"The Complete Idiot's Guide to T'ai Chi and Qigong," Bill Douglas

Pros: Versatile info on T’ai Chi in various life circumstances; sound bite style; good attitudes; explains things well; great information on classes
Cons: Not a good source of info on qigong; errors; incessant cheerleading
Rating: 4 out of 5

First published 12/29/2000

I have very mixed feelings on this book. I believe that for certain types of people and for certain purposes it will be remarkably useful. For many of the people who might pick it up, however, it may disappoint. And I have a few slight problems with the author’s approach to certain things.

I’m having to struggle a little with my objectivity here. The ways in which this book and author irritate me are ways that make me knee-jerk dislike this book. I’ve had to put some effort into making myself see that yes, this book does have its uses, and yes, there are parts that I actually like and intend to make use of. When I score this book with a “4,” there’s a large part of me arguing for a “3” instead. But really, I think this book does deserve a 4. Before buying it, however, read the rest of this review. This book is primarily useful to certain people, and you’ll want to make sure you’re one of them.

What are T’ai Chi and QiGong?

According to the back of this book:

T’ai Chi is an ancient Chinese practice that is known to lower stress, reduce the risk of heart conditions, and alleviate chronic health problems.

T’ai Chi and Qigong involve slow movement, breathing, and meditation.

“Complete Idiots” Guides

It’s a small, nit-picky point, and not one that will affect my scoring of this book, but one that I feel I must make. I dislike the whole “Complete Idiots” and “For Dummies” stuff. Why does someone need to feel he’s stupid in order to buy a simple, clearly presented book of material? In fact, given what author Bill Douglas says about how T’ai Chi can help you by raising your self esteem, I’m a little surprised he’d undercut that a bit by titling a book this way.

The Incessant Cheerleading

Almost the entire first part of the book (part 1 of 6, almost 70 pages of material) is filled with incessant cheerleading about the virtues of T’ai Chi and QiGong.

Don’t get me wrong, I happen to think that these practices have a lot of virtue and do a lot of good. But there’s a difference between explaining this and moving on, and just repeating the same message with slightly different phrasing over and over. Honestly, I believe that the entire first part of this book could be summed up as: “Relax. It’ll make you a better person. Oh, and here are a few analogies and scientific facts to convince you of that.” If he’s going to take 70 pages to say that, he could at least make it more interesting.

Or maybe it’s just that I’m already convinced of the efficacy of these practices. Maybe I would have found some of this material more interesting if I wasn’t convinced of their usefulness, or if I hadn’t seen some of his facts already in “The Way of Qigong,” which came out earlier than this book. (Even a couple of Douglas’ little stories sounded awfully familiar.) Or maybe it’s just that I’m not a sunny, cheerleading personality. Maybe someone like that wouldn’t mind it.

I suspect this part of the book would be very useful indeed to someone who needs a lot of convincing. It’s presented in small, easy-to-assimilate “sound bites,” it doesn’t get thick with detail (those of you who found “The Way of Qigong” too thick may prefer this book), and Douglas certainly puts a lot of effort into being convincing. Some may find his “information age” and otherwise technological analogies easier to relate to; that’s certainly what he seems to think will be the case. I just found them forced, often awkward, and relatively annoying. This one may be an aspect of culture, however: most of my friends are MIT graduates and computer scientists, and as a group we tend to find strained analogies to technology pretty annoying. So again, this may not bother you.

If you have an even more difficult time getting yourself to exercise than I do (that would take a lot), and could use some convincing, this book may help.

In short, in many ways the usefulness of this book is very personality-dependent! If the above details sound annoying to you, then try Ken Cohen’s “Way of Qigong,” which I prefer. For those who find Cohen’s book too thick, too detailed, not Western enough, or too QiGong-centric (as opposed to T’ai Chi), however, Douglas’ book is worth a read.

QiGong vs. T’ai Chi

Despite the various places in which he talks about QiGong and T’ai Chi, somehow I came out of this book feeling like Mr. Douglas either didn’t have a good idea of the difference between them, wasn’t good at communicating it, or didn’t particularly care about it. In one place his wording implies strongly that the only QiGong that isn’t T’ai Chi are sitting and lying forms of QiGong. Certainly if I didn’t know anything about QiGong, I would have come out of this book with the impression that there wasn’t much QiGong that wasn’t T’ai Chi.

