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The Healing Powers of Martial Arts: Interview with Instructor & Activist Sally Chang

The Healing Powers of Martial Arts: Interview with Instructor & Activist Sally Chang

Posted by Sally Chang & Benjamin Zappin, L.Ac. on Apr 29th 2021

Most of us have been struggling with elevated stress over the past year, including multiple mass shootings and other violent assaults in the past several weeks alone. Many of these events have disproportionately heaped trauma on marginalized communities, including the March 16 Atlanta shootings and that left eight innocent people dead, including six women of Asian descent. As we’ve sought out ways to support and stand up for our many AAPI neighbors here in Five Flavors Herbs’ hometown of Oakland, California, one of the voices we’ve found ourselves turning to time and again for guidance and inspiration is that of our amazing friend, Sally Chang, founder and chief instructor at Evergreen Taiji Academy.

Sally is a local warrior for peace and accomplished martial artist who shares her 28 years of expertise with the community through the instruction of Qigong and Taiji (including managing the difficult feat of providing meaningful instruction virtually in pandemic times and beyond). Qigong and Taiji are moving meditation disciplines used to cultivate power and resilience of body, mind, and spirit. Rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine and martial arts, these practices can increase strength, improve balance, and replenish the vital energy, or Qi. Following the principles of TCM, different Qigong sequences can help us move Qi in patterns that support us physically and emotionally during times of particular need. To experience her powerful instruction for yourself, attend her upcoming online workshop through the San Francisco Zen Center, which kicks off 5/24 (register now!).

martial-artist-sally-chang-holding-gongfu-pose-with-sword-in-park-outdoors

Sally and Five Flavors Herbs co-founder Benjamin Zappin have been friends and colleagues for over 20 years. They have been crossing paths in martial arts training for almost as long and have both studied under Ted Mancuso, their mutual Sifu. Recently, Sally was generous enough to sit down with Ben to share her insights and experiences with using Qigong and other movement arts to cultivate self-care, resilience, and community healing.

Interview with Sally Chang: Martial Artist, Teacher & Founder of Evergreen Taiji Studio

Ben Zappin (Five Flavors Herbs): What forms of martial arts do you practice and teach?

Sally Chang (Evergreen Taiji): I trained in Northern Shaolin Gongfu, Bagua, Taiji, and Qigong. I primarily teach Taiji and Qigong.

Ben: Can you speak to some of the philosophies behind and differences between Qigong and Taiji?

Sally: Qigong are movement arts that study and cultivate Qi, the vital energy intrinsic in all life. These wisdom practices promote health, strengthen the body, cultivate energy, and focus the mind to awaken the spirit. The lineage of the Qigong practiced at Evergreen Taiji is from the Longmen (Dragon Gate) Daoist tradition from Wudang Mountain.

Taiji Quan (“Tai Chi Chuan”) is a martial art that studies the complementary, coexisting energies of Yin and Yang. It’s a moving meditation that generates structural and energetic integrity while circulating Qi. Our studio’s Taiji lineage, Zhang Sanfeng Pai from Wudang Mountain, incorporates Daoist internal cultivation. In addition to generating physical strength, the meditative aspect cultivates focus, internal continuity, perseverance, and deep resilience.

Ben: How does Qigong relate to the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Sally: Qigong and TCM share many similar principles; they overlap like a Venn diagram. For example, the organizing principle of the Five Elements in TCM—Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water—are focused on the organs and channels within the body. TCM methods of treatment would be herbs and acupuncture. In Qigong, specific movements are used to focus on supporting the health of these same internal organs and channels systems. These are different healing methods, sharing the same principles.

Ben: What do you feel are some of the greatest benefits of practicing Qigong and Taiji?

Sally: Attention, articulation, and deeply integrated connection to our essential nature through embodied movement and meditative mind. Qigong and Taiji are much more than just memorizing choreography, and learning to move with less stress and strain. We train a calm-awake quality in the mind and heart. When we reduce our internal conflicts, there is no need to be aggressive toward others. We train ourselves to be adaptable, curious, confident, humble, and awake in bodies and environments that are always in motion. I want to emphasize that practice is not passive—it’s the opposite of checking out and distracting oneself from the present. Cultivating a clear mind and spirit while maintaining an embodied connection to our full humanity is inherently peacemaking.

Ben: What are some reasons you’ve chosen to teach others about martial arts?

