‘Flowing like a river!’

Tai Chi master Ruth Li has brought a little bit of her native China to Netanya’s Alexander Park where she teaches the ancient martial art.

Tai Chi 311 (photo credit: Maurice Picow)
Tai Chi 311
(photo credit: Maurice Picow)
Meet Ruth Li, a native of Qingdao, China, now living in Israel, and a master instructor of the ancient Chinese art of Tai Chi Chuan, better known to Westerners as Tai Chi. Li, 57, whose Chinese name is Yunghu’a, has been teaching Tai Chi for more than 30 years, 16 of them in Israel. A winner of several gold medals in international competitions, Li has made this ancient form of physical and mental exercise not just a physical activity, but a way of life.
“Tai Chi Chuan is a wonderful way of helping people deal with stress as well as increasing the body’s blood circulation. It is more than just a simple exercise program, more like a life-long technique toward good health and well-being, designed to change a person’s outlook on life,” Li told Metro recently while preparing for one of her group training classes at Alexander Park in Netanya’s Neot Shaked neighborhood.
Li began the study of Tai Chi as a child of “less than seven years,” she says proudly when Metro interviewed her following a Cheng Tai Chi session in the park. “I received a Tai Chi teaching certificate at age 14, and had already been involved in national competitions in my native China,” she added.
She married her first husband, a Chinese man, while still living in Qingdao. Her son, Ben, now 30, was born from this first marriage. Ruth met her second husband, “an Israeli Jewish man,” who was visiting China on business. He convinced her to follow him to Israel, where she arrived with Ben in 1995. They settled in Netanya, where she later converted to Judaism “eight years ago.” She and her second husband later separated.
Shortly after arriving in Israel, Ruth began teaching variations of Tai Chi disciplines of the Chinese Wushu performing arts.
“People would see me practicing Tai Chi and ask me to teach them. One thing led to another, and it wasn't long before I began to be involved in teaching group Tai Chi sessions,” she says.
ALTHOUGH NOT an actual instructor, Ben is also well experienced in Tai Chi and leads the training sessions occasionally when his mother is away. Ben works for a local consulting company and is involved in making business connections between Israeli and Chinese companies. He travels to China on business several times a year, where he acts as a agent and buyer for Chinese-made products.
“Life in Israel is not so difficult, and we have gotten a lot of help from local people,” Ben says. “We keep kosher and I am also studying now to become Jewish.”
Ruth added that “it is easy to meet people here. They are usually very friendly. I am lucky to be trained within a 400-year-old discipline that gives me the physical and mental conditioning needed to deal with any challenge in life.”
The session taking place in the park consisted of students from various parts of Israel, including Haifa, Modi’in, Beit Shemesh, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Avi Hirsch, 37, who was born in France but lived several years in London before making aliya with his family, lives in Beit Shemesh and comes to Li’s Tai Chi classes every week. He and several of his children are enthusiastic Tai Chi practitioners; they have been studying Tai Chi disciplines with Li for over two years.
“I’ve always wanted to go to China to study the art. Now China has come to me,” Hirsch, a practitioner of alternative medicine, says. He added that practicing Tai Chi greatly benefits his physical, mental and spiritual condition. Learning Tai Chi from Li is a “firsthand experience.
“I often practice Tai Chi on Friday mornings, and doing so prepares me mentally and physically for Shabbat, giving me a great sense of calmness and satisfaction. Practicing Tai Chi even makes me drive my car better,” he says.
He adds that practicing the exercise discipline results in a “flow of energy” that has a positive affect on both his and his family’s well-being.
Another student, David, is a businessman in Netanya who looks much younger than his 54 years. He has been studying Tai Chi with Li for several years now, and feels that Tai Chi gives him the “physical and mental tools” to better succeed in his business and personal life.
“Tai Chi, as taught by Li, gives me a self-discipline that has changed my entire outlook on life. I’ve studied it in other places, including the Israel Tai Chi Center in Tel Aviv. But nowhere have I found the study of Tai Chi more satisfying than studying it under a master like Ruth,” he says.
Michal, a new Tai Chi student, joined the group after seeing Li practicing her daily training. “I was captivated and inspired by the calmness and flow of her movements.
It was like looking at a peaceful, flowing river. This gave me the desire to learn more about Tai Chi, especially from someone like Ruth.”
A typical Ruth Li Tai Chi training class begins with her and her students coming together to form a group “energy circle” in which everyone pledges to contribute their personal mental and physical energies for the success of the practice session. The wearing of a special costume is very important, says Li, as the loose-fitting garment gives the body “more freedom of motion.”
Before the actual exercises begin, a “warm-up” period of a few minutes is necessary to prepare the students. This includes requiring students to stand straight with their feet apart and arms hanging limp at their sides.
“Imagine you have a string attached upwards from your head, like a puppet would” Li tells them. She adds that this “standing up position” is the very first discipline new participants must master before beginning the various Tai Chi movements.
The mouth must be closed with the tongue resting on the roof of the mouth and the teeth closed. The eyes must be closed and one must feel that “clouds are dropping on him.”
THE EXERCISE session itself is reminiscent of a film being shot in slow motion. It includes a combination of Chinese Qigong disciplines such as “dynamic training,” which involves special movements; static training, which requires the participant to hold the body in a particular posture; and meditative preparation that involves visualizing or focusing on specific ideas, sounds, images, concepts or breathing patterns.
Li believes that practicing Tai Chi improves health and that the difference in a person’s physical and mental health can be seen within a few months. These health benefits include improved muscle strength and body coordination, less joint stiffness, better balance, and an overall calmness and sense of well-being.
“You do not need to think through the motions of the exercises, as the body ‘remembers’ the various positions,” Li says.
In addition to the sessions at her studio in central Netanya, Li also teaches Tai Chi at the Green Place Country Club in South Netanya, as well as in Ra’anana. She conducts special retreats and workshops in kibbutzim and other locations.
Although she teaches several variations of Tai Chi, the most popular one is the Cheng Ming, which has “one hundred movements and is the foundation for training within the Cheng Ming martial arts system.”
“By studying Cheng Ming Tai Chi, we learn how to defend ourselves in manners which can be part of instinctive self-defense movements should we be attacked by an adversary,” Avi Hirsch adds.
Li’s students range in age from “three years and eight months” to 75. They come from all walks of life, and include those recovering from various health problems.
She is authorized to use the “Chinese Wushu” logo from the Chinese Government Qigong physical training authority.
Li took four of her Israeli students to a 2009 international Tai Chi competition, in which two of them won medals. She often participates in national competitions in China, as well as attending special workshops held there by renowned Tai Chi masters, including Li Enjiu, who is her trainer and mentor. She says that Li Enjiu is planning to visit Israel “in the near future”; and adds that he is about to publish a book that he wrote about Tai Chi disciplines, in which she is mentioned.
When Li’s Tai Chi sessions are over, her students thank her personally for instructing them, and then return home, taking her training philosophies with them to benefit their everyday lives. Her vision for the future is that more and more people will join her current students.
“They come to me by ‘mouth to ear,’” she says.
More information about the Tai Chi techniques Ruth Li teaches can be found on her Web site www.chinesewushu.co.il