The energy of self-defense
Mary Marsh, one of Matthew’s students, has studied tai chi for 10 years. She began training because she suffered from panic attacks.
“My daughter got me involved and it has changed my life,” Marsh says. “I have a tool that I can use when I’m feeling stressed. Anyone can do it. One time, I was hooked up to a heart monitor and started doing the form, just in my mind, and you could see my blood pressure numbers going down. That’s when I realized there really is something to this. “
Matthews began studying tai chi in his 20s, after working his way through a number of other martial arts including judo, kung fu and Aikido. He had heard stories of how martial arts could allow a smaller person to effortlessly defeat a larger, stronger person. But he found that never really happened until 1977, when he met Dr. Kai Sung, a tai chi teacher in Cleveland.
“Tai chi offered a way of looking at martial arts in a completely different way,” Matthews says. He discovered it meant more than just learning a fighting skill; tai chi provided training for life. His work with Dr. Sung also opened the door for further training in Taiwan with tai chi master Shen Maohui. Shen was Grandmaster of the Imperial Guards (secret service) who protected the emperor, and later the president of China/Taiwan. It was a position held for centuries by his martial lineage. He possessed incredible martial skills.
“Shen Maohui could, from 10-12 feet away, point his finger at you and you could feel his energy, or chi, as it hit against your palm,” Matthews says. “This was something I couldn’t explain. I still can’t explain it. These are the things that made me curious about tai chi. What are they doing that is different from what I do? What are the skills they have that are beyond my understanding?”
Shen accepted Matthews as one of his “indoor” students in 1977, despite Matthews not being Asian or even understanding Chinese. The tai chi teaching that takes place in parks all over Asia is often only part of the training. Those are considered the “outdoor” students. Chinese and Japanese martial arts masters are often wary of people seeking training from them.
A teacher would determine if a student was worthy of learning information and secrets of the art. “If you were not, you were considered an ‘outdoor’ student,” Matthews explains. “The ‘indoor’ students were the ones the teacher believed had good character.”
Indoor students learned the valuable secrets, and Matthews was lucky enough to become an indoor student.
(I wrote this piece about my tai chi laoshi for Lake Erie Life Lifestyle Magazine)
There are no techniques in tai chi — only those principles,” says Ed Matthews, tai chi laoshi (teacher), as he points to a blackboard in the corner of his school, “Body Awareness.”
The board has these words on it: “Relaxed, Calm, Grounded, Centered and Unified.”
These concepts comprise the foundation of all tai chi chuan, a 300- to 700-year old martial art developed in China. Translated as “grand ultimate boxing,” tai chi has been called the greatest low-impact exercise and has been scientifically proven to better one’s health, balance and flexibility.
(Ed Matthews practices “push hands” with student Dan Sloppy)
Learning for life
Some may think of tai chi as a slow-moving martial art for senior citizens, but it’s really a martial art for people of all ages who are willing to invest time in practice and study. A classic tai chi saying is, “We study tai chi when we are young so we can use it when we are old.”
Matthews says tai chi has taken slow movement to an insane level. It is like a baseball batter, or golfer, taking practice swings before stepping into the batter’s box. Only in tai chi, you do those slow movements of the tai chi form thousands of times. The power is generated through the use of body alignment and mental intentions. Tai chi also seeks to avoid struggle, and work with the laws of nature instead of trying to fight against them.
Matthews, 61, has spent more than 40 years of his life mastering and teaching tai chi (pronounced tie-gee). Matthews doesn’t look like a tai chi master. First off, he isn’t Chinese. He doesn’t ask his students to call him “Master” or “Sifu.” They just call him Ed. He — and his students — also do not wear the traditional silk kung-fu uniforms, opting instead for regular street clothes. Matthews tries to make tai chi as accessible as possible. For him, it is not about fighting — though his punch hits like an express train — but about health.
“When you say ‘self-defense,’ most people think of being attacked on the street,” Matthews says. “The teachers I have had say the best self-defense is not to get sick, not to have pain. Most of us are not being shot at, or accosted, every time we step outside our door. But slipping and falling, pulling a muscle moving incorrectly, or getting a disease is a constant around us.”
Tai chi, as Matthews teaches it, is about body mechanics. The graceful, slow-moving form of tai chi allows us to understand how to move our bodies. It also strengthens the body’s internal energy that the Chinese call “chi (or qi).”
Modern medicine has found that tai chi lowers blood pressure, lessens stress, strengthens muscles, and improves circulation and balance. Doctors are prescribing it for people who suffer from arthritis, diabetes, fibromyalgia, depression and anxiety. After many years of study, tai chi can also be used as self-defense.