T’ai Chi is one specific variant of QiGong, and there are several varieties of T’ai Chi. T’ai Chi is a flowing series of movements, one leading directly into another. It takes months to learn an entire sequence, even a year or two. (I don’t mean to make it sound harder than it is – it’s learned one small piece at a time, so it isn’t that bad.) Most QiGong movements are repeated within themselves. That is to say, you may take one movement and perform it 9 times, 12 times, or however many times, then you move onto the next. There’s more variety in QiGong (many many different styles), and I, at least, find it easier to learn without taking a class.

Some people prefer T’ai Chi; others prefer other forms of QiGong. It would have been nice if he had gone into the differences further if just so that people could choose which they wanted to try. With a name like “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to T’ai Chi & QiGong,” I certainly took away an implication that there would be material to help one decide which one to do. Instead, QiGong is presented primarily as an adjunct to and warm-up for T’ai Chi.

Versatility

This book does present interesting stories of ways in which T’ai Chi has been used in people’s lives. It also discusses the use of T’ai Chi for ADD, with kids, in hospitals, and in the workplace. It doesn’t go into a huge amount of depth, but it may be enough to give you a place to start. The “sound bite” style will be nice for people who don’t like long passages of text.

Mr. Douglas has a lot of attitudes toward T’ai Chi that I applaud. His recommendations for how to handle pain, or working with injuries, are wonderful. Where Cohen blends East and West beautifully in “The Way of Qigong,” Douglas presents everything through very Western words. So if Cohen’s fusion of understanding is still a bit too foreign for you, this book will help.

Douglas does a good job of explaining certain basic movements before moving on to the actual T’ai Chi. He also interjects a number of useful details into the movements themselves. This may be very helpful to someone who’s having trouble “getting it.” The warm-up exercises he provides are very useful! I intend to make use of them myself, as well as some of the postural hints. He’s also remarkably good at getting across the relaxation angle of T’ai Chi, which some authors aren’t.

Classes

If you want to take a T’ai Chi or QiGong class and are afraid to, this book is perfect for you. There’s an entire chapter on how to pick a class that’s right for you, what to wear, how to address the teacher, and so on.

Other Material

There are a few sword and fan movements demonstrated in here, which is neat. Also, he goes enough into “push hands” (a partnered practice) and describes it well enough that you’ll be able to play with it a bit. I was very pleased to see that.

Errors and Mild Sleaziness

It would have been nice if he had actually gotten the title of “The Way of Qigong” correct the first time he referenced it. And the famous “Dr. Mesma” whose name begat “mesmerism” should be Dr. Mesmer. (I’ve taken too many psychology classes not to catch that one.) As a writer, the apostrophe confusions, particularly with its/it’s, bug me; a few other similar things also bugged me. If you aren’t as nit-picky as I am or don’t tend to notice these things, then don’t worry about it.

As individual things these mistakes aren’t a big deal. But taken in their totality, in a book where the author bio tells us glowingly of all the writing Mr. Douglas has done, it adds up to look awfully sloppy. And worse, it leaves me wondering how many of his other facts were wrong – the ones I wouldn’t catch. When he’s putting so much effort into convincing us that he’s right, that isn’t a doubt he wants to sow. Mr. Douglas may be a great T’ai Chi teacher (which, having read this book, I do believe), but if he wants to put out large reference works on the subject then he should get his fact-checking in gear and tell his editor not to sleep on the job.

And then there’s the small bit of sleaziness which I can’t quite get out of my head, even though, as I said, it’s small. I buy a lot of books on Barnes & Noble’s website. I’ve bought most of my collection of qigong books through them, in fact. So it was hard to miss Mr. Douglas’ cookie-cutter “consumer reviews” of a handful of qigong books. Almost every one was the same (the only one that I saw that he actually reviewed was “The Way of Qigong”), and each one was really just a vehicle for the promotion of his “World T’ai Chi and QiGong Day” website. Ugh. If he’d at least done a real review and left his website and reference at the bottom that would have been one thing. But abusing the review feature for straight self-promotion is seriously obnoxious.

So, as you can probably see, this book isn’t for everyone. But for those people who will find it useful, I expect it to be very useful. And even the rest of us can find something of value in here. This book is much more useful for T’ai Chi than QiGong – if your interest is QiGong, try another book.

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