By: Bruce Frantzis
The Big Book of Tai Chi
Build Health Fast in Slow Motion
by Bruce Frantzis
(Blue Snake Books, 1998, 2007, 396 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
In order to characterize Bruce Frantzis’s The Big Book of Tai Chi, I have to lead off with two different concepts. The first, which is stated in the book’s subtitle, is “slow motion.” Tai Chi is a movement art that is generally practiced at speeds slower than one would usually move. There are a great many reasons to practice Tai Chi slowly, one of which is that it enables the practitioner to more carefully observe the physicality, balance, flow, and dynamics of the various movements. In other words, practicing at slow speeds gives the practitioner greater time for observational awareness.
Tied to slow speed and observational awareness is the idea of mental discipline. As with slowness, there are many aspects to this idea, but pertinent at the moment is that Tai Chi’s slow speed encourages one to slow down and sublimate the overt conscious thinking process. This helps one loosen the inhibitory control over one’s movements that is created by the constant stream of conscious thoughts running through our heads. If one thinks ten thoughts while performing a movement at normal speeds, then one will think one hundred thoughts while performing the same movement at one-tenth normal speed. Over time, moving slowly aids one in learning to slow down and ignore the constant chatter in one’s head and focus even more deeply on observational awareness.
The second concept is linked to my general definition of Category I Tai Chi books, which usually are manuals for those interested in taking up Tai Chi or those who have only recently begun practicing. These books are all very similar, generally leading off with some background material which includes history, philosophy, operational precepts, health effects, and other matters, such as how to find a teacher. Then there comes a long section detailing a Tai Chi form—usually consisting of photos accompanied by instructional text. Next there sometimes are demonstrations of push hands and applications for the moves. And finally, sometimes, a few of the Tai Chi Classics are included in the body text after the instruction section or in an appendix. In such books, the background material can range from the shallow to the profound, but no matter how well presented it is, it usually does not go into great detail on any one subject and will leave out a number of topics that could be further discussed given greater space.
These concepts apply to The Big Book of Tai Chi in a very Tai Chi way. Although it is, in some ways, a Category I book, there are no form instructions or Tai Chi Classics. Instead, Frantzis takes the background material one would find in a Category I book, slows it down and applies observational awareness to completely parse just about every aspect of Tai Chi that is not directly related to form. It’s sort of like taking one section of a Tai Chi form, slowing it down, and completely describing each and every aspect and movement, from the macro to the micro. In essence, he’s taken material that most Tai Chi authors present in, say, thirty pages, and slowed it down ten times to fill three hundred pages, revealing details that the others have glossed over or ignored entirely.
The results are curious in a way that has nothing to do with the information itself, the manner of its presentation, or the writing, which is authoritative and more than adequate in terms of style. The oddness comes from trying to figure out just who the audience is. At the beginng of the book, an author’s note reads:
My purpose is to share ideas about how and why tai chi works to stimulate thought and further inquiry. My experience of studying in China for 11 years with masters in tai chi and chi gung has given me a unique perspective. I hope this book will encourage scientists to make formal studies of tai chi’s health benefits, inspire people to try tai chi, and provide tools to enable current tai chi practitioners and instructors to upgrade their skills and gain more benefits and satisfaction from their practice.
I think that Frantzis succeeds in addressing some of these matters—particularly the latter two—but he is less successful with others. On the surface, this book is sort of like a very thick advertising brochure that tries to convince a prospective buyer of a product or service to buy this particular one. It is a raison d’être for taking up Tai Chi, and the material it presents is as deep as it is voluminous. But I have to wonder just how many people shopping for Tai Chi are apt to buy and read a three-hundred-page book prior to signing up for a class. In my experience, most people approach Tai Chi by seeking a local instructor rather than by reading books about it first, though I have to admit that once I decided to take up Tai Chi, I read a couple of books on it during the interval between signing up and attending the first class. But I'm a voracious reader. The Big Book of Tai Chi is a lot of book to read for someone just thinking about taking Tai Chi.
Worse, while Frantzis touts the great many benefits of Tai Chi practice—and does so well—he also makes learning Tai Chi seem like a daunting task. Okay, it is, but at beginner levels, the difficulties are generally physical and rather basic. So when Frantzis starts talking about having to learn material like the 16-Part Nei Gung system and other aspects that are more of a concern to intermediate and advanced students and that obviously take years, if not decades, of practice, I wonder if he makes the Tai Chi learning curve seem too steep for the average person who expresses an interest in Tai Chi. This is sort of ironic, considering that the book’s subtitle is “Build Health Fast in Slow Motion.” You can’t build anything if you discourage the builders from participating, and further, you can’t really build Tai Chi fast. Tai Chi is all about slow motion, from the speed of the movements to the length of time required to master the basic tenets and onward to progressively greater skill and understanding.
