I met David Walls-Kaufman around 1997 at Wu Shen Tao “push hands night” which used to be on a Monday night at the Georgia Ave location hosted by Paul Ramos. When we met, it was via push hands and I immediately knew David had the real push hands skill when he would effortlessly send my flying backwards off my feet. I found out he was a student/disciple of Ben Lo, the same instructor my teachers Larry Mann, John Crouse, and Wilson Pitts all had mentioned to do seminars with. I had done some of the Ben Lo seminars hosted by Larry Mann’s Tidewater Tai Chi Association in early 1990’s, but never got to push with Ben since he would be swarmed by students who wanted to get a feel for his skill level. David and I became good friends seeing each other at several push hands gatherings and later finding out he was a Chiropractor. David had his own free class in Lincoln park DC, in which I took advantage of his Saturday morning Tai Chi class and some of his Chiropractic help at his clinic afterwards.
Q: When did you start in Tai Chi and tell us about the journey that got you to the level you are at?
A: As a kid of seventeen, I started with Bob Smith in the parking lot at Bethesda YMCA. I’ll never forget how Smith quoted Cheng Man-ch’ing remarking on how Cheng’s teacher, Yang Cheng-fu practiced: “All he ever did was sit on a stool or stand holding Play Guitar or Single Whip. It was the only practice we ever saw him do.”
So, I listened and remembered: Tai chi springs out of the simplest things. The disadvantage is that it can be excruciatingly tedious and boring. The advantage is that you can do it anywhere, any time—and there is no excuse except your own lack of discipline and tenacity.
Q: You do a lot of standing and holding/molding postures and it obviously has paid off, can you tell us about standing meditation and why it is beneficial to Tai Chi training?
A: As a chiropractor, I’ve noticed that the Holistic Lifestyle is the cure-all for all human disease and all human problems. The Holistic Lifestyle is four things: nutrients and water, exercise mental and physical, and chiropractic to clear out the nervous system of stresses that first root there and then cause a cascade of dysfunction down into the body that manifests as cancer, diabetes, arthritis, allergies and all the rest.
You can identify an element of the Holistic Lifestyle by the way that it has no point of diminishing returns—it is always good for you at any dose. No “top end” for chiropractic has been discovered yet—it keeps on making you healthier and healthier the more you do it. Tai chi is the same way, in the category of mental and physical exercise. And vegetarianism seems to be the nutrients/water component in that category.
No other forms of exercise besides Chinese internal boxing are good for us no matter the dose. . . . Why is this? It is because they are meditation-based. In fact, they are what they are precisely because they are meditations with a little exercise thrown on top.
Holding postures is the essential meditation of the practice that makes it good for us at any dose. The more you do, the better your body, mind, spirit become. And your martial prowess.
Q: What got you into Chiropractic and how come you didn’t take the Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) road?
A: My mentor Dale Ward got me into both Tai Chi and chiropractic. Chiropractic deserves that I focus on it alone. I’m in a hurry to tell everyone in the world that chiropractic, on average, among cancer patients, raises their immune strength 400%.
I wonder what world cancer cure rates would look like if I could get every person in the world to know that statistic and utilize chiropractic as a regular piece of their Holistic Lifestyle?
Q: How many push hands events have you done and what is your record?
A: I did a lot when I first started back into Tai Chi after a 10-year hiatus begun in chiropractic school due to academic pressures. I got a lot of first places and second places.
But I quit tournaments for awhile because I saw from my teacher, Ben Lo, that your internal power has to be stronger than your opponent’s external (muscular) strength. Otherwise, if the two of you are relatively equal, it’s wrestling. I could tell I was years away from my chi being strong enough to use as a martial art.
Now, I’m closer. So, I compete again. Some think I do okay.
Q: what do you say to those ‘Tai Chi experts’ that never try to compete and put down push hands competitions?
A: Push hands competition (and real fights) are the true test. If your chi isn’t very strong, then you bring to the beat down whatever you can to survive or win. A person with flimsy chi is a fool if they try to use Tai Chi in a fight. Tai Chi is not collapsing; it demonstrates a unique fullness. Chi takes decades to develop, not years. Genuine masters are middle-aged by the time their chi is strong enough to withstand and overcome a fast, competent fighter or athlete.
If the universe is a Meritocracy (and it is), and if Tai Chi is the coolest thing in the world (which it is), then it is only fair that the coolest thing on the planet takes the longest, hardest commitment to achieve.
Competitions are good for whoever chooses to participate. I’m really not sure how much good they do us for cultivating chi through Tai Chi’s particular and unique meditation. I found that when I did competitions and confronted the helter-skelter flinging and grappling, I was a lot calmer in regular push hands practice. . . . That’s good.
As my teacher, Ben Lo, says, “If you want your push hands to get good—kick the door shut and practice on your own!”
