is different from more superficial kinds of rapport. In the West we sometimes talk about getting a 'vibe' from someone. But it is not as simple as that. My teacher would meet a potential student, recognize their innate talent and likability, and even though he might feel comfortable with them, and suspect that they would be a very good student, he would decide that this student is not right for his school. He would apologize, and refer the potential student to other teachers he liked. 'Maybe you will have yuán with one of them,' he would say, adding, 'It's too bad, because they might be nice people, and sometimes they offer a lot of money.' But he would never let money compromise his integrity."
Sinclair teaches lessons online to individuals in Europe, North and South America, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. He sometimes gets invited to travel there, or they come to Orillia. He has been known to drive to Toronto to teach a busy travelling client in their hotel between meetings or performances, or to cottages in Muskoka. His reputation has been growing over the past several years, mostly by word of mouth. There are rumours of celebrity clients visiting his school in Orillia, and he did work with actors, and film people when he lived in Vancouver. But he quickly changes the subject when I ask about them. All he would say is, "I have learned to adopt a very strict policy of confidentiality. This applies to all of my students."
"You might think it would be great to have a famous student, and have them tweet about you to their followers. But I prefer that my students be referred personally, or find me on their own. It would be a very bad thing for me if people started coming to me because they are fans of a particular celebrity student, instead of having a genuine desire to learn.
"It is similar to the reason why I don't advertise children's classes. If a parents want to put their kids in a program, there are other fine schools around. But if the child does not find me by themselves, then I am probably not the right fit for them. If the parent wants the child to learn what I teach, then I usually suggest that the parent study with me themselves, and share what they know with the child. Then try a private lesson together later. If a child seeks me out on their own, I may consider it. There have been exceptions, of course. There usually are."
… the quality of tai chi instruction today
The only celebrity Sinclair will admit to having in his school is tai chi itself. The art has become quite famous in recent years as a healing exercise. To a lesser degree, it is also known as a martial art. But like most celebrities, the art is often misunderstood. What people see in public is not what it is like in reality. It often seems to find reasons to present itself in a way that is not entirely authentic. And like many celebrities, there are often imitators and cheap knock-offs. When asked if he is concerned about the art becoming diluted or watered down by such imitators or by people who change it or modify it, his response surprised me.
"Of course, the art has been watered down. That is what happens when people try too hard to preserve the characteristics of a style. Half of it gets lost with each generation. Many teachers are only able to teach about five percent of the art. But there are two main reasons why tai chi has been watered down.
"One reason is the absence of regulation. Tai chi is very accessible and it can be modified to suit just about anyone. It suits beginners of all ages and fitness levels. Anyone who can move, or imagine moving, can do tai chi. You may have heard the expression, 'Anyone who can talk can sing, and anyone who can walk can dance'. Tai chi is like that. You don't have to master the art in order to enjoy it and benefit from it. Since tai chi is very accessible for beginners, it is easy for people to become teachers, and there is little or no regulation of who can be qualified to teach. Some people start teaching other people as soon as they can remember the basic routine. But that's fine with me, I am okay with people sharing what knowledge they have. Get the people dancing and singing, so-to-speak. But we should not forget that there is more to the art. It is fine for a second grade student to teach addition and subtraction to a first grader. But nowadays we expect a professional teacher have twenty more years of education, and to continue to study throughout their career. Tai chi has a lot of teachers with elementary qualifications, and only a few teachers with Master's Degrees or a Doctoral Degrees.
"The other reason, ironically, is the presence of regulation. It is not just the imitators who are threatening the art. It is also the people who cling blindly to tradition. There have been many attempts to control the art by standardizing it. This has caused many things to be lost. It's like saying there is only one way to sing a folk-song, only one way to paint a flower, or only one way to read a soliloquy. Teachers, businesses, and recently governments, have made efforts to define the traditional tai chi styles and to reinforce those standards as if they were a breed of dog. But if you are familiar with dog breeding, you know that pure-breds are often prone to medical problems which are now considered endemic to the breed. Over the past one or two centuries, the need to preserve standard breeds has created a situation where the best in show might be the worst in health. It is as if people have forgotten why the breed was created in the first place. We forget that the four thousand years of selective breeding has involved a lot of creativity and experimentation, and even some natural selection.