Although the book’s obvious target audience seems to be folks shopping for Tai Chi, at the same time, the pages contain a lot of information that would be more of of interest to intermediate and more advance practitioners, who don't seem to be the overt target audience. Unlike a lot of Western teachers of the internal martial and exercise arts, Frantzis spent some time learning from experts in China, and he possesses a lot of information that is not common knowledge among Western Tai Chi practitioners. And a lot of that knowledge has found its way into this book, though it is interspersed with a great deal of information that would be well known to the average Tai Chi journeyman. And as for inspiring scientists to study Tai Chi, well, they’d have to read it first, and it doesn’t seem like the sort of book the average researcher might pick up to gain inspiration. But I say this while being a lover of scientific research into Tai Chi and its related internal arts.
Okay, now down to the nuts-and-bolts of the book. We already know that The Big Book of Tai Chi is not an instruction manual. Nor is it an intensive look at principles, though many principles and precepts are covered to a greater or lesser extent. Instead, it is a low-altitude and very thorough survey of the Tai Chi landscape, and you are given a picture of the broader view as well as more sharply focused examinations of specific important features of the terrain.
The book opens with a lengthy introduction by Diane Rappaport, one of Frantzis’s more senior students. Then Frantzis takes over, defining Tai Chi in chapter one. This includes definitions of chi, Taoist energy arts, and other basic information. Chapter two delves into the background of traditional Chinese medicine. It is a detailed overview that includes discussions of the meridian system, the philosophy behind traditional Chinese medicine, and several types of health: physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual.
Chapter three is on how Tai Chi improves health, and it includes several specific exercises for strengthening the legs and stances. Twisting, turning, and spiraling are discussed, as are alignments, relaxation, and increasing chi flow. Chapter four discusses how Tai Chi helps reduce and manage stress. Tai Chi and longevity is the subject of chapter five, and here Frantzis devotes considerable space to practitioners who are older than fifty. Tai Chi’s benefits for different groups of people occupy chapter six. One focus here is how Tai Chi can benefit office workers, and another is how it benefits people with disabilities.
The Power of the Internal Martial Arts
Combat and Energy Secrets of Ba Gun,
Tai Chi, and Hsing-I
by Bruce Frantzis
(Blue Snake Books, 2008, 226 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Martial arts are like containers. The practitioner spends time learning to create a container—the martial art form—and then proceeds to fill the container with content—chi and physiological and martial knowledge. Sometimes the containers (forms) are faulty or misshapen, sometimes they are well formed but remain empty or are only partially filled. Shallow martial knowledge will be evident in these types of forms, and while their practitioners might mimic the true art they purport to represent, their efforts generally fall short of insight and validity, much less mastery. Martial arts books are no different. Each is a container filled with some relative martial knowledge, whether excellent, mediocre, or somewhere between.
At the excellent end of the spectrum lies Bruce Frantzis’ The Power of the Internal Martial Arts. The reason the book is so good is that Frantzis was an early traveler to Japan, China, India, and elsewhere during his decades-long research into the martial arts. The book is filled with his recollections of the many masters he studied with, but it is perhaps useful to give a succinct bio up front to give the reader an idea of his background. To make sure I’m unbiased here, the following bio is pulled directly from the Wikipedia page on him:
Bruce Kumar Frantzis (born April 1949) is a Taoist educator who studied Taoism in China. Beginning as a young karate champion, he engaged in a multi-decade journey leading him throughout Asia and the Eastern energetic traditions. Choosing to forgo an ivy league education in favor of pursuing Japanese martial arts at their original source, he moved to Japan to attend Sophia University at the age of eighteen. There, he obtained multiple black belts and trained with Aikido’s founder Morihei Ueshiba. He soon branched out to Taiwan and China and studied in increasing depth under internal martial arts masters.
In 1973, attempting to locate the original source of meditation, Bruce traveled to India where he underwent rigorous daily training in Pranayama, Hatha yoga, Raja yoga, and Tantra with many gurus, experiencing what in the East is known as “Kundalini Shakti”.
