As Buddhist meditation masters pay homage to a long line of instructors back to the Buddha, Woodstock teachers of tai chi chuan trace their lineage through Lou Kleinsmith, Chinese master Cheng Man-ch’ing (“Professor”), and Yang Ch’eng-fu on the way to Daruma, the sixth-century Indian Buddhist who is said to have brought tai chi to China. Two of Kleinsmith’s students, Phil Todaro and Lenny Busciglio, are passing on the wisdom of harmonious movement with a new series of beginner classes at a studio on Wittenberg Road, between Bearsville and Mount Tremper.
The flowing movements of tai chi look as poetic as their names. “Many of the moves are based on observation of animals,” noted Todaro, listing the terms for such sequences as White Crane Spreads Its Wings, Embrace the Tiger / Return to the Mountain, and Golden Pheasant Stands on One Leg. Todaro began studying Yang form tai chi with Kleinsmith in 1976 and continued to practice after his teacher’s death in 1980. For ten years, Todaro taught tai chi in the evenings at Phoenicia Elementary School, first as assistant to another Kleinsmith student, Renee Houtrides, who later turned the teaching over to Todaro. Another classmate, Peter Fein, is an instructor at Mountainview Studio in Woodstock.
“Lou used to say, ‘Gravity is your ally,’” said Busciglio, better known as Lenny Bee, purveyor of homemade organic wine, smoked fish, and honey. “If you fight gravity,” he explained, “your shoulders go up and get squared. You can’t move naturally.” The tai chi studio is on Busciglio’s property, in a former sawmill once owned by the Shultis family.
Tai chi is a slow, gentle movement meditation with self-healing potential. At higher levels, it also has martial arts applications through the practice known as Push Hands. All tai chi movements are designed to move “chi,” or vital energy, around the body. It’s said that the organs, usually stacked one on top of the other, move apart slightly, enabling the chi to surround and nourish each organ. “It will also remove crystalline build-up in the joints,” said Todaro. “But the real teaching is spiritual. It teaches you to be in harmony with nature. It becomes part of your life. When I stir a pot of tomato sauce, I don’t just move my arm in a circle — I let my hips move my arm.”
A year after beginning to study, Busciglio found himself using tai chi principles for self-defense, even though he had not learned Push Hands techniques. Three men on motorcycles picked a fight with Busciglio and his friend. “They knocked down my friend, and then this guy hits me in the nose. He tries to grab a bottle and go after me. Without thinking, I spin around like a top, and he falls to the floor.” When he told Kleinsmith about the episode, his teacher replied, “You never believed soft could overpower hard. You don’t even know the whole form yet, and you got it.”
The Yang form is named after Yang Ch’ang Fu, who taught the sequences to Professor Cheng, Kleinsmith’s teacher, in return for Cheng’s services as a doctor. After healing Yang’s wife, Professor became the first person outside the Yang family to learn the form. He modified the movements of the 30-minute “long form,” cutting back repetitions and eliminating moves that “were not Taoist,” said Busciglio. “They were just put in to look pretty.” The remaining 37 moves can be done in seven to ten minutes, but they take months to learn properly, as the teacher corrects details of the student’s posture and the varying distribution of weight between the feet.
In fact, tai chi is a lifetime study, always subject to refinement. According to one story, when Professor left Taiwan for six months to teach abroad, his students practiced Push Hands so assiduously that they were convinced they would be able to “uproot” the master — disrupt his stable stance. When he returned, they were puzzled by their failure. “You have improved in six months,” said Professor, “but I too have improved.”
When the master began to teach in the U.S., Kleinsmith was among his first students and was later acknowledged as one of the heirs to his teachings. “Lou was an engineer and a designer,” said Todaro. “He could break down the mechanics of the movements and explain them. Sometimes he used the exact words Professor had used, and we use those words too.”
“We complement each other,” added the effusive Busciglio, gesturing toward the more reserved Todaro. “Things one of us forgets, the other remembers.”++
Phil Todaro and Lenny Busciglio teach weekly tai chi classes for beginners on Mondays at 5 p.m. at 395 Wittenberg Road, Woodstock. $2 per session. Classes are ongoing, and drop-ins are welcome. Wear loose, comfortable clothing. For more information, call 845-679-4514.