Q: Can you tell us about your experience at the Cheng Man-ch’ing event in France?
A: Wonderful event. I couldn’t recommend them more highly. Top Cheng Man-ch’ing people all over the place. Terrific camaraderie I’m so grateful to the hosts, William C. Nelson, and his hundreds of students. They are well-officiated and well-run. I only hope they keep having them, which may or may not happen considering the costs and logistics. The one for England next year just got postponed until 2014 because the government isn’t granting permits for events that will compete with their London Olympics.
Q: Chiropractic and Tai Chi seem to have opposing ideas about spine’s “xing” or shape. Chiropractic is to get healthy nerve opening curves back into the spine, while qigong and Tai Chi teach to elongate and straighten the spine. How do you find a balance between these ideas and methods? Similarities and differences?
A: That is a wonderful question! Yes, they do! We can’t argue with the Harrison Model of the Spine—it’s analysis of the three, wavy, front-to-back curvatures to absorb shock evenly and prevent spinal decay is irrefutable. A ram-rod “straight” spine gets beaten to death, and gives rise to disc bulges, in proportion to how straight it is. It also promotes forward head posture (FHP), which is also death—straight out of the medical literature.
However, working with the lower back to drop out the curve temporarily during Tai Chi practice seems important, and can be practiced without any deleterious effects.
This is the only place where I feel confident to mix modern medical knowledge into the Tai Chi classics, with the modern insight winning out over the classical!
Perhaps the exceptional health benefits of the Tai Chi master are important enough that they can overcome the degenerative absolutes of compromised spinal dynamics and gravity? But how many of us will achieve that level? So, for all the rest of us—we better cover our bets by investing in proper posture.
Besides, I think Tai Chi is powerful enough to overcome any such cautionary compromise. I just don’t see how this caution could prevent you from mastery. After all, I practice this caution—and you seem to like what poor level I’ve got!
Q: You did some of the Sunday boxing classes at our MMA gym a few times. What did you like or not like about it?
A: I loved it all. I intend to come back. I intend to get into MMA and Jiu Jitsu and all the rest—a little later on when I feel my chi is even stronger. I’m not at the level I want to be in Tai Chi. I’m comparing myself at my 23 years to my teacher’s level when I first met him when he had 25 years of practice. He could relax and consolidate his chi in his Tan T’ien into a mind-bending unbreakable basketball-sized mass that whispered to you, “This is a Force of Nature! Do not mess with this! This guy can kill you as soon as look at you! Better show proper Confucian respect, piss-ant!”
It was quite a monologue. Anyway, I’ve been practicing my ass off, and unless something drastic happens in the next two years, I think I’m far below the mark. Either he practiced far harder than he let on to me, or I’ve had far more sex than he had and it is true (which I’ve always doubted) that sex leeches away your jing and subtracts from the stuff chi is built upon—or something else is terribly amiss.
I ain’t no sissy in my Tai Chi practice, but I’m far, far below Ben Lo’s level. Until the last 2 years, I thought, by the amount I practiced, I would be on track to match his year 25 level. Now, I shake my head.
However, Ben’s classmate, the famed Huang Xing-xien of Malaysia, advised that internal manifestation is—“Different for everybody.” Ben has said the same thing.
But this is such a clear objectification of spiritual power and reality that I couldn’t help let my ego hang my hat on it. (And I don’t think ego is the problem, either.)
Q: Larry Merchant the famous HBO boxing commentator is your uncle. He is known to make some controversial statements at times. Did you get to learn any boxing from him or his buddies? Any good stories about Larry?
A: Hah! I’m sure controversial is a part of staying on top. I remember when the Redskins under Joe Gibbs went to the Superbowl for the first time and Uncle Larry, like the rest of Vegas, didn’t give the Skins a chance. That was the only time I tried to give him some sports related insight. Very level-headed, not like a boastful fan howling about his team, I said, “Don’t be surprised if the Redskins do something.” Uncle Larry blew me off—and John Riggins bulldozing into the end zone on fourth and a yard is now a shining emblem of Superbowl lore.
It’s crazy having this internationally famous uncle on TV. I’ve never gotten used to it. He’s a lot closer to my sister, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dance and theatre reviewer for the Washington Post that I obviously like to brag about. (Somebody told me I should add her to my résumé, and I think I will!) Several years ago, she was feeling stale about what was on her docket, and she called up Uncle Larry for advice and he told her that, when he was a sportswriter, he would dream up a plum assignment for himself and pitch it to his editor. My sister had lived in France and wanted to see it again, and so she pitched the idea to her editor that she would take a behind the scenes angle on the Tour de France, like the awards beauties and the team domestiques. She got out of it one of her best-received series that helped lay the foundation for the Pulitzer.