Returning to China in the mid 1970s, he became the first Westerner to be given insider access to the closely guarded Taoist Fire tradition (unverified tradition) and its priesthood. After completing seven years of training he became priest in the Fire tradition. Then by a fortunate set of events, Bruce was accepted as the direct disciple of one of the few remaining stewards of the Water tradition (unverified tradition), the Taoist Immortal (Fully Realized Person) Liu Hung-Chieh. Through Liu Hung-Chieh, he was introduced to Jiang Jia Hua the vice president of the All-China Scientific Qigong Association. This connection gave Bruce access to Chinese cancer clinics where he completed his training as a medical qigong doctor.
Bruce inherited the Taoist Water Tradition lineages shortly before Liu Hung-Chieh’s passing in 1986. On his teacher’s wishes, he has spent the last 25 years imparting the healing, meditative and martial aspects of Taoism to the West. He primarily teaches the Energy Art Qigong System, Wu style tai chi, ba gua, Taoist Yoga and Taoist Meditation. He has authored numerous works (including The Power of the Internal Martial Arts and Chi, Tao of Letting Go, Dragon and Tiger Medical Qigong, and Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body) on Taoist energetic practices and taught over 20,000 students many of whom have gone on to become active certified instructors. (1)
The Chi Revolution
Harness the Healing Power of Your Life Force
by Bruce Frantzis
(Thorsons, 2003, 292 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Bruce Frantzis has become pretty well known since I first saw articles he wrote for Tai Chi Magazine back in the 1980s. These days, he’s one of the more successful of the crop of American Tai Chi players who’ve risen to the top of their game during the past couple of decades. He’s also a fairly prolific writer on Tai Chi, chi kung, Bagua, and Hsing-I, with a double-handful of books to his credit, some of which are fairly hefty tomes.
In the dedication to The Chi Revolution: Harness the Healing Power of Your Life Force, Frantzis says, “This book is the culmination of all the knowledge of chi I have acquired in over forty years as a martial artist, chi master, Taoist priest and energetic healer.” Perhaps, though as we all know, words simply can’t say everything, and tai Chi and chi kung are pretty deep subjects. Nonetheless, Frantzis has produced in this book a fairly interesting survey that defines chi, both microcosmically and macrocosmically, encourages the reader to take up chi-building and -developing exercises, and gives practical examples to accomplish that.
I have to admit that I’m not a fan of self-help and self-realization books—the sort of book that combines a rather amorphous sense that we, too, are gods, with the idea that, despite our godhood, we need the author's help to give our lives meaning or to fulfill our destinies. It’s not that I don’t believe that we, as individuals, can’t do something to better ourselves. I do. Heck, I’ve been practicing Tai chi for forty years, so I must think we can do something to make ourselves more whole. It’s just that too many of these books are page after page of “positive thinking” that all too often seems more like wishful thinking.
The Chi Revolution dips a little too deeply into this territory for my taste, but Frantzis is a good enough writer that he can maintain an extended narrative such as this, and he drops enough solid information here and there to keep it real and interesting for the most part. Perhaps one of the more significant aspects is that he draws a direct link between discomforts, faults, and deficiencies that are physical and those that are mental, emotional, and spiritual. That’s not a new idea, but Frantzis provides practical ways to help integrate the body, mind, and spirit through specific chi-building and developing exercises. These exercises comprise roughly the second half of the book.
Even though the book contains some instructional material, I think it’s best defined as an extended meditation on chi arts and what they mean on a larger scale as well as for individuals. All-in-all, this book is for the beginner or intermediate student, and I can’t say I really learned anything from it. But it was a nice enough read, and sometimes it’s reinforcing to hear, once more, how things work and why we should try to make them work better.
This entry sounds like it was pulled from an advertising brochure, but suffice it to say that Frantzis knows whereof he speaks, and in this book, he speaks volumes about the internal martial arts of Ba Gua, Tai Chi, and Hsing-I. I’m reviewing here the revised edition (2007), which adds a lengthy section on the spiritual aspects of the internal martial arts to the original edition (1998). I first became aware of Bruce Frantzis in the 1980s through a spate of articles he wrote for Tai Chi Magazine. I’ve also reviewed two of his other books on this page: The Big Book of Tai Chi: Build Health Fast in Slow Motion and The Chi Revolution: Harness the Power of Your Life Force.
The Power of the Internal Martial Arts is impressive from the outset. While not being encyclopedic, it manages to cover the three arts in question in significant detail and depth, from their historical origins to their functionality to their strengths and weaknesses. Telegraphing the book’s weight, the “Contents” alone occupy eleven pages. In fact, this book is so packed with information that I’m going to have to gloss through the contents.