I have seen some really weird-looking tai chi. Some of it was actually pretty bad. But some of those weirdos have really known what they were doing. My inability to see it was my flaw, not theirs. Imagine 19th century music teacher listening to John Coltrane, or think of the early reactions to the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh.
"When styles are standardized, the process of natural selection and creative development stops. Then the art just becomes a two-dimensional picture of the past, with none of the things that actually made it famous in the first place. This happens in business, too, as well as art, scholarship, science, and any kind of innovation. You see it now in places like the aircraft industry, where the people running the company know nothing about flying. They buy a company and replace the board members who built the company literally from the ground up. Now we have passenger aircraft construction is being run by people who have never flown or built a plane. Today there are martial art teachers who have never been in a fight, not even in a ring, and they truly think they know all about the martial side of tai chi. There are also people teaching tai chi as a healing exercise with no interest in learning the science of how the body works, or how thought, emotion and posture are interrelated."
Medical benefits of Tai chi
I asked Mr. Sinclair about the medical benefits of tai chi. Tai chi is the subject of increasing medical research in recent years, with new studies frequently being published. The healing aspect of tai chi is the main reason for its popularity, especially with older people. Sinclair is a bit skeptical about many of the studies, however.
"You have to take many of these with a grain of salt. There have been some very good studies with reasonable sample sizes. But I think there are some which are far too many poorly-done. They are small clinical trials that get too much publicity. Tai chi proponents tend to get excited when they hear about a study that shows certain results for cancer, arthritis, osteoarthritis, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, COPD, heart failure, hypertension, or something else. But clinical trials especially must read cautiously. Many use low numbers of test subjects, poor methodology, and suspicious analysis. Some of them are blatantly polemical either for or against tai chi. Scientific literacy among the public is so low that many people don't understand the difference. Too many people don't even care that there is a difference, being all to happy to accept whatever support they can get to reinforce their own paradigm.
"Even if the study is done well, I would still care about who the teacher is, who the students were, what the school was, what pedagogy was used, etc. etc. If there are benefits shown in one study, and not in another, then I want to know what the difference was. Were the two studies done with the same school? If not, then they might not even be studying the same thing. There is one particular school with branches all over Canada and around the world. What they teach is a truly shallow imitation of the art. They appear to have taken all of the mistakes that beginners make and integrated them as characteristics of the style. Yet they are so widespread and act so authoritative that they are sometimes chosen for scientific research. They might be better used as a control group of choreographed yawning. I wouldn't recommend them to my friends. But if a study shows that their style has some unique benefit not found in other styles, then even if they also wreck their students' backs and knees, I want to know about it."
Many of Sinclair's students come to him because of specific health concerns. He has many testimonials attesting to improvements health conditions. He even offers specific private programs for hypertension, heart disease, Parkinson's disease, back pain, joint pain, kidney stones, arthritis, and more. But he makes no promises and insists that his students keep seeking medical attention, even if they seem to be improving. "Anecdotal evidence from my students is encouraging and reassuring. It is not convincing scientific proof, although it does keep me teaching.
"Our desire to be helpful is so strong that we will often try to offer whatever tools we have as a remedy. In my case, the main tools are tai chi and qigong. But there are times when the most appropriate tool is the map to the hospital, or a phone for calling 911. I have had to take people to the hospital when they tell me that they they would rather just go home and sleep it off. They think they can just do more tai chi to feel better. You don't usually sleep off acute appendicitis or a heart attack. In the past year, two of my students have survived LAD coronary events. While tai chi may have contributed to their survival, so did aspirin, and the main factor was emergency surgery. On the other hand, I have students who have had surgery cancelled by their doctors after training with me. Hernia surgery, and shoulder surgeries have been cancelled. One student was scheduled to have a specialist remove a large stone from a kidney. I taught him some exercises which he did several times per day. The doctor cancelled the operation when ultrasound showed no sign of any stone. It had simply disappeared in that time. Of course, it could be a total coincidence, and I must point out that the decision was made by the doctor.
"Recently, a student with severe cellulitis in both legs has astounded this doctors with his rapid recovery. His doctor is contemplating writing a paper about him. My student credits tai chi with helping to restore his circulation and grow his skin back. But still, all we can say with conviction is that it may warrant further study.
