Personal Development

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 of writing about it – let alone speak of it as normal, when they may well find the prospect completely frightening, foreign, unnecessary, invasive and more – especially if it involves touch across the gender line. If that is you please bear with me and understand that this is one of those deeply personal subjects that spans very divergent extremes.

You may be someone who emotionally or for religious reasons avoids interpersonal contact completely – or you may be a martial artist or sports person into wrestling, dancing or similar, to whom close/intimate contact with strangers is normal, necessary and an important learning tool. So this piece is intended to address those people more toward the avoiding end of the spectrum with the hope that you may be somewhat reassured and perhaps even encouraged.

Humans are a social species with close personal contact ingrained in our psyche from ancient ancestral grooming and physical closeness in communal living. This is something our modern society has led us to draw away from in recent generations. It is also something associated with our vulnerability and our sexuality – so today many of us do not comfortably interact with close touch especially with strangers in public even in a relatively controlled group environment. Nonetheless when we see a child or adult crying (especially close family or friend) our first, and natural response is usually to make some sort of physical contact – maybe to hug, kiss or massage it better.

We need to remember our ancestral roots and the physical communication that is such a fundamental part of our species existence. Interestingly once people cross that intellectual fear barrier they generally become quite comfortable with partner work and physical correction – as they come to understand it’s benefits and how physical interaction forms an essential part of the healing and learning processes – especially with an internal art such as Tai Chi.

Personally I was brought up in a family both distant and smothering derived from post Victorian parenting – which led to a very conflicted view of this subject, but now with the perspective of martial arts training since 1971 it is really not a problem, except in judging and dealing with the extent to which students – especially female beginners – are comfortable with this vitally important aspect of Tai Chi. Issues of pain, responsibility, respect, appropriateness and intimidation are replaced by the benefits of enhanced awareness, clearer understanding, easier trust on many levels, the use of pain signals in learning and healing as well as an appreciation of how physical communication can enhance relationships by grounding and bonding the partners

Not only is touch an extremely quick way to communicate, it is also a very reliable way that can communicate many things words are completely incapable of conveying – we should remember that words after all only make up 30% of communication – visually physical and tonal voice cues generally make up the remaining 70% – until we factor in touch which often overrides all the rest – try closing your eyes and moving around a bit. It is difficult to lie with touch or physical expression, whereas words and intellectual models are not only inaccurate but make lying easy and common.

Clearly this is a much bigger subject than a few martial artists training together – if you do not include partner work in your training you will be missing out on the very core of Tai Chi and risk being blinded by lack of understanding that goes with the un-knowingness of simply not having the experience. Fears are involved here so I would strongly urge Tai Chi practitioners – actually probably everybody – to look at what is stopping them from dealing with them. If you choose not to that is fine – it is your choice, but in my view a severley limiting one.

 

 

Attending a martial arts class may well be very different to other activities you have undertaken and it should be remembered that Tai Chi is a martial art – and I believe it is extremely important that this link is maintained. This is part of their paradox which I have written about elsewhere.  So the following are a few personal thoughts drawn from 45 years’ experience, which may forewarn and help a beginner to navigate and benefit from a class – they are all based on long held deeply personal ideas of equality, respect for the individual, and personal choice and responsibility, which are values I have found within martial arts and the underlying philosophies of Zen Buddhism and Taoism but sadly not so well understood elsewhere.

If the instructor says he/she is going to demonstrate, they will take care to be in a position to be observed but you can help yourself by moving to a position where you can see what you need to – which is probably at the front – so do not stand behind unless you actually want to see their back view. An obvious point but often forgotten.

Individual positions in the class may be quite loose – make sure that you can see the instructor and have room to move adequately – take care that you do not block the view of others or their practice space. You may need to adjust your position during the course of the class in this way you can respect your class mates and look after your own learning process.

Equally, you will benefit from knowing which is your left hand and which is your right – if you do not then be sure to copy the teacher attentively. When the teacher is demonstrating pay close attention, learn to observe thoroughly.

Learning anything new is difficult and stressful so if you have difficulty do not worry – we all did and still do! So do not expect that you will become “relaxed” at your first class – like most things it takes work. You may think that it is important to know the names of the moves but actually not at all necessary and often a distraction from learning the way of moving which is really much more important. Of course I use many of the names in my classes and there are lists on the internet but it is a mistake to concentrate on this. Likewise music in classes and the use of videos. By all means use videos as an aid memoire, but personally I find them only really of value once I have learned the basics from a teacher and frequently confuse the beginner.

