10 Questions with David-Dorian Ross
The Combative Corner is pleased to present to you a man that shouldn’t need any introduction. If you’re a martial artist, you’ve certainly seen his dvd (likely alongside the yoga videos of Rodney Yee). Truth be told, he’s been spreading the joy of tai chi for many years and nowadays, thanks to the many social media platforms, his wisdom, positive energy and wonderful tai chi can be seen and felt the world over.
For more information on Mr. Ross, please visit his website by clicking the image above. For the answers to the much-anticipated questions, please continue to read. Enjoy!
How did you initially get interested in Taijiquan?
I got into Taijiquan by accident. I was initially looking for a way to learn how to meditate, and I really sucked at traditional sitting techniques. After failing miserably at zazen and some other even more “beginner” methods, I heard about “moving meditation” and decided to give it a try. I have to confess that the idea of Taijiquan really appealed to my whole Kwai Chang Kane/Bruce Lee/Kung fu fantasy (yes I grew up in the 60’s & 70’s). I was completely unprepared for the experience. I took a class from Sifu Kuo Lien Ying, the man who brought Guang Ping taiji to the US. In my first class, I had a sudden spontaneous opening of all my meridians. It lasted probably all of 60 seconds, but it was enough to completely change my life from that moment on. The rest is history, as they say…
As a long-time teacher & promoter of Taiji, what are some of the changes you’ve seen?
The main thing, I think, is how much T’ai Chi has grown in popularity and availability. When I first started teaching T’ai Chi, it was definitely a little-known and niche exercise. I used to compete in Karate tournaments all across the country, and so over and over people would come up and ask me what I was demonstrating – because although they had heard of T’ai Chi, they had never seen it. Now it has found its way into the mainstream so much so that Jack Black raves about it on late night, and Keanu Reeves is making a movie about it. There are a lot more teachers here in the US – more Americans have access to it. And I think that’s amazing.
In playing Tai Chi for the first time, what’s most important for the student to understand?
This changes every time I teach a class. Everything is the most important thing – because T’ai Chi itself changes every time you look at it from a different angle. Years ago, I had a yoga teacher who would always introduce a position by saying, “This is the most important asana you’ll ever learn.” Then the very next position he would again say, “Now THIS is the most important asana you’ll ever learn.” Teaching taijiquan is kinda like that for me. But if I had to pick just one thing, I think it would be this: don’t take yourself too seriously. Have fun. Enjoy T’ai Chi- play it, don’t work it to death. Taijiquan is a technology for finding, restoring and maintaining balance, harmony, bliss and authenticity. Being overly serious and significant leads away from those things, not towards them. Every time I meet a taiji teacher or practitioner who has to exert how much better they are at taiji, or find fault with the way another student is doing it – I feel sad that they’ve forgotten this most important point. Lighten up, people!
Out of all the locations that you’ve performed Taijiquan, name 3 of your top spots and why (this might be a thinker!)
Top three? Hmmmm…. in reverse order: #3 is up in the mountains in Oregon, in the middle of a blizzard. I was so bundled up in snow gear that I could hardly move, and the snow was coming down so thick that I couldn’t see past my hand. But the white-out experience was so surreal that it felt like I was doing taiji in some other dimension. Far out, Man! #2 was in the Beijing Sports Arena when I competed in the 1st World Wushu Championships in 1991. A stadium filled with spectators from all over China and a panel of Taiji master judges. Wow! It was a once in a lifetime experience. (drum roll please) #1 was at Esalen, taking a T’ai Chi class from Al Huang. He is such a lighthearted spirit. We were on the pool deck, overlooking the vast Pacific Ocean, and at one point he stops and says, “You know, I have done T’ai Chi with all the luminaries (of the Human Potential movement) on this deck. Alan Watts, Joseph Campbell, Abraham Maslow – they all did taiji with me here. ” I felt like was swimming in the river of history.
