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By: Bob Klein

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Movements of Magic

The Spirit of T'ai-Chi-Ch'uan

by Bob Klein

(Newcastle Publishing Co., 1984, 158 pages)

Review by Christopher Dow

 

Bob Klein’s Movements of Magic was one of the earliest Category II books in English on Tai Chi. In many respects, it, along with only a handful of other books from the same time period, virtually defined Tai Chi literature of this sort for the English-speaking audience.

 

The purpose of Category II books is not to give basic historical background and delineate form, as is the case with Category I books. Nor does it deal specifically with technique, martial usage, or specific physical and energy dynamics of the art, as with Category III books. Obviously, Tai Chi is a syncretic art, so some elements of these types of books might be present in a Category II book, but the real purpose of such books is to relate more philosophical musings on the subject of Tai Chi, often from a personal perspective.

Klein was a student, most notably, of William C. C. Chen, who certified him to teach. He opened the Long Island School of Tai-chi-Chuan in 1975, and the school is still operational, making it one of the longest-running Tai Chi schools in the U.S.—more than forty years!

 

Klein’s purpose in Movements of Magic is not to talk about the movements, techniques, energy, or martial aspects of Tai Chi, per se, though he touches on all of these. Instead, he uses the space to discuss Tai Chi in relation to personal and cultural beliefs, self-awareness, and personal and spiritual development. He writes in the preface: “T’ai-chi-Ch’uan is not a belief system or dogma, but a series of techniques designed to tap into and channel the powers of nature, both within and around us…. T’ai-chi-Ch’uan reconnects the mind to the body, the consciousness to the subconscious and the individual to his environment.” Throughout the course of the subsequent six chapters, he attempts to do just that with his interpretation of the art.

 

In chapter one, titled “The Form (I),” Klein delves into how the Tai Chi form develops certain qualities in the practitioner, including smoothness of motion, looseness of the body, concentration, rooting, a sense of internal energy, elasticity, breath control, and connectedness. Each aspect is give its own explication, and in the section on rooting, he outlines an exercise designed to develop or increase one’s sense of this very important skill.

 

He also introduces the concept of Body Mind—as distinct from the mind in the head—that controls, or can be allowed or trained to control, the movements of the body. Considerable advancements have taken place in understanding what the Body Mind is since Klein wrote this book, but he was prescient in implying that it is, essentially, the tantien. We can now understand it as a major neural plexus located there called the Enteric Nervous System. In advocating for the Body Mind, Klein shows how the head mind is like a possessive ruler who refuses to share power, to the detriment of the organism. True power is power shared throughout a body system—particularly with the Body Mind—allowing the entire body system to function optimally.

 

Tied up in all this is the idea of letting go—letting go of preconceptions, of false protections, of self, of addiction to the mind. As this is accomplished, one begins to open to both the self and to the world in ways that benefit both.

 

Chapter two—“The Form (II)”—begins with ways to turn the attention of the Body Mind onto emotions and memory in an effort to reconnect the self to a more basic reality. Tied up in this is the use of the mind, which can be redirected from its self-centered ruminations to more worthy tasks, such as directing the internal energy that one becomes more aware of once the thinking mind relinquishes control to the Body Mind. This leads to a discussion of centering and, of course, the tantien and the importance of this structure in generating and mobilizing chi energy.

 

Interestingly, Klein advocates practicing the form in different ways, not just in its standard mode, to broaden the practitioner’s understanding. Slanting Form over-emphasizes the back-and-forth seesawing to train balance and counter balance. Old Man Form is done as if one were weak and sick. Snake Form emphasizes a slinky elasticity. Monkey Form emphasizes bending without losing balance. And Closed Eyes Form is done—well, you get the picture even if you can’t see it. There are a few more, and all work with one or two primary elements of Tai Chi to magnify and expand their influence over the practitioner’s body, mind, and emotions.

 

Chapter three is “Push Hands.” There are no photos of partners squaring off. Instead, Klein discusses the lessons of push hands, such a yielding, neutralization, and pushing, all of which open what he calls a “field of sensitivity” to one’s opponent. This leads the exponent into the realm of spontaneity. Rooting and the interplay of yin and yang come in, and then Klein presents a few push hands exercises that partners can practice to further refine their skills. Along the way, he also discusses “hiding” from the opponent, tension, and feigning vulnerability.

