Exploring Tai Chi Chuan with David Vanadia

When you first walk in to David’s Tai Chi Chuan class, you notice a weightlessness in the bright, beautiful studio at Nia Headquarters. The regular students, who vary in age by decades, seem calm and relaxed as they wait for their teacher to arrive. As soon as David begins speaking, we know from his grounded demeanor and sense of humor that this is going to be a good way to spend an hour.

Practiced without music, the movement sequences take us on a journey around the room. We rely on David’s voice and each other to help us remember what comes next as we rotate directions. Nothing is forced. It feels a bit like we’re floating in the open ocean. The thing that stands out most is how meditative yet fluid the practice proves to be.

Phrases like “Hold the Ball, Ward Off” and “White Crane Spreads Its Wings” and “Snake Creeps Through the Grass” help us visualize and execute the motions. We are not thinking about what happened earlier at work or what we’re doing for dinner; we’re simply concentrating on moving our bodies with precision and ease.

It is challenging in a way we didn’t expect, but accessible. It requires a very focused attention and awareness of how we position and move our feet, legs, arms and hands. And our peripheral vision is put to the test to help us stay in sync with the other people in the space. Transitioning gracefully from one sequence to the next is obviously a seasoned practitioner’s skill. But by the end of class, we feel peaceful, energized and intrigued. So we sit down with David to ask him a few questions.

Tell us a little about your professional background.

I began teaching in 2000 as a substitute for my teacher at the time. When I moved to Portland several years ago, I set out to make teaching Tai Chi Chuan an integral part of my life.

What first got you interested in Tai Chi Chuan?

The Karate Kid movie. My high school classmates were all doing Karate and, by chance, I ended up at a Gung Fu school. That's where I was first introduced to Tai Chi Chuan. It was very different than the stuff my friends were learning.

How would you describe Tai Chi Chuan to someone who has never tried it?

Tai Chi Chuan is like learning a new language – a metaphysical language.

How does Tai Chi Chuan compare to other movement practices?

Tai Chi Chuan is a folk martial art whereas many other movement practices are not.

Who typically takes Tai Chi Chuan classes?

The typical Tai Chi Chuan practitioner is someone who sees value in practicing this art form. Practitioners range from young fighters looking to enhance their game to senior citizens looking to improve their balance.

What are the top benefits of practicing Tai Chi Chuan?

I would say that learning about yourself as an energetic body and getting in touch with yourself in relation to other moving bodies is one of the best ongoing lessons Tai Chi offers. Everyone brings a unique perspective to the art, and each person takes away something different.

Describe the ideal environment for practicing Tai Chi Chuan.

Tai Chi Chuan can be practiced in a palace or a prison cell. However, the ideal setting is somewhere with fresh air, so outdoors is always nice.

What are three tips you’d give someone who’s coming to try Tai Chi Chuan for the first time?

1. Expect and accept that you're going to feel awkwardly self-conscious, slightly overwhelmed, and probably not relaxed at all.
2. Find a teacher you connect with and then commit to classes.
3. Tai Chi Chuan is there for you when you want it. But don't wait until you need it.

What do you like best about teaching Tai Chi Chuan?

I love to share my knowledge and skill with people who are interested in Tai Chi Chuan. Also, they say that teaching makes you learn something twice.

What would you say is unique about your teaching style?

I welcome everyone in my classes and work to provide lessons that are useful to beginners as well as practiced students.

How has Tai Chi Chuan impacted you personally, if at all?

There are many ways. First, it has taught me a great deal about what it means to be a practitioner – someone who will never attain perfection but instead has to be happy with the now. Tai Chi Chuan continues to teach me about how we relate to each other and how I relate to the world around me. I wouldn't keep with it if I didn't constantly grow from it.

Are there any movement practices that complement Tai Chi Chuan well? If so, what are they?

Any movement practice compliments Tai Chi Chuan because the lessons embedded in this practice are exponential. As I mentioned before, Tai Chi Chuan is a bit like learning a new language and so it gives you a unique and natural perspective on everything. It puts you in touch with your inner child.

What are three common questions you get from your students?

1. Q: How long it will take to learn the form? A: Six months to two years.
2. Q: Can I learn from a book or DVD? A: Media helps but it's like trying to learn to ride a bike from a book or DVD.
3. Q: Why practice Tai Chi Chuan? A: That's for you to answer.

Any resources you’d recommend for those wanting to learn more about Tai Chi Chuan?

Beyond taking classes with an instructor, your local library should have at least one good Tai Chi Chuan book or video. My website has articles, links, books and video suggestions. Absorb all you can from every source.