Growing up as a military brat from the 50’s thru to the early 70’s, as my father was being reassigned to a new base every 2 – 3 years, I had to learn at a very early age how to defend myself, especially being the smallest kid in class from kinder to Junior High. Every new location meant another test for the pecking order among the young male, military dependents.
I learned my earliest martial skills from my father, who, to this day, has been my most influential martial instructor. He came from a family of boxers & street fighters, who grew up in West Texas & Northern NM.
One of the most important things my Dad taught me was the fine art of BS, so as to avoid confrontations, and how to “duke it out” when that didn’t work. He would warn me not to start fights, but if I had to, to “fight well and with honor” – something that seems to be lost these days to a degree.
Of course like many others of my generation, watchin’ films with Sonny Chiba, Bruce Lee, Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin), Jim Kelly even that actor David Carradine from the famous “Kung Fu” TV series lured me towards a study of the Asian Martial arts, a desire that shaped my life more than I would have ever imagined.
Theologically, I was raised a Catholic but early on in my life I longed for more than just Sunday mass. After much reading, soul searching and 20+ years of belonging to various religions, cults and philosophical view points, I found myself back at square 1, with a Buddisht/Christian/Taoist perspective on life that allows spirituality wherever I want, not just in a building designated for this. But I digress…
Enlisting in the USAF during Viet Nam and getting married at 18 plus having two daughters almost immediately slowed my journey down the more disciplined martial path.
However….As time went on I was able to study everything from Okinawan/Chinese Tiger Crane Kung Fu to Shaolin Chuan, some kali escrima, jui jitsu, aikido and even hung around a couple of years with some crazy ex-Special Forces Gent who was a Master of Kai Ki Do. Pile all this on top of a childhood of having more than my share of fights.
While studying, training and or teaching 7 days a week I happened to catch a PBS special on a funny lookin’ art called Tai Chi. If my memory serves me right, the show had Robert Klein doing a moving push hands routine which I found intriguing and a l’il strange looking.
Little did I know how much of an effect this public TV broadcast would have on me?
When approaching one of my teachers and asking what he knew about this “Tai Chi stuff,” his eyes grew large and asked me where I heard about this art. This was in the early 80’s in El Paso, TX. Tai Chi, although already well known on the East & West coasts, was virtually unheard of in this far west Texas town.
I told him what I saw & he expressed awe as he told me about high level Tai Chi Masters and their fighting skills that he had seen and met in Asia. I was hooked, my teacher at that time was a very good martial artist and if he felt this way about these Tai Chi Chuan Masters, I had to find me one! The problem was there were few if any Tai Chi teachers in El Paso at that time and you couldn’t find info on them anywhere, not yellow pages, nothing.
One day a fellow worker sent me a copy of the El Paso Times with an article on a local Shaolin Kung Fu Master who supposedly taught a form of Tai Chi…I was there!!! Problem was I had only seen a snippet of that push hands stuff on TV and had no idea what to expect. As time went I spent the next couple of years learning Shaolin Kung Fu and what I thought was Tai Chi Chuan, turns out that wasn’t necessarily the case. I recall reading a book by the famous Tai Chi Master T.T. Liang entitled “Tai Chi for Health and Self Defense” and I started to realize that much of what he was expressing in his book was not being taught at my Shaolin Master’s school. I was confused. But as the Tao flows a young woman and fellow student showed me a piece of paper with something about Tai Chi classes scribbled on it. I called the number listed and was overjoyed when I heard expressions that were echoing Master Liang’s book. I was on the path to being a Tai Chi fighter…..
Now, 30 years later, I have had the great fortune to study with many fine Tai Chi Sifu’s, (teachers) and SiGung’s, (Masters) as well as fellow students – including my own – who continue to inspire me to learn, teach and share an art that not only taught me many new and wonderful physical skills, (did I mention I had knee surgery for some High School football injuries and was actually told at age 32 that my right knee was so bad that I needed a knee replacement and because I was a smoker for many years prior to tai chi I suffer from asthma and COPD), but Tai Chi has allowed me to work past these health issues, (yes, I still have my original knees 30 years later and my lungs are much better because of Taoist Breathing techniques), and despite these issues, I competed across the USA winning many regional & National Titles in Tai Chi Form, Push Hands & weapons and actually become an International Tai Chi Form & Push Hands, (one of only 2 Americans to do so), champion in Jiaozuo, China in 2007, I never could have done this without learning the details of authentic Tai Chi Chuan but even more importantly, I have acquired the ability to help others, gain health, peace and power even into old age.
Remember, I started Tai Chi because I wanted to be a better Martial Artist, that was all, but after all the good I saw it do over many years of teaching, I had no recourse but to make it my life’s work. So in 2001 I became a full time tai chi teacher and I have never regretted it and I look forward to many more years of sharing the health as well as martial benefits of this intriguing Internal Martial/Healing Art.
As regards my teaching experience, I have worked for many years at many different venues: I have been a regular presenter at the Parkinson’s support group in El Paso, TX. as well as the Rio Grande Cancer foundation, Ft. Bliss – William Beaumont Medical center for troops with PTSD, 8 years as the official Tai Chi teacher for the El Paso Fire Department, 15+ years at White Acres retirement community, El Paso Sherriff’s department, 6 years with Monte Vista Retirement Home, El Paso’s District Attorney’s office, all of the local school districts, UTEP’s Football team, El Paso Housing Authority for 5 years and many more.
I teach group classes, private lessons and workshops around the country, most recently in Santa Fe, NM, Colorado Springs, Milwaukee, Wis., and now in Ruidoso, NM as well as other locals.
Now, don’t get me wrong, even at my age, I still enjoy the martial side of things, however, being a good fighter is not as rewarding as helping someone walk again or helping them to overcome various maladies.
At the risk of sounding corny, I count myself doubly blessed.
I hope I can share my knowledge with you.
Sincerely, Sifu Ray Abeyta