Regulars and Shorts

A Sifu’s Story

By Jane Lyon

Standing on sacred ground.

Toni Lock started practicing tai chi 20 years ago after a dear friend and “soul sister” said she should try it. She had been teaching aerobics at the time, she was in her twenties and her friend who had a knack for reading energies told her that she saw a more philosophical teacher in her, not so much a work-out and get-fit teacher. After this conversation, Lock saw an ad in CATALYST for a lecture on tai chi at Red Lotus School of Movement back when it was on Pierpont Avenue and decided that she must go.

She arrived at Red Lotus and immediately knew that she was in the right place after meeting Sifu Jerry Gardner, an ordained Rinpoche who established Urgyen Samten Ling Gonpa, the Tibetan Buddhist Temple in Salt Lake City. Sifu (pron. “See-fu”) means teacher in Chinese.

“If you’ve ever been in his presence, then you know,” Lock said in an interview with CATALYST. “I just remember it being so inviting that I can’t explain it.” At that moment she began walking down a spiritual path, one that led her to become a tai chi master.

Three years later, a business venture that Lock partnered in was suddenly dissolved—something that would cause any human a great amount of stress. Lock seemed to handle it just fine and returned to her work as a graphic designer. That same friend that suggested tai chi earlier said to her, “I think the tai chi is doing something for you. You’re really allowing things to just go up and down in a wave.” Lock hadn’t noticed what an impact her practice was having on her until her friend said something. “Tai chi practice helped me just be in the middle, less high and low. It really teaches you non-attachment. It is a way of life.” Lock knew that she would treasure this practice for the rest of her life.

It was at a New Year’s celebration in 2009 that her teacher Sifu Gardner told her, “I would like to make you a Sifu. You have to commit to practice for the rest of your life and share what you learn for the rest of your life.” Lock responded, “Yeah, I want to!” She got on one knee, received a blessing and since that day, has known as “Sifu.”

Cancer studies and qigong

In 2012, Sifu Lock was involved in a clinical trials study at the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) as an assistant teacher to Sifu Gardner. This 12-week study involved men 65 or older who were suffering from prostate cancer. That group was split in two—a qigong class taught by Sifu Gardner and a simple stretching class. Qigong is an ancient Chinese tradition much like tai chi, rooted in moving meditation but more free flowing and adaptive. For example, you could drop into a qigong class here and there to practice, whereas tai chi takes a very consistent study and practice to learn each of the 108 postures.

Some of the men participating in the study could hardly stand on their own at the beginning, instead doing seated practice. Sifu recalls a 90-year-old man who couldn’t stand on his own on the first day who, by the end of the practice, stood with the slightest support from Lock’s arm. At the end of this successful study Sifu became a part of the faculty at HCI, leading her own weekly classes.

Two years later, Sifu was involved in another research study on the benefits of qigong in cancer patients with then-doctoral candidate Cassidy Doucette. “The purpose of this project,” Doucette wrote in an email to CATALYST, “was to examine the effectiveness of qigong in improving and preventing common side effects of cancer and cancer care”—the typical side effects being fatigue, pain, anxiety and depression. Participants of the five-week study were asked to spend 60 minutes twice a week with Sifu Lock. They were also asked to keep an experience journal that would be used to make objective and thematic conclusions about the study. While accumulated data from the study showed dramatic improvements in sleep and sleep disruption, patients also noted significant changes in social function and lower pain intensity.

From teacher to patient

As she observed first hand the healing qualities of her practice Sifu Lock was also becoming a patient herself. “I found my lump the day after Christmas, went to yoga, took a shower, went and did a biopsy, I was like, wow.” She was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to get a bi-lateral lumpectomy. “I was in and out in 10 days, and I went back to teaching. I haven’t missed one class since. Once you get the diagnosis, you aren’t done; you have to keep moving.” Sifu Lock calls the experience her “C-Adventure.” She believes strongly in the impactful energy of words. “If you say cancer, you are telling yourself to be that. It’s a see-adventure, because you get to see everything,” she explains. When Lock was diagnosed she was fortunate to have only small tumors with clean nodes and margins. Perhaps, she speculated, it was because of her practice.

“One of my favorite sayings of Sifu Gardner is, ‘You have to refill your own vessel first,’” Sifu Lock says, attributing much of her wisdom to what was passed down to her by her teacher. “When people come to my class, they have a chance to let go of everything else that is going on in their lives and just re-fill their vessels.” It is the idea of working with your chi or “life-force.” When you can refill that life force, you are better prepared to handle what comes at you throughout the day. Chi flows naturally, Sifu says, but it can get blocked up from bad foods, poor sleep and even overextending yourself—for example, saying yes when you really want to say no. To keep chi flowing, Sifu suggests making it a sacred act when you say “yes” to something. Millennials especially, who often suffer from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), could really benefit from saying “no” more often.

She also feels it is important to express investment in loss. After 13 years of marriage, in the midst of radiation treatment, Sifu and her husband parted ways. It has put to the test the insight that nothing is permanent or stagnant and we have to keep finding the present moment. Asked how these about-faces in her life has affected the way she relates to her students as a teacher, she says, “Knowing and experiencing are two different things. Now I come from a more relatable experience. It has solidified the core of my practice, allowing me to stand on sacred ground.”

Nonetheless, some of her students have experiences that even she knows she cannot fully relate to, like one mother who had over 20 surgeries through her cancer treatment. “She wrote me this beautiful letter saying how I’ve taught her to take care of herself first. This girl keeps coming back [to my class] because it has changed her life so much. Self-care isn’t selfish, it is selfless. When we take care of everyone else and not ourselves, we can’t sustain that for long; it goes back to that empty vessel.”

Sifu Lock says everyone, wherever they are in their lives, can experience the benefits of tai chi and qigong. “Whether you aren’t sleeping, you’re stressed, diagnosed, divorced, whatever you are healing from—give this a chance. It’s a moving meditation that helps us move in life. The practice teaches you to be strong but soft, living with soft edges.”

This article was originally published on January 1, 2018.