Sally: I’ve been incredibly lucky to learn from extraordinary teachers, and I truly love teaching. We’re all students on a continuum of learning, and I constantly learn from students too. I enjoy the shared activity and energy that occurs when we train together in shared purpose and focus. Through 2020, we’ve learned these connections can happen both in-person and on-screen. Though the experiences are different, both environments are valuable and rewarding.

I also feel internal martial arts are methods of practice that generate peace from within, and therefore emanate peace in our interactions. This doesn’t mean situations won’t get heated, scary, dangerous, or confusing, or that we won’t do something we regret afterward. These things will happen—we are human. The point of practice is to have a baseline that is dedicated to self-knowledge, self-responsibility, and non-aggression. So when we find ourselves in unavoidable conflict, we have a strong place of integrity from which to respond. Bruce Lee encapsulated this, saying

"Under duress, we do not rise to our expectations, we fall to our training level.” – Bruce Lee

Ben: How did you come to practice martial arts? Was it in pursuit of physical, mental, and/or emotional self-care? A desire to become proficient in self-defense? Something else?

Sally: I was drawn to Gongfu and martial arts from when I was really little. Martial arts movies, Bruce Lee, etc … they were thrilling and exciting. I saw really cool, strong, confident, powerful people who looked like me. I wanted to connect with my heritage while growing up in a place where I hardly saw any positive reflections of Asians anywhere.

Ben: Did your experiences as a woman, or as an Asian-American woman in particular influence your motivations for pursuing martial arts?

Sally: My interest and dedication to martial arts, TCM, and Daoism are directly related to seeking deep connection with my heritage. Gongfu made sense in my body from the start, and it’s a way I kinetically understand the world. I wanted to feel my ancestral lineage, its strength and depth physically, intellectually, and spiritually, and these arts have been a steadfast, healing practice in my life.

Women in martial arts have consistently been downplayed and erased, because patriarchy has been around for a long-ass time. Martial arts and Daoist lineages are no exception. We’ve got plenty of internal structural work to do too, and I believe it is our generation’s responsibility to uplift, acknowledge, and honor women and gender non-conforming members in our communities.

Ben: I recently took part in your week-long workshop exploring the medically focused Qigong movements Ba Duan Jin (Eight Silk Brocades). I felt deeply enriched by the experience, which helped me access physical and emotional ease and greater vitality during a difficult time. How can movement practices like the ones you teach and TCM principles help folks stay strong, grounded, and resilient in the face of struggle? How can they help those experiencing ongoing violence and oppression to release trauma and deal with long-term stressors?

Sally: These wisdom arts are an intact multi-generational knowledge base that is continuously evolving to the circumstances that arise in each era. Martial arts, Taiji and Qigong, and TCM should NOT be regarded as relics of the past. They are living art forms, and to maintain their relevance, they need to evolve and respond to current issues, including social and racial justice, health advocacy, and equality and equity.

As humans, we have habits that separate the mind and the body and spirit, as if they exist in discrete silos. Trauma can cause this response as a mode of survival. But in the long term, this separation causes immense suffering, perpetuation of trauma, misunderstandings, violence, and war.

We’re living in this struggle right now, where we experience trauma almost daily on a personal level and through the media. Cultivation practices like Qigong can help us return to the center of ourselves and our humanity, to re-integrate, rest, and heal. And in groups, they can connect us with communities focused on healing. It is crucial to avoid burn-out, depression, perpetuation of abuse, and self-harm. Dismantling structural injustice is a life-long commitment. You could say it’s a way of life that is ultimately life-giving and life-restoring, not just for humans but for all life on earth. What could be more important? We are not just a job title, a gender, a race, an ethnicity. We must find ways to keep our humanity intact, care for ourselves and each other.

Internal cultivation arts like Qigong and Taiji are practices that deeply integrate us, training perseverance and resilience in our neuro-muscular, mental-emotional, and spiritual selves. Understanding our natural design, we can more efficiently use energy, attune the senses, and regulate interactions. It can help remind us of the context of our shared six million year-old lineage of humanity, arising from a four-billion-year-old planet, birthed in an inconceivably ancient and vast universe.

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Written by Sally Chang: Sally is a martial artist, teacher, acupuncturist, peacemaker, and founder of Evergreen Taiji Academy and the Warriors for Peace Podcast (stream full episode catalog on Vimeo for $1 each). Teaching online and in-person, she brings together 30 years of martial arts experience, Daoist cultivation, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), distilling them into practices of individual and collective healing. Sally Chang delivers depth and wisdom into felt, embodied practice, and is known for her warm and focused presence.