"I must say it again. Anecdotal evidence, even first-hand, is not scientific proof.
"My own view, is that tai chi can be helpful for a wide variety of health conditions. This is based on my own logic, my limited knowledge, anecdotal evidence, and some of the better meta-analyses that have been published in recent years. But it is not enough for us to simply believe that it works. We need to understand why it works, and why it sometimes doesn't work. When I describe the mechanisms and processes of tai chi, as I teach it, my students and I can see how the practice affects mind and body. The postural alignment, efficiency of movement, muscle, fascia, lymph, the relationship between the physical tension and the cerebral cortex, the entire nervous system, breathing, etc. are all involved. I am fortunate in that I teach medical professionals, engineers, designers, dancers etc., all of whom give me feedback. Many of them are quite happy to tell me if I am making sense…or if I am out of my mind. We need to do more than prove whether tai chi works or not. We need to find ways to make it work better, and to improve the art so it can benefit more people.
"I said earlier that no teacher is right for every student. Likewise, no exercise or remedy is perfect for everyone.
"Fortunately, tai chi is all about adaptability and change."
Ian Sinclair interviewed after his victory.
About different styles of tai chi
There are many different styles of tai chi, each with its own characteristics. Mr. Sinclair has studied many different styles and has won gold medals in International competition. I asked him if there one style that he prefers. Does he think some styles are in better than others?
"It depends less on the style than it does on the teacher. Even more important is the student. But first, if we are to talk about styles, I need to explain that I think there is a distinction between a style and an art."
"I explain to people that I practise an art form called tai chi, of which I have learned several styles. Tai chi is a category of martial art, and also a healing exercise. I also study many other martial arts which help me in my tai chi practice. A style is just a particular way of teaching the art.
"But when I teach, I don't teach an art form. I teach individual people. If my art doesn't suit my student, I will change the art to suit them. I look at each student as a unique person on a unique path. I don't tie myself to a particular pedagogy. If the current method is not working, then I look for a new way…or different old way. I think that what people tend to forget is that whatever the benefits of the art may be, they came about as a result of Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED). Whatever attachments people might have to tradition, we must first recognize that all tradition was originally SR&ED. So, I like to fancy myself as an SR&ED man."
"Don't misunderstand me. I'm not denigrating tradition. I'm just saying that we need to realize that tradition includes a history of research and innovation. If we abandon research and innovation then we are, in fact, abandoning the tradition.
"I am also not an advocate of any particular style of tai chi…and not even of tai chi itself as a style of martial art or a style of exercise. I have learned eight different versions of Yang style, five different versions of Chen style, plus Wu style, Sun style, Hao style, and other internal martial arts like xingyiquan, baguazhang, etc. I've also tried to learn from many different martial arts around the world. What we call a style is really just a name for a kind of pedagogy. It is the way the art is taught. But good teachers are always researching and learning. So even the best student will never learn all that the teacher has to teach. If the student is attached to a style, then the art will fade out. My own teacher said years ago that he has never taught half of what he knows. Think of that. He has taught tens of thousands of students, including world champions, masters, and grandmasters, and all of them combined have not learned half of what he knows. This is because he is always learning, and his learning accelerates over time. The students will never catch up to him. If we are attached to a style or a pedagogy, then the art will die. This is something you see happening with many art forms. People learn what they can from the teacher, which is never exactly what the teacher intended to teach, and the student doesn't learn anymore.
I know people who studied for twenty years under a particularly famous master during the 1970s and 1980s. Then they went to start their own schools, and spent the rest of their time just teaching what they learned. That same master has other students who have only studied with him for a few years in this century. But many of these younger students are more skilled than some of the old students who learned for two decades. This may be partly because their teacher has spent the intervening years improving and developing his art and teaching methods, whereas the older students did not.
"Teachers need to be willing to move beyond what they have learned, and students need to accept their responsibility for research and analysis. Critical thinking is not cynicism, and accepting that you have the capacity to understand something is not the same as assuming that you already understand it completely. You are not insulting your teacher when you admit that you need to do your own research. In fact, what you are really doing in such a case is admitting that you cannot learn all that the teacher knows. So, you have to learn how to learn by yourself.
