Since immemorial times, humans looked up at the sky trying to decipher the mysteries of the universe and the meaning of life. Across the globe from here and thousands of years ago, ancient Chinese astronomers discovered the entire cosmos changes due to cyclical forces governed by two opposing principles, yin and yang, summed up in one ultimate principle, “Tai Chi,” where Chi is the energy of life and “the supreme ultimate”.
Since immemorial times, humans looked up at the sky trying to decipher the mysteries of the universe and the meaning of life. Across the globe from here and thousands of years ago, ancient Chinese astronomers discovered the entire cosmos changes due to cyclical forces governed by two opposing principles, yin and yang, summed up in one ultimate principle, “Tai Chi,” where Chi is the energy of life and “the supreme ultimate”. The practice of Tai Chi, an ancient discipline nobody knows for sure how it started, is a martial art, a spiritual journey, a health practice and a pure dance for show, all in one. How did Chi make it from ancient China to modern days Lakeside though?
Just as Yue Nue, a female master who taught a Chinese emperor about “Nei Chia” over 25 centuries ago, Master Tai Chi of Lemon Grove, Ben Rainer, comes to the Lakeside Community Center four days a week for the past decade to teach the ways of Chi for free. Most of his students are senior citizens, loyal and perseverant, who are coming to Master Ben for years to see improvement in their balance, overall health, but most importantly, to achieve serenity and emotional balance in order to fight depression caused by illnesses, many losses at this age, loneliness and hardship. Born in Lubbock, TX and living in San Diego most of his life, Master Ben is telling his students legends about an emperor who banned martial arts from China thousands of years ago, forcing the fighters to find a way to practice, which they did, creating a form including all the fighting moves in a slow dance and hiding their practice in plain sight. There are many schools of Tai Chi in the world right now, traditional or adapted and renewed, but the basic moves are the same for thousands of years, aiming at harmonizing the outside with the inside and finding the Chi. What is Chi? Wearing his comfy black yoga pants and his trademark Hawaiian shirts, snow white hair combed back in waves to reveal his “know it all, but I am not telling you anything” kind of blue eyes hidden behind glasses, the 73 years old Ben Rainer looking not one day older than 50, answers with half a smile, like Monalisa: “I don’t know.” Tuck your abdomen in, that’s where Chi is, lengthen your spine, and pull your eyebrows up. Inhale. Find the floor with your toe, lift the weight, hold the tea bag, caress the peacock feathers, push the air. Exhale…these are the kind of guiding words one hears during his Tai Chi class. “I cannot describe what it felt like the first time I experienced Chi. It’s not something that happens with your directions, it just happens. For me, it’s a ritual; it’s how I start my day, practice for myself, then I bring it here and share it with everybody else, because sharing is the most important aspect of it. Sometimes, I do 5 hours a day, yes.”
Balancing his teaching between “lock your hips in place” and “don’t forget to breath”, Master Ben is constantly hinting to a higher purpose for this practice. The dance is bewildering and strangely beautiful, like a scratched disk slowing down a movie with Bruce Lee, unscripted as a fight as well: “grab the elbow, pull it toward you, throw the keys under the car and run for your life. Don’t fight if you don’t have to. ” Tai Chi is a self defense art as well, “it’s all the correct motions to manage protecting yourself and being ready to attack when it’s appropriate. But forget all of that. It all starts here, this is all you have to know and practice,” he says, describing the Opening move of the 108 moves in the long form, facing the wall to wall mirror in the room, his back at the scenic view of the lake and his avid students, while he bends his knees slightly and waves his arms up and down, mimicking the flight, kind of like the white American pelicans and geese staring through the windows from the boat house at Lindo Lake. It’s all just a teaching tactic. Master Ben only says “I don’t want you to think my expectation from you it’s more than you could manage” and no homework required, but on the other hand, people leave the room sweating and five pounds of flesh lighter, while the soul and the mind are on a special journey on their own and could not wait to go outside, find some shade and keep practicing. “Tai Chi masters say Chi is hard to find, but once found, it’s impossible to shake it off.”
The most incredible moment is toward the end when Master Ben leads everyone to a heightened point and then he comes around and checks everyone for…Chi. “I share my heart with you,” he said, trying to describe the indescribable, when the students are standing tall with their arms extended, palms facing up, their flesh pulsating, bloated, small spots of white and red and a heaviness swirling in the air unseen, vibrant, enticing. “If you can feel your pulse…but it’s ok if you don’t.” Asked to describe what is he doing exactly when he is building a sphere out of his hands and his students’ hands, Master Ben says “I am sharing my heart with you. Do you feel it? I know it’s there, but I don’t know what it is.” In order to find out, Master Ben has his own masters he goes to for training. He started out 34 years ago with Master Parker Linekin who has now a Dojo in Miramar and is still training with him three times a week. “Tai Chi is a work in progress and I am still learning. It’s all-internal and you’re finding it on your own. Do you know how I share my heart with you? That’s part of it. The dance is a dance, but the most important part is internal, that’s where you find the Chi. Master Linekin is teaching Moving For Better Balance form I also use with my students.”
“My whole outlook on life has shifted,” says Eddie Allegrezza from Lakeside, who looks 40 years old, but he’s really 80, alert and vivacious while talking about his new “uplifted spirit.” He confirms he slowed down the pace, “I’ve got this one down, now I have to work on other issues. But my balance is phenomenal, all because of Tai Chi and Ben.” Sue K., 65 years old and also from Lakeside, likes the “close knit group of friends we created here and I really like our instructor, Ben. It’s very relaxing and it builds your core, works out your leg muscle and it’s great for balance, which is important at our age.” While Master Ben confesses that he came to Tai Chi from running because his body could not take any more high impact exercise, his other students share different experiences. Jack Johnson, 68, seeks “to keep my mind and body in harmony and to learn how to relax.” Husband and wife Phyllis, 78, and Joseph Birouty, 85, have been coming here from Santee for the past 3 years. “ We avoided so many potential accidents by building up our strength and working on balance. I didn’t fall at all so far. It’s been good, we are coming back.”
Do they all feel the Chi? Some do, fully; others are almost there. Master Ben says it took him six years until he felt anything. They are all looking forward to the moment when Master Ben comes around at the end of the one hour session and Reiki music in the background, the same song every single class, he shares his heart with each and one of them. It’s a different type of nourishing, both for the soul and body and everyone seems to receive a lot of joy and health benefits on this special journey where they dance to feel their hearts. Halfway down the hall from this tai chi class, the Salvation Army is cooking lunches for the seniors in the community, which is just another way of sharing one’s heart with other people.
Master Ben’s Tai Chi classes are one hour long on Monday through Thursday at the Lakeside Community Center from 11:00 a.m. (intermediate) and 12:00 p.m. (beginners).