The book opens with more prefatory material than you can shake a stick at, including an author’s acknowledgements, a forward by Jess O’Brien, a preface by Lee Burkins, sections on the individuals and internal martial arts schools mentioned in the book, a prologue, sections on spiritual malaise, the characteristics of chi masters as teachers, and fa jin, and an author’s introduction.
Finally, it’s on to chapter one, titled “Animal, Human, and Spiritual: Three Approaches to Martial Arts.” Here, Frantzis discusses these three approaches, defines the “art” of internal martial arts, and advises the practitioner to train sensibly.
Chapter two—"A Continuum: The External and Internal Martial Arts of China”—defines the parameters of the internal martial arts. Subjects covered are the various types of martial arts and their traditions, the relative quality of the various martial arts, a definition of fighting applications, living and dead forms, and the focus of external martial arts, such as power and strength, speed, endurance, and reflexes. Then it turns to the focus of the internal martial arts—chi—and the reasons that Frantzis emphasizes Ba Gua in the book. Also touched on are Iron Shirt Chi Gung and weapons training.
The next chapter looks at the similarities and differences between Tai Chi, Hsing-I, and Ba Gua, which begins with a brief discussion of the five characteristics of internal martial arts. Developing martial power with chi is next on the agenda, focusing mainly on Frantzis’ 16-Part Nei Gung Internal Power System. Included is a useful section on what Frantzis calls the “dissolving process,” which is a method of releasing blockages of chi. This leads into a section on the stages of feeling the “I” (intention), “Hsin” (heart–mind), and chi and the way the three move. The principal differences and similarities of Tai Chi, Ba Gua, and Hsing-I are presented next, including footwork and the utilization of the waist and hands, studying the three arts for fighting, basic power training, and the importance of standing practice for the long-term development of internal power.
The chapter then covers to Ba Gua’s eight stages of practice for developing fighting skills. After delineating the parameters of each stage, Frantzis turns to internal fighting techniques, encompassing a large number of strikes, chin na, throws, kicking, fighting angles, sparring, and fa jin. The next section discusses the martial qualities of small-, medium-, and large-frame methods of movement of Tai Chi, Hsing-I, and Ba Gua.
Each of the next three chapters focuses in a similar fashion on one of the arts, beginning with Tai Chi. Matters discussed are Tai Chi as a martial art, the eight basic martial principles of Tai Chi, including their overt and covert manifestations. Frantzis then suggests four progressive stages for learning Tai Chi as a martial art and discusses long and short forms, left- and right-hand forms, push hands, sparring, and fighting. Chapter five does similar justice to Hsing-I, and includes a history of the art as well as the training practices, martial techniques, and tools of Hsing-I. Chapter six does the same for Ba Gua.
The nature of speed in all styles of martial arts is the subject of chapter seven. Here, Frantzis breaks speed into four types, which he discusses at some length: speed from point A to point B, speed at touch, speed under differing conditions, and speed in relation to power. Included are what the author calls the “fast/slow paradox of the internal martial arts, qualities in common among the three, and specialized strategies.
The health aspects of the martial arts comes next, beginning with the internal martial arts as energy-healing systems. Some of the subjects discussed are the difference between health and fitness, self-defense vs. health benefits, chi gung, repairing agitated chi, healing, aging, and mental health.
“The Tao of Spiritual Martial Arts: A Bridge to Taoist Meditation” is the title of the final chapter, and here Frantzis delves into what a spiritual martial art is and how daunting the spiritual journey can be, for it requires the practitioner to suffer physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual trials in order to heal the individual as well as advance him or her along the road to spiritual enlightenment. As Frantzis points out, this journey is not for the faint-hearted. Perhaps, but from what I can tell, it is a journey we all must take, whether we like it or not, in this lifetime or another.
Seven appendices and an index finish the book, and most of these are interesting in their own right. Subjects are the history of Tai Chi and characteristics of the various styles, the history of Ba Gua and its styles, charts of the energy anatomy of the human body, Frantzis’s formal lineages and training, Chinese terminology used in the book, and an excellent glossary. The final appendix is composed of vignettes of the subjects that Frantzis teaches, and frankly, this one seems a tad bit self-promotional, like several pages of non-obvious advertisements. Like the Wikipedia article on him.
Scattered throughout the pages are about a dozen profiles of various internal arts masters Frantzis studied with or otherwise encountered, including T. T. Liang, Wang Shu Jin, Cheng Man-ching, Morihei Ueshiba, Yang Shao Jung, and Frantzis’ principal teacher, Liu Hung Chieh.
