Personal Development

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.

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 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.

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