I never learned any boxing per se from Uncle Larry because I didn’t see him much as a kid. But he and my dad in their Bronx and Brooklyn neighborhoods were tough, and stellar athletes. They boxed in the Police Athletic League (PAL) and were close friends and teammates with Sandy Kofax, who was the Michael Jordan of his day. Uncle Larry, and then my dad, were captains of the Lafayette High School football team, which was New York City champions three years running in the early ‘50s. We’ve got the photo of my dad accepting the city trophy from Mrs. Babe Ruth. He looks like a gorilla in a suit. No neck. His shirt-collar is under his ears. 5’3” team captain, playing offensive guard. All with push-ups—no ‘roids, no weights. Amazing! I learned some boxing from my dad, and I fondly remember going with him to the theatre to see a documentary on all the great fighters of the early century, many that he’d seen fight. I put what my dad told me to use, doing roadwork and shadow boxing to and from my buddy Pete Mondale’s house, who also wanted to box. One day on the back porch his bully older brother discovered us with the gloves on. He yanked the gloves off Pete and came after me with this morbid troll-like glint in his eye. He was so much bigger than me that I truly feared for my future. But all that roadwork and imitating Muhammad Ali paid off. I put that sucker down—much to all of our amazement! Sometime, with more time, we can go more into Uncle Larry. Through him, I’ve met Bert Sugar, Larry Holmes, Pauley Walnuts.
Q: Can you tell us about training with Ben Lo. You mentioned you saw him a month or so ago and he just keeps getting stronger. Discuss some of his training methods.
A: What seems to be unique to the Yang lineage is its work ethic. This ain’t no hippy-assed love-in and smoke dope until you see God. Stand on one leg, you dumb SOB, until the unique streaming starts, and builds and builds over time, until it captivates you, and every moment is a delight that makes you younger and stronger and more vital, and you see that All Things are concentrically engaged, and that chi is an aspect of consciousness, and consciousness is the root of All Things, and the Holistic Lifestyle is the cure-all for all our maladies except accident—and God made this world the coolest damn playground conceivable, and that the solution to all of our problems doesn’t require one drop of harm or theft or objectification against any of our brothers or sisters.
It is a wonder. It is worth the work.
Q: Tai Chi and sport fighting. Many Tai chi guys won’t fight in the ring. The ones that do, just don’t get respect from the other “Tai Chi experts” that it is “not Tai chi”. Can you give us some ideas what Tai Chi should be like in a fight? I remember you demonstrating not letting a guy have root to attack that seems very practical.
A: Yes. My level isn’t very good. I’m a decent intermediate student. Part of Tai Chi as a martial art is that you are so supported internally by the power of your chi (notice I didn’t say strength) that you have an unusual connection to the ground and an unusual structural integrity in your endoskeleton. Chi is your endoskeleton, supporting whatever you do. And what you are good at is thwarting your opponent from pivoting off of his points of leverage to throw a punch, throw a throw, throw a kick.
As in the case of fighting a man using a bullwhip against you—your most advantageous spot is to rush him and stay close so that he can’t wind up that bullwhip to slice you apart. Your root and structural integrity allow you to command the center ground better than they can, the denser substantiality of your core forces their flimsier core to give ground or bend, until you push/throw them or they fall, and you’re solid that you take the advantage and fall on top of them and spread them apart.
That’s a sloppy intermediate level. And it all comes down to—how much stronger is your internal to their external?
For decades, internal power is a fantasy. If it isn’t real enough to be advantageous for you, then you will get your ass kicked and you better have some other method up your sleeve to save you the day.
But internal power has no limit or age curve because it is consciousness-based. (Of course, everything is, but this particularly so in the most direct way!) When does your consciousness quit? When you die.
Q; Discuss any final thoughts on training, Tai Chi, Ben Lo, sport fighting, what your working on, etc.
A: Tai Chi is meditation with a little particular exercise thrown on top. That’s why it is good for you at any dose with no point of diminishing returns, and that’s why it does the peculiarly rewarding things it does to our brain. Meditation is essential for human life, so you might as well do it this way that brings health, insight and martial prowess, not just the first two.
As the physical aspects of chi become better understood, I don’t even think human beings will bother with sitting meditation any more in a few hundred years. . . . Why not grab three rewards instead of two for the same time and effort spent?
I love my teacher so much out of gratitude for what he has given me by demonstrating its value. At age seventeen, he changed (blew away!) my understanding of the human potential.
This stuff is here for any of us at all times. It is a truth about ourselves and our nature and our existence locked into every atom around us that is unlocked merely by holding your conscience and body still. It is both a tool and a tribute to all that we are and God and everything that exists. It shows us that this is a magical place, and we are magical too—every cotton pickin’ one of us. We need only do it. It is all reward with all of it whole and leaving nothing amiss.
Life is too wonderful to waste.
David pushing Matt- circa 2008