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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #50 (December 12, 2006), page 2.

No way for an idiot to learn t’ai chi

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to T’ai Chi & QiGong: Third Edition

By Bill Douglas

Alpha Books, 2005

Paperback, 322 pages, $24.95

With illustrations and DVD

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

The rash of instructional books in the past decade, purporting to explain complex subjects to the world’s lowest common intellectual denominator, has succeeded in spite of the books’ self-deprecating titles. Somehow people have managed to overcome their own egos enough to buy books for dummies, idiots, or ones that promise to "keep it simple." The Complete Idiot’s Guide to T’ai Chi and QiGong doesn’t so much fail to live up to the "idiot" part of the title, since it’s intellectually above that, but it doesn’t deliver on the "complete" part of the title.

The adjective "complete" is meant to describe "idiot," of course, but the implication is that the guide itself is complete. Author Bill Douglas goes out of his way, however, to remind the reader how incomplete his guide is. At the end of every chapter, many sections, and sometimes it seems every sentence, he points the readers either to a live t’ai chi course, or to his own DVD series — both sold separately, of course. While few authors enjoy pointing out the shortcomings of their own books, Douglas’s honesty is commercial in its intent, and his repetitious self-promotion undermines what might otherwise be a good overview to these popular Chinese practices.

T’ai chi, the Asian exercise routine and martial art that has existed for thousands of years, continues to be practiced by millions of Chinese and non-Chinese worldwide. It incorporates any of several different styles of movements, intended to both provide physical fitness and concentrate one’s internal energy, or chi. Qigong is a related practice involving breathing and exercise, and is more focused on the energy component of Chinese medicine.

Both t’ai chi and qigong are too broad and complex to compress into a book, as they often involve lifestyle changes as well as physical sensations and actions too difficult to translate into the written word. But if the task is truly as hard as Douglas makes it out to be, one wonders why he bothered to write a book on the subject at all.

This is not to say that the book is worthless; on the contrary, one can learn a great deal about the ideas behind t’ai chi and qigong, as well as learn much of the motions and exercises encompassing these two pursuits. Douglas takes such great pains to explain the physical and philosophical underpinnings of both t’ai chi and qigong, however, that readers must first plow through nearly a third of the book before getting to the t’ai chi exercises themselves. In these opening thirteen chapters, Douglas acts simultaneously as pitchman for the principles behind the exercises and as tutor, explaining the proper posture and mental attitude for the program.

The accompanying DVD seems enticing, but is in fact excerpted from Douglas’s longer four-hour instructional DVD, something the viewer is told about before each lesson excerpt. Like the book’s constant reminders, this serves less as an enticement to the viewer than as an admonishment that the DVD and book are woefully incomplete. Whatever practical knowledge can be gained is undercut by the feeling that you’ve been a complete idiot to think that you could learn t’ai chi or qigong from this book and DVD.

This sensation is unfortunate, because the information Douglas does provide is valuable and interesting. Interspersed in the text are sidebars and cartoon icons that pass along health, scientific, or historical information about these practices. The t’ai chi movements are all fully illustrated and intricately explained, and Douglas also touches on different forms of the exercise — Sword, Fan, and Short styles. His prose is lucid and clear, even if the strained tones of the hawker never quite fade away, and one could learn a lot from a book Douglas might write on just one aspect of this large subject, without the repetitious caveats.

Instead, the book comes across as an introduction or a supplement, a book that Douglas repeatedly reminds us is nearly worthless, if not downright harmful, when not accompanied by either live instruction or his own DVDs. Anyone interested in learning the movements of t’ai chi or qigong is better off, it seems, taking Douglas’s advice and signing up for a class, instead of buying his book. The result is that you might not feel like a complete idiot bringing this to the bookstore checkout counter, but you’re likely to feel like one if you think it will teach you t’ai chi.

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