 

“Kung Fu” is the next chapter, and in it, Klein talks more about kung fu as self-development. He also presents a dozen kung fu exercises done mostly with partners that help develop fighting skills. After that, he discusses the mechanics of fighting, including several exercises to improve kicking skills. All of this, he says, is to develop instinctual fighting, which, after a time, turns into magical fighting.

 

Healing is the subject of chapter five. In it, Klein does not disparage Western medicine but shows that harmonizing one’s energy with that of others and one’s environment can produce the greatest healing effects. There is a lot of psychology in this chapter as well as how cultural and social factors can enhance or inhibit energy flow and health in addition to directing beliefs. Wrapped up in this discussion is the idea that personal helplessness and the need to constantly win are both losing strategies that hold a person back from a greater sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.

 

The psychological aspect might also seem to be the topic of the book’s final chapter, “The Evolution of the Human Mind,” but that’s not the case. Instead, the chapter talks about the role of the mind in spiritual alchemy and personal development and the effect that those have on one’s world view. Included is a discussion of the meaning of the “Five Elements” of Chinese philosophy and how they relate to mental and spiritual advancement.

 

This leads into a comparative discussion of Western and Eastern mysticism that takes in elements as diverse as the purpose and meaning of ritual, the Qabala, the Tarot, astrology, the astral body, and mythology, just to name a few. The goal here is to harmonize these various world views by identifying their very basic similarities.

 

In some ways, Movements of Magic is like a self-help book that uses Tai Chi as the mechanism for that help. In it, Klein covers a lot of ground, but he always seems grounded thanks to the down-to-earth language and the entertaining and illuminating anecdotes that advance the ideas he presents. This is a worthwhile read, even for more experienced practitioners, and its ideas remain valid for me, even after forty years.

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Heal Yourself and the World with Tai-chi

How to Make Your Life Powerful and Become a Healer

Bob Klein

(Long Island School of Tai-Chi and Pilates, 2021, 430 pages)

Review by Christopher Dow

Bob Klein is a longtime tai chi teacher and author living on Long Island, New York. He was part of the first flowering of tai chi in America and was an early contributor to original tai chi literature in English. His first book, Movements of Magic, is reviewed above. The following thumbnail bio is from his school’s website:

 

Bob Klein has been studying healing, meditation, Tai-chi and Kung-fu since the 1960’s. He received his Tai-chi-Chuan teaching certificate from Grandmaster William C. C. Chen in 1975. He also studied with healers from several nature-oriented cultures. His career began as a zoologist, studying animal behavior at Cornell University, the New York Zoological Society and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. He would travel to the jungles of Central America to study the wildlife. Mr. Klein was attracted to Tai-chi because it is based on the movements of animals. He is the author of four books on Tai-chi and healing and has produced over 60 instructional videos. Mr. Klein has been featured in such magazines as Inside Kung-fu, Tai-chi Magazine & Dao Magazine.

Klein’s bio does not delve into his career as a zoologist, but as the book under consideration shows, his association with animals became a prime motivator of his life and a serious adjunct to his study of tai chi, chi kung, and other traditional methods of healing. Klein has been places that revealed much to him, and he wants you to visit, too.

 

With most martial arts books, I can tell you what it’s about, but I can’t with this one. Most martial arts book have a “plot”: a preface, history and precepts of the martial art, and a teaching section. That’s a book about something. So is a book that discusses specific techniques, kinetics, or other aspect of a martial art. But not this one. This one isn’t really about anything. It’s more about everything. And while this is a tai chi book, you can’t read it to learn about tai chi, though you will definitely pick up some good information and pointers along the way. Instead, this book uses tai chi and Klein’s own chi kung system, Zookinesis, to extrapolate about healthy and fulfilling ways to approach and live life, and for him, tai chi is a large part of that. So I can’t really review Healing Yourself and the World with Tai-chi in the conventional sense, merely characterize it.