The challenge of ancient wisdom
"Consider this. Tai chi has a list of old books which are referred to as the classics. They are a sort of unofficial canon. When my teacher first read them, he was a 20-year-old student of one of the most famous tai chi masters of his time. He was also University-educated and had trained in martial arts for more than 40 hours per week for the previous fifteen years in other martial arts and was heir to more than one esoteric martial art. His credentials were already extraordinary. He said that when he read the classics the first time, he felt that he understood them. With his excellent background, we might expect him to.
But when he read them again at the age of 30, he lamented the arrogance of his 20-year-old self. Then he read them again when he turned 40 years of age, and was surprised to think how shallow his understanding was at the age of thirty. But then, when he turned 50, he returned to the classics and was amused to see how different his view of their meaning had become.
This happens to everyone who is serious about learning. Our point of view, our experience, our understanding, will change over time. Sometimes our understanding will be opposite of what it had been ten years earlier."
Sinclair pauses and shakes his head. He down at his hands, and then turns his sardonic expression to the sky. "I used to find this story depressing. I thought that if someone of his calibre, with his level of experience, education and expertise can be so challenged by these old texts. What hope can a person like me have. I don't read modern and ancient Chinese like he did. I don't speak the language. I don't understand the culture. I didn't have a grandmaster teaching me 6 hours per day from childhood."
Sinclair straightens up, closes his eyes, and takes a slow deep breath that seems to pour into the ground beneath him, taking his mind with it. Then he opens his eyes and smiles peacefully.
"But now I accept this as a admonition to leave all doors and windows open to new perspectives, and look to the cracks in my ego and my ignorance for the sands of truth to swirl around and find their way in over time. If my understanding of the art…or anything…has not changed in the past ten years, I should assume that I have been far too lazy. If my view of the Universe is not regularly overturned, then that fact alone should be proof enough of my ignorance."
He pauses and then adds,
"… and of my cowardice."
"How can I hope to enlighten my students if I cannot let go of my own stupidity. How can I hold the necessary compassion and awareness if I am incapacitated by the kind of fear that perpetuates ignorance."
Love is a Martial Art
This reminded me of something that Mr. Sinclair said to me earlier. It shows me what kind of person he is, and why I like him as a teacher. We had been discussing the relationship between healing arts, martial arts, spiritual practices, and politics. He said that "The true spirit of a successful practitioner of any of these is love." I reminded him of this earlier comment. Then, referring to the ancient book Sunzi Bingfa ("The Art of War") Sinclair said,
"The Chinese general, Sunzi, paraphrased an ancient military maxim that reminds us of the importance of understanding ourselves and our enemies. He wrote, 'It is often said that if you know your enemy and know yourself, then you will not be defeated, even if you face one hundred battles.' This is a principle that has been advocated by military leaders throughout the centuries. It may be the most famous quote from the Art of War.
"What most people fail to point out, however, is that you can never understand anyone by hating them. Failure to recognize this is one of the greatest failures of martial artists. Actually, it's part of society's general pathology. Students think they can harness their fear and anger to develop high level skill. But that only entrenches them in predictable behaviour. Fear and hatred are self-perpetuating, and when we become attached to them we become self-destructive.
"Martial skill is a process for seeking peace in an inherently violent world. Skilled martial artists don't seek violence any more than skilled doctors try to make their patients sick. Finding peace is dependent on love. It depends on love for oneself and for other people. The awareness that results from love and compassion is a powerful weapon against violence. Even in the heat of combat, when all else has failed, the person who has the best relationship with themselves, and functional love of the enemy, will have the best chance of avoiding defeat. This is not mere philosophical idealism. It is a stark reality. Love is key to preventing violence. But it is also crucial to succeeding in a fight.
"I sometimes joke that, if you want to be able to effectively conquer someone (or some thing), you need to start by loving them unconditionally."
Ian Sinclair teaches in Orillia, Ontario, Canada. He also travels by invitation to teach around the world.
Shen Guoxiang is long time student of tai chi from China, currently living in Canada, and Europe.
- B. Irving, Orillia, Ontario
‘We heard about him years ago. But we said, ”He is in Orillia. How good can he be?”’