Sifu Mark Rasmus is an imposing man, a lithe heavyweight who has trained wrestlers and boxers, including Thai kick boxers. He is about 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, by my estimation, although he seems bigger as he moves with quiet energy and purpose, like a big cat.
Behind this warrior façade, however, is a gentle man eager to share his knowledge and expertise about tai chi and martial arts in general. You sense that he is sensing you, measuring you, when you meet, and you get used to his mindful approach. You want to answer in kind. You sense his investment in your well being, as your teacher.
For our group, Rasmus has synthesized his “building internal power” training into a weekend workshop of 12 hours, “The Science of Elastic Force.” We are 14 tai chi devotees gathered in Frederick, Md., the next-to-last stop in the U.S. tour. Some are tai chi instructors with years of experience; others are just trying to expand their “push-hands” experiences. One comes from New York, and another from Delaware. A few are like me, local enthusiasts feeling lucky that Sifu had come so far, so close.
Mark Rasmus has taught martial arts throughout the Far East, building a worldwide following for his unique teaching method and style. You can witness for yourself his YouTube videos, readily available, featuring his lessons in Japan, where he lived for seven years, and Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he lives now “in a little hut on the side of a hill.” His skill is evident in this video, where pushes are neutralized with ease and force returned along three circular routes:
“The Science of Elastic Force” is one part mystical Hermetics, one part Chinese internal martial arts, and one part physiology – a course in body mechanics and flexibility. Connective tissue – ligaments, tendons and the fascia – are the elastic elements that give your body amazing strength, if you choose to train and develop their capacity.
We begin both sessions with meditation exercises that extend almost an hour. Sifu stresses the importance of visualizing and breathing in the “life force.” Consecutive meditation exercises ask us to 1) consider each thought that comes into your head, watch each fall away and others arise, enjoying each; 2) isolate one thought that comes to mind and concentrate on that one only, not letting it fade away for at least five minutes; and 3) let your mind go blank, dismissing all thoughts; sink into nothingness. Relax completely.
Finally, we are breathing into the vacuum between our hands, which we hold 18 inches apart and contract to 8 inches or less as we breath into it, literally and figuratively, filling up the space with our “life force,” our chi. Like in the video, as we run through demanding physical exercises, Sifu Mark holds up his hands, gently moving them in and out as if with an accordion, “Bring it back to this,” he says, “the life force.”
“Stretching” exercises are physically intense and exhausting, literally throwing our arms one way and violently pulling them back, stretching the tendons and opening the joints, a key condition for the “elastic” energy you need to “bounce” your opponent. When Sifu Mark demonstrates the exercise, however, his sweeping arm throws sound like deadly weapons, whistling violently against the wind as the tendons and ligaments are stretched to their limits.
I try this with much effort and notice that I am recreating the sound of Sifu’s hurtling tomahawks but with the sound coming from my mouth, a low and restrained whistle reflecting my effort but hardly matching the power of the original.
By opening the joints and stretching our connective tissue, we are releasing our bodies to song (hsung), in the Chinese terminology, complete relaxation, a condition of readiness, a precondition for action in tai chi, as Sifu Mark demonstrates on the video, sinking below his partner’s body mass.
In Sifu Mark’s metaphysical world, this Yin relaxation is also the powerful magnetic force you use to suck your opponent into the vortex, to put them off guard, to doom them. The magnetic is Yin, the female, the cold, the dark, the low. It is water, the essential element. It is roll back, the energy of yielding. As he demonstrates in this video, your relaxation (song) allows you to return the force applied to you, without intention:
Next: The Body Electric