Shifu Shirley Chock, owner of the Aiping Tai Chi Center in Orange. Screenshot via Zoom.
“I do it in my small space, while you do it in your small space,” said Shifu Shirley Chock, as she floated to the back of her “Lunarfest at Home” Zoom window and assumed a stoic posture. “With your feet together, shoulders relaxed, and hands dropped down, let’s get started."
Chock, who owns the Aiping Tai Chi Center in Orange, is one of several virtual guests this year. The workshop was streamed live to the New Haven Museum’s Facebook page and to Zoom.
“Happy Year of the Ox,” Chock said as she welcomed visitors.
In the one-hour workshop, Chock demonstrated a new Tai Chi form developed in China called Ba Fa Wu Bu. She described it as “eight energies, five directions.”
Ba Fa Wu Bu, which is designed specifically for small spaces, developed a few years ago in China and is now creeping across the United States. “It is a wonderful little form that gives an introduction to basically the things that are the underlying elements of tai chi,” Chock explained, before she surrendered her voice and instructed with her body’s movements.
Instructing students through a screen is part of Chock’s pandemic practice. The Aiping Tai Chi Center was established in Connecticut in 1996 by Grandmaster Aiping Cheng, “the world’s most renowned Chinese martial artist,” according to Chock. In 2017, Cheng handed the center to Chock. Her practice relied heavily on in-person teaching through March of last year.
Well before the pandemic upended her practice, Chock’s relationship to tai chi was serendipitous. She came to the discipline after tearing her ACL. At the time, she intended to return to mixed martial arts after her injury healed. Then, she started to learn that the practice was more than it appeared to the unknowing eye. When Cheng announced she was selling the practice, Chock left a career in finance to keep Aiping Tai Chi in the family.
“When I got into [tai chi,] I realized I didn’t know anything about it,” she said. “Internal power and internal martial arts is so much more involved, and much more difficult, and so much more rewarding. I kept going deeper and deeper into it. That was 20 years ago.”
She did not anticipate a global pandemic coming three years into her tenure. As shutdowns rippled across the state, Chock made the virtual pivot. She said that going online “has been so rewarding:” people tune in from across the state, but also the country and the globe. Many are tai chi novices.
“Every stream, I have people coming in who say they have never done this before,” she said.
Throughout Saturday’s workshop, Chock encouraged students to focus inward and access their internal energy. “The power in tai chi is not in the body’s muscles movements. We’re just trying to go to that pure energy without dissipating that energy,” she said.
As she rolled back, pressed to the side, pushed forward, and plucked down, and as her Zoom students rolled back, pressed to the side, pushed forward, and plucked down with her, Chock explained that the practice is about maintaining “movement in stillness.” She reminded students that tai chi is as much a mental exercise as it is a physical one.
“Tai chi helps to release stress,” she said. “If you want to be good at tai chi, you have to learn how to relax.”
Tai chi also teaches people how to avoid stress altogether. Chock said that she often sees students who first come to Aiping for physical fitness, and then stay because it helps them still their minds and “improves their mental health,” she said.
“When you have the practice, the physical practice, where this movement does not actually work if you are holding tension in your body, the only way you can learn this practice is teaching your body how to relax,” Chock said. “Your body then has a new baseline where it remains for the whole day.”
To check out more Lunarfest at Home events, click here.