 

There is a touch of the memoir in these pages, but the book is not autobiographical—not unless you call it autobiophilosophical. Klein doesn’t lay out a narrative of his life, which might be pretty interesting on its own, but many of his life experiences appear in the book. For example, he often refers to different aspect of the several years he spent studying and collecting wild animals in Central America and of his animal-related experiences later in life. He uses these experiences—and many anecdotes and fine metaphors—to amplify or illustrate the ideas and concepts he brings to the fore.

 

Essentially, Klein writes books that aren’t about how to do tai chi, but rather are about what tai chi can do for you and what the art means in the context of a fuller life and a broader sense of reality. In taking this stance, Klein is planted firmly within the Taoist/shamanic tradition, and this book can be considered a distillation of the characteristics of that archetype. You can’t approach this book as if you’re going to read it, nor is it the sort of book you look in for information, though there is plenty of information at every turn to keep it solid. Instead, it is a series of extended, freeform meditations using tai chi principles that find focus in several areas. This is a book that has to be absorbed.

 

Is it a tai chi book? Yes. Is it a “self-help”—or rather, let’s call it “self-realization”—book? Yes. Is it a philosophical world view? Again, yes. But reader beware: This is not a book to take for a Sunday spin. It’s a cross-country journey.

 

Klein’s ideas and concepts unfold over the course of nine long chapters. That number reminds me of the tai chi concept of the nine-channel pearl, a metaphor used to indicate the passage of the chi, from foot to fingertips, through the nine major joints of the body: ankle, knee, hip, shoulder, elbow, wrist, and three joints of the phalanges. Each of these chapters is its own meditation as the reader is led, like the chi, to the conclusion of all nine. And what is that conclusion? I think what Klein is getting at on a basic level is to encourage readers to connect with their deeper, truer selves and to live a life that is replete with awareness and vitality. And he wants to give you some tools to help you do that.

 

Certainly the book, itself, is replete with awareness and vitality. I hadn’t read more than twenty pages before Klein’s onslaught of positive thinking and vibes began to invade my dark spaces and poke them awake. He covers so many ideas that the prose almost reads like stream-of-consciousness. Sometimes I couldn’t read more than a sentence or two without becoming so involved in the ideas that my thoughts constantly took off on some tangent or other. I don't usually talk back to books, but frankly, I didn’t read this book so much as have a dialogue with it on many subjects of intense interest to me. Despite my having said that this book isn’t one to take out for a Sunday spin, I suspect that you can open it at random, start reading, and find something interesting, important, provocative, or relevant.

 

Throughout the book, one of Klein’s major touchstones is Zookinesis, which is a chi kung system he developed after years of working professionally with animals. From what I gather, Zookinesis is a set of chi kung based on animal movements. In this, it is akin to many kung fu and chi kung styles based on the movements of animals, but there is a major difference. Zookinesis takes into account not just the physicality specific to a particular animal, but also that animal’s intrinsic behaviors and the ways its spirit manifests. Its emotions. You’ll actually learn something about animal behavior—particularly the behavior of snakes—by reading this book.

 

There are tai chi lessons here, but not in the conventional sense. There are no chapters on how to do this or that, and there might be a good reason. “Sometimes the principles of Tai-chi can be more challenging to a student than the exercises,” Klein writes, and so he concentrates on the principles, though not in a straightforward manner. Just as he drops in ideas gleaned from his interactions with animals, specific tai chi lessons are strewn along the way, with plenty of good tips and suggestions, all well explicated. Using his conversational writing style to advantage, Klein reminds us of a great many tai chi precepts—some macro, some micro, but all important to keep in mind—and he does this by subtly weaving the ideas into whole cloth. Push hands, for example, is the subject of a long section of the first chapter, and the text offers valuable advice on personal dynamics during push hands in a depths that I’ve never encountered before in a book.

 

Klein saves most of his more specific tai chi instruction for the final chapter, “Review of Internal Mechanics.” But this isn’t to say that this chapter is overtly instructional. Instead, it’s what might be termed “operational.” In other words, it is more about how tai chi creates, structurally and dynamically, opportunities for defeating an enemy rather than telling you how to do a specific form, movement, or application. Also appearing here and there are various exercises—mostly some form of chi kung—to help you open and energize your body, mind, and spirit. There is wisdom here, and even if you know some of this stuff already, it’s good to be reminded that life can be made better by understanding that tension and ego are the enemies—not just of tai chi, but of life. And throughout, Klein encourages the reader to adhere to that venerable tai chi phrase: Invest in loss.