Besides another martial artist, name of your biggest influences
I’d have to say that aside from my father – who introduced me to the Human Potential movement back in the early 70’s – my biggest influence is probably Joseph Campbell. Campbell, the author of The Hero’s Journey and the person who popularized the phrase “follow your bliss,” helped me understand the real power behind the study of taijiquan. We are all on a journey of life – to find our way to the Soul, or “authentic inner self.” But where do you find the map and compass for that journey? What are the rules for successfully managing the voyage? And how do you prepare for the dangers or recover from the disasters of the trip? T’ai Chi is the perfect training for our Hero’s Journey. T’ai Chi is a classic example of what Campbell would call a ritual – a formalized set of actions that immerse us in the “myth” we are living, and bring us closer to our Soul.
What is the largest obstacle for you in terms of being a successful taijiquan teacher (or promoter, if different)?
Believe it or not, the largest obstacle turns out to be the taiji community itself. Like almost any group devoted to their art, or their philosophy or their leaders – taiji people have a tendency to be iconoclastic. You know the old joke: how many taiji teachers does it take to change a light bulb? Ten – one to change the bulb, and nine to stand around a say, “Well, you COULD do it that way, but in OUR school we do it this way…” I read a lot of blog posts and FB conversations, and while I love intellectual discourse and a healthy debate, I think it is self-defeating how much wrong-making I see. Come on, people – lighten up! At the end of the day, the main effect our internal bickering has is to drive people away from getting into taiji as beginners. I think if I were a beginner these days and I started reading the FB discussion groups, I’d be thinking – “OK these guys are whacked! I’d rather do Zumba – much less violence!”
Who is your favorite martial artist (living or dead) and why?
Bruce Lee, without a doubt! Why? Because he was a total hipster. He was like the quintessential hipster. What passes for hipster-ism today – why Bruce had more soul in his one-inch punch than modern hipsters have in their whole collective body. Bruce didn’t try to be hip – he was just authentic, and that is hippest thing a cat can do.
What are some of your tips on starting & invigorating a Tai Chi Community?
I have main pieces of advice I give to teachers trying to jump-start their community. First, continually organize extra-curricular activities. Arrange trips, flash mobs, or field trips to other martial arts schools. Put on a movie night, and let the students bring their kids. The second tip I have is to bring in guest speakers and teachers on a regular basis. I know a lot of “traditional” teachers who have a cow about exposing their students to some other teacher or school. I say, “Oh shut up.” We should be focused on the experiences that delight and benefit the students, not somehow put our own selves on a pedestal. Your students will appreciate the education, respect you more for it – and typically become even more loyal than before.
What’s a funny Tai Chi experience that you’ve had? (You’ve probably had one or two from people who haven’t seen tai chi before)
I could be influenced here by my 4-year old daughter, who thinks that farting is the funniest thing EVER… but in fact one of my funniest taiji stories has to do with gas. One Sunday morning many years ago, I went up to the campus of my old university to play some taiji. An older Chinese gentleman wandered by and stopped to watch. He said, “I really like your taiji! Can I practice with you?” I said of course and he said, “Do you know the 48?” I said yes, and so we stood side by side and started the routine together. Somewhere around the 4th movement, I heard a pretty loud… musical note? I couldn’t help it- I glanced over at him. He was just blissfully looking straight ahead, continuing with his motion as though nothing had just happened. I went back to focusing on my own moves. and then it happened again. For the next nine or ten minutes, my companion provided a real symphony of sounds to go along with our T’ai Chi. He never changed expression or missed a beat. When we were done, he simply smiled a big smile and said thanks for the T’ai Chi – and walked off into the trees…
What’s one or two of your personal goals within the next 5 years (this can be anything!)
Well, I just turned 55 and I’m ready to settle into the next phase of my career and body of work. I’m turning my attention to doing a lot more writing. I just published my first book on the iTunes library, using the new technology to create multi-media experiences as both learning tools and entertainment. You can expect to see me publishing at least ten new books in the next five years. I’ve also started writing a regular advice blog on my website daviddorianross.com, using my t’ai chi/life coaching blend called Invincible Living. That’s been really exciting, and I look forward to doing a lot more with that. With regards to my T’ai Chi, I would like to contribute to making taiji more hip. I’d like to firmly implant taijiquan and taijicao into American culture, in a niche called “if you want to be hip, you’ve got to be doing T’ai Chi!” LOL – just part of my philosophy that taiji is supposed to be fun. It’s meant to be played, not worked.