The physical-health benefits of Tai Chi are legion, but Toronto practitioners know the real transformation is all in the mind.
The headquarters of the Fung Loy Kok Institute of Taoism resides in a charmingly humble two-storey building on D’Arcy Street in Chinatown. On a recent Wednesday morning, 50 advanced Tai Chi practitioners spread out across the open lower level, arranged themselves into rows, and executed an unbroken string of 108 fluid movements. For long stretches of time, as the group gracefully swept their limbs up and down and in and out in perfect unison—not unlike a flock of flamingoes performing a line dance—the room fell completely silent. With each move attached to a highly memorable name such as “Retreat to Ride Tiger,” “Go Back to Ward Off Monkey,” or “Waves Hands Like Clouds,” it’s no wonder the group needed very little direction. Andrew Hung, who leads this particular class each week, did pipe in occasionally, one time reminding participants to keep their weight focused towards the ground. “Be steamrollers,” he said.
Tai Chi is arguably Toronto’s most visible spiritual practice, though those who have witnessed it, in Grange Park or along the crest of the Don Valley in Riverdale, might not know that the exercise originates from one of the world’s oldest religions: Taoism. There are, in fact, many different schools of Tai Chi, but the wildly successful one in Toronto was founded by Chinese Taoist monk Moy Lin-shin. Called “Master Moy” by his followers, Lin-shin arrived to Canada in 1970 and promptly began teaching Taoist Tai Chi to a few students in Grange Park. He lived a meagre existence—cleaning offices at night, loading trucks, even working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken—while his following grew. In 1977, he had saved enough money and donations to buy the institute’s building on Bathurst Street, where daily beginners’ classes are still held, and he eventually opened the D’Arcy Street building in 1995, three years before he died. Meanwhile, as students became teachers and drifted off to other cities and continents, the Fung Loy Kok Institute of Taoism swelled to 45,000 members, waving their hands like clouds in 27 countries.
When Lin-shin brought Tai Chi to the West, he turned what was formerly a monastic practice available to a select few into a socially minded community for anyone interested in improving their health. Although Taoism is the only religion referenced in the group’s name, Confucianism and Buddhism—China’s other two major faiths—influenced Lin-shin’s teachings, as well.
Ultimately, the practice of Tai Chi is meant to return the person doing it to the Tao. And what is the Tao? “If you can talk about the Tao, it’s not the Tao,” said the institute’s president, Marsha Eberhardt, evoking not only the first rule of Fight Club but the spiritual riddle at the centre of the practice. Returning to the Tao (translated as “the way”) means reclaiming our pre-lingual natures, the state we existed in at birth before the travails of the world wreaked havoc on our bodies and minds. According to Taoists, the main obstacle to achieving this pure existence is the layers of worldly anxieties and uncertainty that lead us to ask questions about the Tao instead of just living it. What is the Tao? “It’s too simple to understand,” said Andrew Hung.
Back in China, Lin-shin had more time to study Tai Chi’s elaborate spiritual underpinnings than most contemporary Torontonians do during their busy days, but he felt anyone could integrate some of the practice into their lives. Indeed, the physical-health benefits are what tend to bring members through the door in the first place. An all-body exercise that accommodates practitioners of all ages and levels of mobility, Tai Chi makes muscles more elastic, works the spine and nerves, and increases circulation and balance. Meanwhile, without one even trying—or, rather, because one is not trying—the mind finds peace.
“So much of our thinking is a waste of time,” said Eberhardt. “It’s not that we shouldn’t ever think, but we don’t need all the additional worry. In this training, with this stillness, you don’t let all the trash come. Your thoughts become essential.”
One D’Arcy Street legend has it that a young man who could not stand without support was able to drop his canes one day and walk across the room on his own. “Everyone watching was choked up,” said veteran instructor Judy Millen, but noted that the young man’s mother did not react to his physical recovery at all. “When asked what she thought of her son now, she only remarked, ‘He’s much more patient than he’s ever been.’”
All the religious texts in the world mean nothing, said Hung, if people do not first properly exist in their bodies. “Otherwise, it’s like reading about a Ferrari instead of getting into one,” he said. “Tai Chi is so popular because you get to test drive your self.”
134 D’Arcy St., 416-595-5291.