On a bright, sunny Tuesday morning, almost two dozen people gathered in the serene, plant-filled space of the Tai Chi Association of Colorado Springs.
Comfortably dressed, the equal mix of women and men murmured to each other as they waited for instructor and school founder Michael Paler to begin the tai chi 24 form class. At precisely 9:45 a.m., the tall, graceful 39-year-old, wearing a dark flowing uniform with his hair pulled back into a long braid, quietly exited his office and took his place at the front of the group.
They were all there to learn from a man who soon will make tai chi history in the U.S., if not the Western Hemisphere.
He is one of three men in the country invited by John Fung, a fifth-generation disciple of grand master Wei Shuren, to spend 10 days in Beijing, beginning April 28. Paler will become an official sixth-generation disciple of the grand master through the teachings of his daughter, Wei XiLan.
The transmissions the three men will receive have been held secret by the grand master until now, but Wei Shuren's last wish, before his death in 2013, was that the teachings not die with him. Paler will become a direct lineage holder to the family under the Wei line.
It's a big deal.
"Being a lineage holder is probably the greatest honor in this community," Paler said. "It's basically somebody trusting you with the complete transmission and complete system, and that you are going to embody it and transmit it to the next generation. A lot of people can learn the art, but not many are chosen to embody and transmit it to the next generation."
Tai chi is a family art, passed down from one family member to the next. After Paler becomes part of the family, he will be able to return and teach the transmissions for the first time in the country and even the Western Hemisphere, he believes. He hasn't heard of anybody else doing it.
"(It means) great connections to China," said Etha Schuette, who Paler certified to teach in 2012. "We have a teacher who doesn't stop learning himself, and we'll get to learn awesome stuff that hasn't been out there in the public before."
After teaching his morning class, Paler drew a flowchart of the family lineage of which he will become part.
"The father had all of it, and as he kept teaching it, his sons got half each," Paler said. "As you get down here, it's called the public form - that's what you see everywhere. Higher up the lineage charts, you get the more original teachings. We focus on physical and energetic aspects here (at the school), and what I'm learning is more of the spiritual and mental aspects. It's going higher into the teachings."
The honor isn't one for which an instructor can campaign - it happens organically. Paler has studied Imperial Yang tai chi with Fung for several years. During that time, he's been watched carefully to ensure his ability to teach and embody the skills and not simply duplicate them or receive them from a book. Paler's presence and how he held himself in the greater world also was noted, as well as his ethics and morals.
"Everybody in that family line must be a moral person," Paler said, "not greedy, not desire-filled. Then that transmission (would be) hindered."
The goal of tai chi, often called a moving meditation, is to be empty. Practitioners work toward that goal through gentle, flowing movements of the body and limbs.
"In our culture, empty has a different meaning," Paler said. "But I want to keep that Taoist concept of emptiness. If I empty my mind, it doesn't mean I'm dumb. It means I'm here with you now. That's being empty."
He first learned martial arts at age 6, after getting beat up in a sandbox across the street from his home in Buffalo, N.Y. Though he initially studied Shaolin kung fu - a hard, forceful art - his instructor eventually suggested he learn tai chi.
"He said, 'You're always sick. If you learn tai chi, it will make you less sick and make your kung fu stronger. You'll be more relaxed, quicker,'" Paler said.
In the late 1990s, Paler felt called to relocate to the Springs, and he began to teach in health clubs and yoga studios across the city. The school he founded in 1999 became his full-time job. He teaches a full day of classes, including qigong, kung fu and private classes, and then returns home to do his own two- to three-hour personal practice every day.
"He is the most loving person I've ever met," Schuette said. "His classes are fun and educational. It makes you feel like you don't have to impress anybody. You can just be you. "
Paler is excited for the upcoming trip, almost "giddy" at times.
"This is my life's work, what I've always wanted, what I've worked so hard for - to find the substance, the truth of what I do, and share it," he said. "It's happening."