Reflections from a Tai Chi Teacher

I have been practicing tai chi for 20 years and teaching for 10. Although I consider myself just starting my tai chi journey, I find it useful to reflect on my practice. When I do this, there are certain impressions that rise to the surface. This week I’d like to share them with you.

Why People Begin a Tai Chi Practice

Students learn tai chi for different reasons:

  1. Recovery – Many students are recovering for injury and want to use tai chi as a form of physical therapy. Some have mobility issues and need to improve their balance. Some have had operations and have pieces of metal in their bodies. Tai chi can help these people recover and maintain strength, flexibility, and range of motion.
  2. Wellness – Many students are looking to undo the damage done by a lifestyle that has compromised their body, such as too much time at computer or driving, or a personal or work life with too much emotional stress.
  3. Deepen an existing practice – Many students are have practiced other martial arts or other styles of tai chi and are looking to reach a new level of understanding. This is also the case with students of Chinese philosophy, Qigong, or Chinese medicine.

Phases of Practice

When I began learning tai chi, I experienced distinct phases of practice. I have watched others go through the same:

Beginning Practice – The first few days of practice are very difficult, as the mind and body are challenged in new ways. Many do not make it past this phase, but those who persevere, soon reach a point where the initial difficulty fades.

6 months to 1 year – This is the infatuation phase. During this phase students realize that tai chi practice is benefiting their lives in ways they hadn’t anticipated.

It is like falling in love. Throughout the day you may find yourself thinking about tai chi, and looking forward to class all week.

1-2 years – There is a false sense of understanding and arises at this time. Students have learned the basic movements, which brings a sense of confidence. They feel they understand tai chi practice, although they do have not seen the deeper levels. This confidence can also lead to boredom. They think they have seen and learned all tai chi has to offer. At this point, many students would quit due, but fortunately during this phase, students also begin to see real benefit from their practice. They have reached the goal that brought them to practice. Their overall happiness is increased. These benefits are usually enough to motivate students to continue through this tricky phase.

3-4 Years – Around this time, many students reach a level of understanding that they had not previously known was possible. Sometimes this happens through sudden realization, but it is usually a gradual deepening of understanding. Tai chi has become who you are. Typically I do not give my students permission to teach until this has happened. This deepening of understanding happens again and again over your years of practice.

Practice Methods

Because each student is different, a one-sized-fits all approach will not work. Our bodies are different, and our minds are different. Some students learn quickly, and others need more repetition and reinforcement.   All tai chi teachers are different. Teaching is based on the teacher’s personal experience, which will be different from other teachers. Despite these differences, there are certain training methods that make up a tai chi class.

Stretching – This improves flexibility and lengthens the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. I find qigong very useful for this.

Warm up – In my classes, I like to use auxiliary movements as a warm-up, including squats to strengthen thigh muscles, and punches to wake up the upper body.

Standing meditation – This is an essential part of tai chi practice. It develops mental focus and awareness of subtle energies in the body as well as settles the mind. It has the added benefit of developing strength in arms and legs.

Stance practice – Practicing the stances alone helps build muscle memory. It allows the body time to absorb the structure and builds a mold for structure so that the stances are more likely to be accurate when practiced as part of the form.

Forms – I am a bit of a traditionalist. If a movement in the form is not correct, I will not move on and teach the student more until it is correct. Once the form has been learned correctly, and the person has practiced it for some time, you will begin to see some small changes in the form. Their bad habits begin to rise to the surface. If left uncorrected, they will become habit. At this point, it is very important to work through the form with them and sort out these small details.

When students are first learning the form, talking too much about breath has a detrimental effect of their movements. Once the body is familiar with the form, you only need to say a few things about the breathing, and they can do it accurately. In the beginning you can explain the breathing for days, and they will not be able to incorporate it. It is too much at once.

Applications – Many people are very interested in learning applications at the very beginning. However, it is important for them to become familiar with the form first.   There are certain principles that must be found in the movements and then carried over to the applications. Otherwise, the applications can have an adverse effect on the movements, and the necessary principles will not be there.

Principles

Watching videos of Wudang tai chi, you will notice that it looks different from other forms to tai chi. When teaching students, there are certain principles that I find myself circling back to. I will discuss these more in detail in a future blog entry:

  • Soft (柔)
  • Light (轻)
  • Relaxed (松)
  • Expansive (宽)
  • Quiet (静)
  • Sunken (沉)
  • Upright (正)
  • Lively (活)
  • Circular (转)

What do you think about my reflections? Has your experience been the same or different?   What brought you to tai chi practice? Which phase of practice are you in? What are your practice methods? What principles do you see in your art?

Leave a message and let me know!