Is this a perfect book on the internal martial arts? No, but can there be such a thing? Some of the information in this book can be found elsewhere, though rarely has this much been compiled under one cover. And despite the voluminous information in this book, there is very little practical instruction. It is an overview of these arts, not the nuts-and-bolts, though there is enough of the practical to lend depth to the discussions.
On the plus side, the overviews are valuable not just to the practitioners of each of these three arts, but to those who want to know more about the arts they do not practice. And given Frantzis’ background, the information is solid and reliable. In addition, he is a good writer, keeping the flow of the text going and illuminating it with illustrative metaphors and nice turns of phrasing.
On the negative side—at least from my personal point of view—Frantzis frequently addresses the raw beginner, but frankly, most of this book will not penetrate a beginner’s awareness. In fact, for the beginner, the book might make these arts seem too daunting to attempt. This is a criticism I’ve had of the two other books by Frantzis that I’ve read and reviewed. In addition, Frantzis’ self-promotion can wear a little thin at times.
But over all, The Power of the Internal Martial Arts and Chi is one of the best books on the internal martial arts out there. It’s a bit pricey, but you could buy any three cheaper Tai Chi books for the same amount and not get an equivalent value.
1 “Bruce Frantzis.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Frantzis
Chapter seven discusses Tai Chi for physical and emotional self-defense, but don’t expect photos of attacks and defense, though there are a handful. Instead, Frantzis explores the differences between the internal and external martial arts, the stages of learning Tai Chi as a martial art, practicing with weapons, and push hands. Tai Chi and spirituality are covered in the next chapter, and the material here frequently becomes more philosophical in content. Some of the topics are meditation, dissolving energy blockages, and connecting one’s essence to the Tao.
Choosing a Tai Chi style is covered in chapter nine, and while this might seem like beginner material, Frantzis uses the space to discuss the major Tai Chi styles and their differences, large frame versus short frame styles, long forms versus short forms, and the best style for a beginner based on the person’s individual needs and desires. It’s a very nice summation, and the information is useful for anyone wanting to know a little bit about styles other than their own.
Frantzis uses these ideas to segue into chapter ten, which discusses what a beginner can expect to learn, Tai Chi’s several levels of complexity, challenges to learning, and learning strategies. He continues in this same vein in chapter eleven, now targeting what intermediate and advanced students can expect to learn. This is all useful information for teachers as well as students. One facet of learning is integrating the Three Treasures: body, energy, and spirit. He also talks about how to transition from external to internal movements, coordinating movement with breath, circularity, five progressive stages of twisting and spiraling, chi development, fa jin, and how to practice for high-level performance. A subsection describing the Tai Chi Classics is included, but Frantzis does not replicate any of the Classics themselves.
Choosing a teacher is the subject of the final chapter. After this are three appendices: on the differences between Tai Chi and chi kung, on the Five Elements, and on the differences between Tai Chi and yoga.
I do have to mention one production flaw in this book. The type font used for the body text is a sanserif. For those who don’t know, a serif font has little ticks, called serifs, at the end of each line. Sanserif fonts don’t—“san” means “without.” This is an F in a serif font, and this is an F in a sanserif font. Serif fonts help the eye distinguish the various characters more readily than do fonts without serifs. Typographers generally agree that sanserif fonts do not work well for large amounts of body text in printed works. Serf fonts are much better for that, while sanserif fonts are generally relegated to miscellaneous copy: headlines, subheads, sidebars, and captions for photos and illustrations. Oddly, just the opposite is true of web pages, where, for some reason, sanserif fonts tend to work better than serif fonts for body text. Maybe it's because serifs in large amounts of body copy on a screen make text look "heavy." Unfortunately, the body copy in The Big Book of Tai Chi is set in a sanserf font that also is fairly light. Maybe the book designer thought that the light sanserif font was an elegant touch, but reading this lengthy book was a chore for my eyesight. Typography should aid in reading, not inhibit the process.
I’ve glossed over a great deal of what this book has to offer since Frantzis goes into some depth as well as breadth that is not easily or succinctly summarized. You’ll have to read the book to get all the details. But I will say that The Big Book of Tai Chi, though unusual in some respects, is basically a Category III book, a type that eschews form instruction and tries to get at the base ground of what Tai Chi is and how it works. It’s well written, informative, and covers some material not easily found elsewhere. It’s not a must, perhaps, but it would be a valuable addition to any Tai Chi library.