Interview with David Vanadia
Teacher Brings Art and Energy of Tai Chi to Portland
David Vanadia has been involved in martial arts since he was a teenager, and over the years has come to think of these teachings as his signature form of expression. It’s all a part of his role as an“ever-evolving student”, as he explains one afternoon in an empty studio at 2000 Studio Nia, a respected sensory-based movement workspace whose headquarters are located downtown. Vanadia has studied all over the world, from San Francisco to Hangzhou, China, but he has now settled in Portland, where he teaches Tai Chi, Qigong, and Yoga in a partnership with Studio Nia. Vanadia says that, for him, the journey has been a great story he can tell through his body.
“I’m an artist, and I look at Tai Chi as a martial art, another form of expression, a tool I use,” says Vanadia. “It’s always been a part of my identity. Tai Chi is a story spoken with the body. It’s a language, and you have to learn it and become comfortable with it before you can speak it and communicate with other people.”
A certified martial arts conditioning specialist, Vanadia has taught in spaces all over Portland, including Portland Center Stage and the Tenth Avenue Athletic Club. He says that he has found a special joy in working with Studio Nia, which provides classes, training, and workshops through multiple forms of sensory-based movement. For him it is all about creating relationships with the community, which he also does through his website, Vanadia.com.
“Part of my success as a teacher has been partnering with an organization like Studio Nia,” he says. “I’m the sole proprietor of my business, but we do have a partnership. As a teacher, I benefit from having a space like this, I am able to do more and reach more people. I think the website also helps, I have a links page where I link to other schools and teachers in the area. That’s how I try to interact with the community. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about Tai Chi, so if I can help somebody experience Tai Chi for what it really is, then it’s worth it.”
A native of Parsippany, NJ, Vanadia first became interested in martial arts after seeing The Karate Kid, especially Tai Chi, a martial art that emphasizes spiritual and physical healing through movement. He fell out of practice in his 20’s when he started a career, or as Vanadia puts it, “when life got in the way”. But in 2000 he rededicated himself to the art when he moved to New York and found a dedicated teacher. He even lived in China briefly, striving to hone his craft, but there he found that a mastery of martial arts is not necessarily bound by geography or culture.
“I had this romantic idea that everyone in China is a master of Tai Chi,” Vanadia explains with a smile. “There certainly are romantic things about it. Every morning in China you see people out there doing Tai Chi before work, and that’s really cool. But some people are better than others. It was interesting to go to China and see that there are people there who are not as skilled in Tai Chi as I am, as well as people who are way more skilled. It’s like a language -- you can learn a little bit of it and barely function, or you can really get involved with it. It’s like an onion with many layers.”
Vanandia has been an advocate for its physical and spiritual benefits ever since falling in love with the art form again, and since he has strived to spread those advantages throughout Portland. “Tai Chi is a physical activity that gets people to exercise, so there are obvious benefits there,” he tell us. “I think another aspect is that the practice of Tai Chi really teaches you about yourself -- how you treat yourself and how you interact with the world. There is an action and a reaction, an inner movement and an outer movement. The sun rises and the sun sets. The practice of Tai Chi is like being in nature.”
Vanadia’s experiences as he reexamined Tai Chi has taught him to be patient with beginners or those who are just getting back into it. “It’s sort of like swimming -- you’ve just got into get into the water,” he recalls. “Some schools will start you off with a six-week class where everyone starts at the same level and progresses together. There is always a core group of people that have been coming in for a while, and then there is a group that seems to drift in and out. For beginners, they have to just show up and keep at it. It’s like anything else -- you hear about it or read about it, you take an interest, and you get involved. In the beginning, you feel a little awkward, but if you keep going before you know it, you’ve been here for a couple weeks or a couple months. Then you see a new beginner come in and you know exactly what he’s going through.”
Vanadia teaches classes mostly by donation, a practice he picked up while teaching at Portland Center Stage and in parks around Portland. He says that while money was never his primary motivation for teaching, he has learned over time how to turn his practice into a business. “People would would give a few dollars when they could have just as easily gone to the park classes for free, so I started charging more of a fee,” he explains. “That said, if anyone wants to learn Tai Chi but doesn’t have a lot of money, I’m open. Maybe we could exchange something, barter, or if you just don’t have three dollars, come by and do Tai Chi anyway.”
Of all the places that Vanadia has taught and practiced Tai Chi, Portland has been the most interesting and challenging because of the unique, DIY spirit that the City of Roses is so famous for. “People here are pretty open-minded and creative,” he tells us. “I think it’s a great place to be an artist, or a sole proprietor -- to have a dream or want to do something interesting. There’s a real creative, entrepreneurial spirit here, and I really like that.”
For Vanadia, the essence of Tai Chi and other martial arts forms comes down to its root word, Chi, a Chinese word related to the energy in a physical body and in the universe itself. When asked what he hopes to share with his students, he references the philosophy of renowned Tai Chi master Mantak Chia. “The first thing people usually say about Chi is ‘energy’, but it can sometimes translate as ‘breath’, because we need breathe to live,” he says. “Mantak Chia once said that there is no right or wrong, good or bad, only that which either gives energy or drains it. When it comes to Tai Chi, or the food that we eat or the clothes that we wear, it either energizes us or it drains our energy. That’s how I approa 15f9 ch Tai Chi.”