Hidden Gems: Talking Tai Chi with Kristofer Feeney

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by Siobhain Klawetter

Try to pick a tai chi master out of the crowd. Are you looking for an older Chinese man with a wispy beard and slippers? Okay, yes, you might be on to something... but not on Cape Cod, not on Nantucket. And from my experience, you only get to notice a tai chi master when he or she wants you to, no matter what his or her profile.

Luckily, most practitioners of tai chi ch’uan (literal translation: “Supreme Ultimate Fist” or basically “the best martial art”) love to train with others, and often in public spaces. On Nantucket, Kristofer Feeney holds class every Tuesday at 6pm at the Atheneum library—outside in the park, if weather permits. Children play and dangle from low cherry tree branches while he leads his students through their forms. Passersby pause to watch, forgetting the hustle and bustle of town for a few moments. The infectious peacefulness of the practitioners’ concentration roots the onlookers to the sidewalk as they take in more than their eyes account for.

When I asked Kris to explain tai chi to me, he narrowed his eyes in the most gentle way and paused, gathering his knowledge into words the way a warm summer sky gathers wisps of clouds together to make rain. “It’s the north pole and the south pole, together—one pole—but circular, not in a pole shape. That’s the Yin Yang symbol you see. Black, white, moving together, equal... opposites together, harmonious, balanced. It’s push and pull, hard and soft.” As he spoke, he drew his arms into a soft circle, held full, yet empty. “Tai chi is movement and stillness. Physical and mental. Relaxed, yet aware. People think tai chi is just about balance...” He chuckled, mimicking someone on a tightrope for a moment. “This is true, but in more ways than one. Not only are you training your body, you are training your mind. When you practice tai chi, you learn to find balance everywhere.”

Kris started his martial arts training with karate when still a child, and earned his black belt as a young teenager. When he was 21, he moved from Nantucket to Florida to study kung fu with Grand-master Chan Pui. When he sprained his ankle (playing a game of basketball!) and was unable to continue training for a period of time, Kris was lucky enough to be introduced to tai chi as a technique useful in rehabilitation. Witnessing first-hand the injuries that long-time kung fu students suffered and lived with, and, by contrast, how healthy and fit those who came regularly to tai chi class were, he says he never looked back. In fact, he has made it a point not to let a day go by without practicing.

Upon his return to Nantucket, Kris found that there were no tai chi classes available.  Undeterred, Kris continued his practice on his own, using books as a reference and absorbing as much as he could on the subject. Others interested in learning the tai chi form naturally gathered around him, establishing what would become a very dedicated group of Island tai chi students; many are still practicing today.

It was the late Master Jou Tsung Hwa at the legendary Tai Chi Farm in upstate New York who solidified the calling for Kris. “I saw in him the real thing. He was about 80 when I first visited, but he seemed younger than 40. He proved to me that this was something I wanted to do; this is what I wanted to do with my life.”

A large part of Kris’ training has taken place in China. Granted entry to the prestigious Beijing University, he was able to study tai chi in a formalized setting and earn a degree. “This was practical, normal—I was taking it as a course!” he expounded. “To study [tai chi] in a university environment, where you have tournaments like we have for gymnastics or other sports, you train 100 times harder than Americans do, and there was real competition! Americans don’t see tai chi as a competitive sport.” According to Kris, the positive side of that competitiveness was that he and his fellow students practiced for six to eight hours every day. Also he had to learn Mandarin Chinese or he would not have been able to pass the rigorous exams.

I wondered how our two cultures could view the same practice so differently. “In China, tai chi is very mainstream, not New Age, or cloaked in mystery, as a Westerner would see it. It’s part of their culture, their everyday life. Again, it’s just practical: opposites in balance. Our [Western] culture is not used to thinking this way.”

Although the art of tai chi still seems a bit mysterious to me, I can’t think of a single thing more practical than having one’s body—and mind—in balance.

Kris has practiced tai chi daily for the last 19 years, and currently lives on Nantucket with his wife, daughter, and son. Due to his penchant for seeking out grand-masters in the mountains of China, catch him while you can at the Nantucket Atheneum, Tuesdays at 6pm. Class is suitable for teens and older, and students practice solo forms, empty hands, and weapons, as well as partner work such as push hands, choreographed sets, and applications. The library’s calendar is the best place for class updates: www.nantucketatheneum.org

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