A Conversation With Sifu Beth Leatherman At Her Kung Fu School Opening
1. Passing down the knowledge of Moy Yee Kung Fu, what makes your branch different? (Environment, class curriculum, students average age group)
My school, unlike the other Moy Yee Kung Fu branches, is primarily a T’ai Chi and Qi Gong school that is centered around the traditional health practices of kung fu. My current students’ average age falls between 60-75 years, and they generally come to T’ai Chi because they are looking for a gentle, meditative exercise that also builds balance, strength, and health. Many have some physical limitations which we have to work with or adapt the movements to. Although we have an indoor training space located in my acupuncture office, many of our classes are still being held outside at a local park, where it is safer to train due to the Covid pandemic.
I currently offer T’ai Chi and Qi Gong classes. The T’ai Chi classes consist of beginning and intermediate Yang style T’ai Chi along with their associated warm-ups, stretching, silk-reeling sets, and short forms (including 16, 24, 37, and 42 – posture forms). I teach standing meditation as well as walking exercises in these classes. I’ve recently added a medical Qi Gong class in which I teach a variety of health related exercises. We practice 18-posture Qigong form, Ba Duan Jin, standing meditation, and a 5-element Qigong set which targets the health of the internal organs.
2. What made you pursue your path of martial arts? What was your personal experience from practicing Tai Chi and Qi Gong?
Wow, I could (and did!) write a whole essay on this topic. T’ai Chi has been THE biggest influence on my life since I started practicing it nearly 18 years ago. I came to Moy Yee Kung Fu in 2005, very much a broken and unhealthy young woman. I had suffered from chronic pain in my hands, arms, back, and neck for over two years, and was at my wits end with trying to deal with this pain. I had spent two years in physical and occupational therapy, along with countless hours of yoga and other exercise to try to rehab my body. By chance, I found Sifu Henry Moy, and it changed my life completely. From the first class I took at MYKF, I started feeling better. I could tell this was the modality that would heal me…. And it did. I felt better, and more alive, than I ever had in my life before. One year later, I enrolled in acupuncture school because it was obvious to me that the traditional Chinese methods of healing were very real, and that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) had a LOT to offer that Western medicine could not. Acupuncture and TCM have much in common with T’ai Chi, in that both work to move the Qi (or vital life energy), open the meridians or energy pathways in the body, and balance yin and yang in the body.
3. How do you interpret Qi and how is it applied to the practice at your clinic? (Qi gong for healing diseases and organs)
“Qi” is actually a technical term that describes the vital energy or life force that exists in ALL life. The Chinese character for qi is a picture of a bowl of rice with steam coming off of it. This implies that qi is not only energy but also the potential for energy. There is qi in our bodies (without qi our body would be a corpse); there is qi in every living plant and animal; and there is qi in the air we breathe and food we eat. The word “Qi Gong” simply means “vital-energy work,” and is a broad term used to describe many different “Yang Sheng,” or “Life-Nourishing,” exercises from the Chinese martial arts tradition.
One of the misconceptions I see a lot is that people think the “Chi” in T’ai Chi, and the “Qi” in Qi Gong are the same thing. They are not. “Qi” of Qi Gong refers to the vital life-force I just discussed. T’ai Chi, (or “Tai Ji,” which is the correct Pinyin spelling), means “Supreme Ultimate,” and refers to the Chinese philosophy of the interaction and exchange of yin and yang.
Qi, as I mentioned earlier, exists in all of life. It is what acupuncturists work with when they insert a needle into the body. Qi Gong exercises (as well as T’ai Chi, Ving Tsun, and many of the martial arts) seek to regulate, harness, and utilize this “vital force” to its maximum potential – whether through cultivating health in one’s internal organs, or transmitting it in a forceful way in a fighting situation.
When we practice Qi Gong in class, we focus on harmonizing three aspects: breath, movement, and intention. We spend time doing specific Qi Gong exercises and meditations that clear out unwelcome thoughts, tensions, and disharmonies from our bodies. We practice a five element Qi Gong set which focuses on exercises to strengthen the internal organs. We spend quite a bit of time focusing on yin and yang, and how to harmonize them with our breathing, movements, and intention.
4. Between healing, teaching, and family, you seem to have a very busy schedule. How do you keep up with your own training?
I do have a very busy life. I own and run an acupuncture practice that has numerous employees, and I personally treat around 50 patients per week. I also have two young daughters ages 8 and 10 who occupy me when I am not teaching or working. Sometimes it feels like I will go crazy because I have so many things on my plate…. Yet I manage to do it all BECAUSE of my daily training habits. I know, for instance, that if I don’t do my 20 minute morning routine of Zhan Zhuang (the standing meditation that I learned from Sifu at MYKF), I will not have the calm focus I need later in the day to manage so many tasks simultaneously. I also know that if I do not train my forms and qi as part of my daily life, that my body could quickly succumb to arthritis and other ailments that I just don’t want to ever experience again. This is what the “Kung Fu Life” is – it’s a life where kung fu is the driving and sustaining force in your life. It enables a person to live to their full potential, and to have the inner strength and calm to be productive and happy. The reason I make the time for training every day is that I need it! It enables me to lead the busy life that I lead.
5. What are your short term goals for teaching Tai Chi and Chi Gong? Long term?
My goals in teaching T’ai Chi and Qi Gong are, in the short-term, to help my patients who are suffering from pain and other ailments to suffer less and to overcome their physical illnesses, through their own actions of practicing T’ai Chi and Qi Gong. Also, I have to say that by teaching, I am also training my kung fu and staying healthy in the process.
In the long-term, I would like my school to attract not only the elderly population but also a younger demographic. I want to make T’ai Chi more accessible to the general public, and to raise awareness of the wonderful health benefits that go along with this practice. It is important to me to transmit the traditional ways of learning kung fu. So often, I see Western misappropriations of Eastern ideas…. it is a goal of mine not to repeat this mistake but rather to stay loyal to the teachings of Moy Yee Kung Fu and to transmitting the true and rich nature of the Chinese martial art traditions."