Practice what you can remember between classes. I find there is a window after a class (24 hours for me) when repetition on my own is vital to learning new moves. Daily practice is then important to implant the memory – the gaps can be filled in at classes. I tend to offer that students can video short sections of a demonstration for personal use as an aid if they wish, otherwise there are many videos of the forms online. As for the exercises there are just so many, but following requests from my students I have put a selection online at www.alternativehealthexercises.org

Over the years I have been to classes where the teacher drives students to practice – turn up at every class etc., and to others where no comment is passed beyond encouragement to practice – of the two I far prefer the latter. It is up to you what you put in and consequently what you get out – your choice. Although if you do not actually learn the choreography then you may restrict what can be done in the class and so impact the learning of your classmates – a question of both self-interest and respect for others.

We are all adults and can choose to be at a class or not – if you want to train then you turn up. There is little point in talking about it – you are there or you aren’t. Turn up, you are taught – don’t and you aren’t.

In fact talking about it is often only a distraction but many people insist on doing so. Likewise, there is no compulsion to do anything once in the class (although a bit pointless if you don’t) as adult students can decide for themselves. Those choices add up over the years.

As a student you are paying the teacher but really that is not what it is all about – in my experience I have been lucky in finding teachers who are primarily motivated by a love of sharing the art not so much by the money – yes it is an issue but once dealt with then we move onto the training and the sharing of knowledge which is the really important part. This is not always the case and you will make your own mind up about the teacher you find.

Regarding injuries or medical problems, by all means tell your teacher about it, but they cannot do anything about your condition (however concerned they may be)  and really the advice always comes to the same thing – that you work with your healthcare professional, do not over exert – adapt the exercises to suit your capability, rest if you need to, drink if you need and use the opportunity of the class to learn about your body, any pain that you may experience and how to work within the limits of your ability. These are surely obvious but may be worth repeating in case you have not considered them before. In this way you can perhaps learn how to look after yourself in the broadest sense, learn to work within your comfort zone, but also to expand the boundary a little in a way that you can handle.

Remember we are all responsible adults here so whatever the teacher says or does is only a suggestion – a sharing of their own experience – an offering of the opportunity to experience a certain type of movement so that you may find your own experience from which you can learn and choose how to manage your body through that experience.

There are three types of communication in a Tai Chi class:

  • Verbal
  • Demonstration
  • Physical correction

They are all important – perhaps the most important and least understood is physical correction. This is not arbitrary but a well thought out and long established process that can achieve things otherwise not possible, so if you are not comfortable with it then discuss with the teacher, but ultimately it will limit your ability to learn and the teacher’s ability to teach. This is a given expectation in a martial arts class, so if the teacher seeks to make a physical correction or makes a direct suggestion to you which is outside your comfort zone in a way you choose not to go along with, then is the time to explain – “I have a knee/shoulder/back problem, do not want to be touched” or other so that the instructor can work with you the best they can. It is your body but you wouldn’t go for a massage unless you expected to be touched and manipulated would you – likewise in a martial arts class. Until you try you do not know your limit – and neither does the teacher who can work with you if you communicate with them. In Tai Chi often the advice is simply if it hurts don’t go there, make the movement smaller, find a way to make the movement more relaxed and softer, work around the pain – but then in health terms if it hurts to make a movement why would you do it anyway – you are an adult, you have a choice – simply modify the exercise to suit you.  It is worth understanding that martial artists are often different in this respect and do often choose to do many painful things for the perceived benefits they may bring.

Partner work may be incorporated in your class – this can be a very useful part of the learning experience but will depend on the level of the class – if it is health focused then it can vary from observing a partner to moving arms together – in martial oriented classes it can get rough. Again it is a question of what you are “up for” and your choice but it would be sensible to choose a class that suits you. In any event there is a negotiation to be had with your teacher and your partner – which may be verbal or simply physical.

Non-verbal physical communication is a major part of martial arts but little understood by beginners who can be wary of physical contact – we ask questions by contact, we express intent by pressure, we answer by movement, we express emotions by our balance, we listen by touch and much, more. Learning to do this is an important way of learning about your body and how to work with it, if you do not “learn this language” then you actually cannot learn many things of great benefit or communicate fully since words are frequently inadequate ( only 30% of communication I believe).

It is important that you learn to look after yourself from your experience in all senses and learn to take responsibility for your own behaviour by being appropriate with your teacher and other students.

For context and other related articles please see the beginners guide at : http://www.sheffordtaichi.org/classes/ which covers:

For the history of Tai Chi see here.

For general reading of my other articles: please see here

Also for material by others that I have found useful please see the reading list here

and the links page here.

