personal awareness

Tai Chi - martial arts culture for beginners - some issues raised for students and teachers as observed from personal experience

It is my hope that the following will help “first timers” better understand and enjoy their early Tai Chi classes since I frequently come across beginners who attend Tai Chi sessions with absolutely no knowledge or understanding of what it is or how classes work – and it seems that this sometimes can lead to an unnecessary disappointment, and that the problem is really about expectations brought into the class – perhaps this piece will help align those expectations with the reality of a class without scaring anybody off – there is no reason to be put off, Tai Chi really is a gentle, caring activity – but it is important to understand that Tai Chi is “what it is” and not what you expect it to be coming from the outside. One might reasonable expect that by going to a class one is going to learn about Tai Chi and indeed of course one will – but the subject is so large and the range of expectations/behaviours so great that it cannot all be encompassed in an introductory class – or possibly a lifetime.

Perhaps the best single piece of advice I can offer is to “learn to look after yourself” in all the possible ways that implies and learn to work within your comfort zone – but that is a lesson in itself.

I was reflecting today on my (arguably variable) abilities as a teacher of Tai Chi – wondering how to better “get it across” to my classes of likewise variable ability, age and education – and was struck by the observation that actually the biggest problem I have is with students who think they know it all. They may exhibit this immediately or it may take a year or two.

I recall advice from one of my teachers in Hong Kong to “be humble” and finding that being humble simply means to have a realistic understanding of ones ability. Such otherwise closed mindedness is a sure barrier to learning on a personal level but worse it can poison a whole class if only by taking up excessive resources and creating distraction – if you are bored or think that the teacher doesn’t know what they are doing then please leave and seek another teacher – or preferably keep quiet, then stay and seek to understand by redoubling your own efforts, rather than blaming someone else.

 

Over the years I have from time to time noticed changes in the way my body moves – recently I have noticed some small changes. Interestingly these changes have begun with very small perturbations in existing patterns – so small I could not properly describe them until a while later after more relaxed practice when they have grown bigger and more defined.
They are initially so small and undefined that it is often not even clear if they are a fault or an improvement until they have grown naturally into an extension of the basic pattern.
I suspect the same is true of other types of behavioural change where the new is developed “underneath” the old habitual pattern before it emerges and eventually replaces it.

I have noticed many cultural differences between studying Tai Chi in the east and in the west – perhaps the most difficult for beginners to understand is the completely different approach to the relationship of teacher to student – a good example is the lack of praise – westerners like to be told they are doing things right as with for hand positions – and if they do not receive this praise they can often become confused and even resentful – but this sort of ego reinforcement can actually be counter productive since it leads the student to focus on “doing it right” or doing more of the “right thing” thinking perhaps that more is better, actually to completely misunderstand what they are being praised for –  in other words leading them to trying too hard in the wrong direction and not paying attention to their movement itself. So in this case praise maybe motivational but often to do completely the wrong thing and so is generally detrimental to the learning process.

In my experience the most a good Tai Chi teacher will risk is the occasional “quite good” in a vague sort of way, maybe once in 5 years – you will know when it is right and learning how to know for yourself is absolutely essential – a teacher can correct and introduce new exercise experiences but reinforcing bad old habits of ego driven body usage is not good Tai Chi or good teaching.

So perhaps the first hurdle in learning Tai Chi is learning how to learn and not to demand that Tai Chi is exactly the same as everything else – if it were then it would not be worth doing.

Partner work – why don’t people like it until they try it?

5 September 2018

I have learned through painful experience that partner work and physical corrections make up a potentially very sensitive subject – martial arts people will probably wonder why I am bothering to write about this at all – whereas beginners or people with no experience of interpersonal physical activity may well recoil that I even dream […]

Read the full article →

Tai Chi – important behaviours

10 August 2016
Thumbnail image for Tai Chi – important behaviours

I was talking one day with a student about the behaviours that might be considered advantageous in a physical conflict – and gave him a homework project to think of a list of 5 or 6 – then to write about them – and of how they might also have positive aspects in constructive relationships. […]

Read the full article →

Feedback and Education in Tai Chi and the human experience

26 July 2016
Thumbnail image for Feedback and Education in Tai Chi and the human experience

As a child in a post war western society of the 50’s feedback was a very hit and miss affair – sometimes literally – but rarely was there useful guidance. It is only in recent times that the growth and popularisation of western psychology has led to study of human behaviour in anything like scientific […]

Read the full article →

A good back for a long life!

29 April 2016

One of my students has a long standing lower back condition which flared up recently to the point that his doctor thought he had slipped a disc – after a couple of weeks rest he came with a few others of the group to my teacher Karel Koskuba for a 3 hour seminar. Before we […]

Read the full article →

Mindfulness in Tai Chi

18 December 2015
Thumbnail image for Mindfulness in Tai Chi

Mindfulness is receiving a lot of attention in “alternative” circles at the moment – but it is worth reflecting that it is, and has been, a vital component of spiritual meditation and of martial arts for centuries – helping us to link mind, body and spirit on a daily basis. For example we use the […]

Read the full article →

What Are Martial Arts Really About?

14 May 2015

The title question “What are Martial Arts Really about?” can be simply answered at the most basic level – survival – and left there. However it is my belief that many things flow from that simple statement. Things which do not go off the point and which are timeless in their relevance to men and women […]

Read the full article →