 

Another tai chi precept—stand like a mountain, flow like a great river—can be used to describe Klein’s prose. As I said earlier, the writing here is almost stream-of-consciousness, and if he isn’t quite the William Faulkner of martial arts literature, his prose is densely written. Or rather, the writing isn’t dense in the sense of being complex so much it relates ideas and concepts that are weighty and densely layered. However, the words and phrases he uses to get those ideas and concepts across are easy to digest.

 

If Klein sometimes seems repetitive or meandering, it’s usually because he consistently addresses the same sets of issues from different angles. Occasionally, I thought he could have trimmed the text a bit to make it less repetitive in spots, but the truth is that we all keep returning to touchstones of our lives. A certain amount of repetition is fine, particularly since Klein keeps thing moving and comes back to concepts with insights lent by perspectives that otherwise might not be noticed using a single-angle approach. In almost every instance, the sum of the different approaches infuses the book with clues on how to live a holistic way of life that includes healing and all the other aspect that help make life worthwhile. And just when he seems to be circling around a subject, he suddenly spirals in on its core characteristics and lessons. Finally, regarding the writing, his authorial voice, while straightforward and encouraging, is salted with touches of friendly humor.

 

Do I believe everything Klein writes? No. After reading some of his statements, I often wished he was present so we could discuss some of the finer points. For example, he talks of achieving a high—and heightened—state of being, but I have to say that oftentimes such heights seem out of reach of all but the super-dedicated and fortunate few. So what about the rest of us whose aim isn't to become masters, but simply to enhance our lives? And I sometimes found myself thinking that he has this or that wrong, or skewed, at least, and often I wanted to say to him, “Yeah, but what about…?” I can be a cynical sort. But then he’s off onto something that totally resonates with my experiences in life and with tai chi. He’s generally right—or right enough—that my complaints usually just dissipated by the next sentence.

 

And like I said, I constantly found my mind sparked by what Klein was saying, and then wandering off into its own territory. I appreciate any book that makes me think, and the fact that this one did that demonstrates for me the viability of the ideas and concepts he expresses. And the truth is, often my quibbles are of a purely writerly nature. Klein, in the final analysis, has much to say, and he most often says it well, and I’m fully convinced that anyone who tries to get others to look more deeply into themselves and life—not just mere existence—is worth listening to.

 

Klein states that the book is intended for anyone, not just tai chi folks, who is seeking a fuller life. In the end, I’d have to call this book an extended pep talk and sales pitch—not for a product (unless you count tai chi and chi kung as products), but for a relaxed and open mind that isn’t set in self-destructive patterns. The real product is your own well-being. However, it seems to me that much of the tai chi-specific material in the book will go right over the heads of non-tai-chi folks, and even tai chi beginners. To my mind, the tai-chi-specific material will be more useful to intermediate, and even lower-level advanced students. Certainly books for those levels of students are rare enough.

 

I’m not endorsing Klein’s methods, just this book, which I think is a worthy addition to any martial arts library. In it, Klein gives sage and practical advice for the practice of tai chi and a formula for living more fully, both embedded in an unrelentingly positive message.

 

Did I learn from this book? Yes. And I was reminded of things I already knew but had stored away and temporarily forgotten. Not only was it good to be reminded, Klein’s prose, densely packed with ideas, concepts, and insights, is an excellent vehicle to convey them.

 

I think Bob Klein’s world is highly idealized, though the reality around us obviously is not. But what Klein is really saying is that in life, as in tai chi, we should strive for relaxed and spontaneous perfection and keep lofty goals in mind, in sight, in body, and in practice—not only for the sake of our own well-being and souls, but for the benefit of the world and others. Tai chi, he believes, can be a vehicle to help effect that sort of change, transforming a world of ego and aggression into one of peaceful coexistence, in which we all have the opportunity to forge ahead into a more personally and socially productive and rewarding way of life.

 

I like to think he’s right. We sure could use more of that peaceful coexistence in the world right now.

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