Every now and again ( 10 years or so) I ask myself “why am I practicing martial arts?” and usually I get a fairly simple answer – this time I am grateful to a student who prompted me to ask it once again and this time to come up with a very much more complicated answer – for interest it was essentially a list of things I have found over the years in and around martial arts and continue to work on, in no particular order:

Co-operative working, working with partners, group working, appropriate response, flexibility, strength, resilience, difference between reaction and responsiveness, commitment and over commitment, balance, relaxed movement, falling into emptiness, leading and following, physically listening and asking questions, the language of physical contact, empathy, compassion, patience, modelling an activity, learning about the mind body emotional linkages, learning about the body – how it works and how to use it and how to look after it, awareness of self and others, respect for self and others, personal development, communication, negotiation, sensitivity, the art of listening, observation skills, understanding use and abuse of power, good/evil,  a mirror to myself, humility, developing a true lens to view reality, physical development, co-ordination, congruence of mind body and emotions, honesty, forgiveness, personal defense, fitness, health, openness, desire for learning.

To become comfortable with and learn to manage physical contact, to learn to deal with conflict and intimidation, to learn self-awareness and self-discipline and self-control and self-expression, to improve proprioception/special awareness, neuro-stimulation, circulation/metabolism, change management, learning to deal with bullying, managing personal space and intimacy, training in a place of safety/sacred space, training partners trusted persons, friendship/companionship, maintaining contact with our ancestry as human animals, finding the true meaning of our humanity, becoming a balanced human being – personal development, change habits of stress into habits of relaxation, managing health issues, develop strength and understand personal power, spiritual development, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, understand the breadth and variety of human activities and relations, giving others the opportunity to learn some of this for themselves, receiving the positive feedback of others who have benefited from my passing this on, potentially making a difference in helping others to look after themselves and to consider society from a wider perspective.

Also I enjoy it, so no doubt not a complete list – and with many overlaps – but a useful one. Good luck in finding your own answers.

Develop your journey with Tai Chi

As a martial artist (since starting Karate in the early 70’s) and as someone interested in my own personal development, I have experienced many styles around the world and many approaches to personal growth.

Now in my 60’s I try to share what I have learned in those areas and seek to facilitate others in finding their own path. I eventually settled on Chen Style Tai Chi when, having reached the level of 4th Dan, I found it made my Karate much more effective and was better for my body and mind.

Tai Chi is ideal in many respects – martial, health, physical, emotional and intellectual since it has the scope to bring together real world experience with movement and mental/emotional concepts.

Tai Chi is increasingly recognised as a formidable martial art and as a major contribution to continued personal health, e.g. in the realm of falls prevention – see the World Health Organisation. The emotional and spiritual concepts associated with Tai Chi are practical and well proven, e.g. Traditional Chinese Medicine, Buddhism, Taoism, psychology, neuroscience, bio-mechanics. They find much resonance today in helping us each achieve our own harmony with the increasingly stressed societies in which we live.

The end result is more effective movement in all areas – it is said that “you can put Tai Chi into anything – but you can’t put anything into Tai Chi”. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek really since Tai Chi has somehow managed already to hoover up what is useful and reduce it down to some simple principles.

There are many reasons for practicing Tai Chi, here are some of them:

  • Hit a ceiling in other martial arts practice
  • To become more effective as a martial artist
  • Develop a skill in managing health issues, e.g. balance, suppleness, injuries
  • Mental, emotional growth
  • Maintain health and ability into old age – excellent for aiding age related diseases
  • It’s really useful
  • Find the fun again!

Relax and feel the background noise

7 September 2016
Thumbnail image for Relax and feel the background noise

We seem to start often from a position of tension when we cannot feel much of what is going on in our bodies because it is both clamped down and swamped by the tension. When more relaxed we begin to feel the movement of our muscles and skeleton. Further relaxed this movement quietens and we […]

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 →

The Martial Arts Path of Personal and Social Development – a Mind Map

6 July 2016
Thumbnail image for The Martial Arts Path of Personal and Social Development – a Mind Map

A piece containing thought provoking ideas and observations linking martial arts and life with a view to learning what goes on in life and why – and how we can develop to deal with it. For example: Conflict and co-operation in social groups – social rules limiting combat and aiding working together. A superior survival […]

Read the full article →

Moving Across the Spectrum – a look at the relationship between Karate and Tai Chi

30 June 2016
Thumbnail image for Moving Across the Spectrum – a look at the relationship between Karate and Tai Chi

This is an early piece written in a time of my transition from Karate to Tai Chi and before I started Chen Style – or met my current teacher Karel Koskuba or his teacher Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang – so probably about 15 years ago or possibly more. ———————————————————————- To put my position clearly I should […]

Read the full article →

(Half) A Lifetime in Martial Arts – some personal experiences of the wider territory covered over 38 years

9 June 2016
Thumbnail image for (Half) A Lifetime in Martial Arts – some personal experiences of the wider territory covered over 38 years

As a young person I found I was seeking “something” not then available from my environment – an understanding of life, of people etc. With science and sports based interests I was completely unsatisfied with the mainstream western/middle-eastern religions and cultures – the far-east promised something different and Karate with its Japanese philosophical connections and […]

Read the full article →