Sunday, April 5, 2009

More Than Dancing in the Park

Nick Mamatas took up a martial art that we've all seen in a different form.

Everyone knows "tai chi" — it's that arm-waving thing old ladies do in urban parks. The Whole Foods yuppie crowd swears by it as a way of learning how to "relax." Taiji quan (same thing, somewhat more accurate transliteration) started out, however, as a powerful martial art.

The class wasn't what you might expect.

When I walked in that Wednesday night, I noticed a few things: no uniforms, no mats, no belt rankings, no extended bowing and rituals, and the teacher introduced himself by his first name: Marin. As it turns out, that’s traditional Chinese martial arts. The endless kowtowing, the silk outfits, the strip-mall storefronts with arches and Home Depot waterfalls, that's for rubes.

There was no doubt about it's effectiveness,though.

That first night, people wandered in and out of class, doing warm-ups and complicated stretches, followed by detailed repetitions of the first few moves of the taiji "form." Then Marin demonstrated a move. He's a small guy, 5'6" and maybe 130 pounds soaking wet, and he quickly took down a much larger student, twisting his arm and locking it up to the shoulder. After class, I asked how hard the student had actually been resisting. Marin said, "Try."

I'm taller than Marin and have 60 pounds on him. I've also done some wrestling. We clinched, arms on one another, with me looking for a good grip. I pushed hard, pulled, grabbed his waist, then his neck, and yanked. It was like grappling with one of those robots from an auto plant assembly line. He didn't move at all. Then Marin "brushed" me to the ground with the palms of his hands — he didn't even have a grip on me. I was hooked.