By: Bob Klein
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.