My friend Kevin Pennell is having workshop Saturday afternoon, QiGong for Bodyworkers. If you can make, please do, he is a very good teacher and has a lot to share.
1 – Where to find a teacher is, of course, dependent upon having one or more within the area you live or are willing to travel to. While Tai Chi instruction has been easier to find these days than when I first studied, sadly there has not been a concurrent increase in the availability of truly quality teaching (which will be addressed in the answer to your second question.) I studied with an exceptionally gifted martial artist who had benefited from the study under several great teachers, both American and Chinese. He taught privately but also through the continuing education department of the local university. I have taught privately, through the continuing education department at the university, a hospital at which I worked as a senior citizen wellness outreach, and at several churches. I’ve also done seminars at some national and regional health conferences. Sometimes an internet search using the terms “Tai Chi” and your location will yield information on the teachers and classes in your area. I have had several students who found me that way.
2 – A good Tai Chi teacher must have a number of qualities, foremost of which I believe is a solid knowledge of Tai Chi principles of structure and movement, not just knowledge of the form sequence(s). I have encountered a number of teachers who know a form sequence but upon their demonstration reveal an inability to manifest the most basic principles of structure. I’m much more impressed by a teacher who can perform even a simple Tai Chi form with correct structure and movement than with one who performs a more complicated form but fails to embody the principles. As the old saying goes, “I don’t fear the 10,000 kicks you have practiced once, I fear the one kick you have practiced 10,000 times.”
A good teacher should be able to ascertain and meet the prospective student’s needs or refer the student to a teacher who can, if available. Not all students are interested in the martial aspects of Tai Chi. Many only want the health and relaxation benefits. I insist upon all of my students learning several of the martial applications for each posture and movement, even the health-seeking ones. Without an understanding of the utility of the movement, inconsistencies in performance will manifest, as well as a lack of the proper internal energetics. I believe that awareness of the application leads to proper performance, thereby allowing the health benefits to develop more fully.
A good teacher must have a good understanding of why Tai Chi works from a physical perspective. I am fortunate to have education and employment as an exercise physiologist. I was able to work intensively with my teacher to explore the biomechanics of every movement over a period of several years, taking movements apart to look at leverage, spiraling power, etc. I don’t think we should be filling students’ heads with tales of extraordinary capabilities that are not explicable through mechanical means. More on that below.
A good teacher should be able to find a way to communicate principles to students using examples and analogies the student can grasp. Each student presents a unique challenge as well as a unique opportunity. The teacher must adapt the teachings to be able to reach the student. This is not to say that each student needs one on one teaching, but as we know, one size does not necessarily fit all. I try to find contemporary explanations and analogies that my students will understand to convey information that was conveyed in quite different terms centuries ago in China.
And a good teacher should be able to provide evidence of good teaching experience. I actually had a woman (a complete beginner) study with me for a few weeks, then go to a local health club and offer to teach, saying that she was a trained by me. Luckily, they contacted me for a recommendation. Otherwise, her lack of teaching ability would have reflected poorly on me and would have been a disservice to her unsuspecting students.
3 – I advise that, once you have located a teacher or school, ask if you may observe a class. Does the teacher appear to have genuine knowledge of what he or she is teaching? Can the teacher answer questions directly and clearly, and if so, do the answers make sense? Does the teacher promote ideas of Tai Chi enabling practitioners to perform superhuman feats? I attended a seminar one time where the “master” demonstrated his chi by moving his blindfolded senior student from 15 feet away, then by cutting an unpeeled banana in half from the same distance while not cutting the skin. All nonsense, of course. But some teachers rely upon such demonstrations and tall tales to attract students.
The fee structure of the class can be revealing. Is it a “McDojo” approach, where students pay a fee to achieve a certain rank, then another fee for the next, and so on? I personally do not have ranks in my teaching but know some capable teachers who do. It’s something they feel they must do to attract students with the western mindset. If possible, speak to several of the teacher’s students, not necessarily the senior students. Is there a “follow the guru” attitude among them? I discourage that in my students. I want them to be skeptical and challenge me on as many points in my teaching as possible.
4 – You didn’t ask this one, but what does a good Tai Chi student bring to the table? An open mind and willingness to learn. A bit of skepticism and inquiry. A desire to learn slowly and thoroughly. A willingness to “empty your cup” to allow new knowledge to enter. I always ask new students if they have a martial arts background. If they do, I make sure they know that what I teach will differ dramatically from what they experienced before. If they want to have a “yeah, but in Tae Kwon Do or Wing Chun we…” conversation, I’m happy to engage in it after class rather than take up everyone’s class time.
Purchase a copy of his book by clicking the link below.
This is a common and difficult problem.
It is a problem for the beginning student in particular and also a problem for people who want to try another teacher. Teachers, too, have a problem. They are always looking for good students. One famous teacher from China said that only one in 10,000 students is really good. A beginning student, because of his or her lack of knowledge about T‘ai Chi Ch‘uan, will not be able to tell who is a good teacher. It would appear that a friend‘s recommendation of a teacher would solve the problem. But often this doesn’t work out because the right chemistry is missing between the teacher and the new student or because the student‘s expectations are not fulfilled, even by a good teacher. There are several approaches to finding the right teacher for you. The first is trying to physically find what teachers are within your area.
After inquiring among friends, try the following:
Check the yellow pages for martial arts schools and ask them if they teach T‘ai Chi Ch‘uan or know who does. Inquire at junior colleges, four-year colleges, and universities in your area about classes. They screen people before letting them teach. Check local bookstores and New Age newspapers in your area for listings of classes or workshops.
Inquire at recreation departments, acupuncture schools, New Age institutes, YMCAs, or YWCAs. Some spas and hospitals also offer classes.
There are listings on the Internet that could give you leads.
This is the easy part. Once you have found out about some classes, even before visiting classes, you want to take a personal inventory of what you want to learn.
Do you want to learn T‘ai Chi for health, self-defense, recreation, fitness, or spiritual growth? Or some or all of the above?
A realistic understanding of what you want to learn and what kind of effort you are willing to make is important. Also, evaluate what kind of difficulty you are able to put up with. Even simplest forms of T‘ai Chi require regular practice on your own and self-study to understand the dynamics and structure. Of course, people rarely do this. But making even a small effort to get this kind of self-understanding will help you make the transition to T‘ai Chi practitioner. The next step is to visit some of the classes being offered and observe what is being taught and how it is being taught. Most advice about this usually says to ask about the teacher‘s credentials. Has he or she been teaching for a long time? Has he been practicing T‘ai Chi Ch‘uan for a long time? Has he learned from a respected teacher or in a traditional lineage? Is he or she teaching something that has some tradition or is it something he or she created? Did he learn from a book or a video, or from a teacher with good credentials? Ideally, these are good things to know. Practically, they may not be much help. People who teach for a long time, may not be that good of a teacher, or their method of teaching may not be appropriate for you. Even a traditional lineage is not a guarantee of a good teacher, while if it is something he created, then you know that this is probably not what you want to learn. If the teacher has a large class or has been teaching for some time, you may not really be taught by the teacher, but by a senior student. Also, someone who has not been teaching a long time may be a better teacher because of their fresh enthusiasm and approach to teaching. In regards to the teacher‘s manner, some teachers are strict and even may appear gruff but really have a heart of gold. Others may be smooth and may use it only to their own advantage. Also, you want to observe how he teaches and interacts with students and how they interact with him. But it not enough for the teacher just to be kindly and friendly. Do you want to learn what you see him teaching? Be aware that it is awkward for a teacher, who has been teaching a long time, to be asked a lot of questions regarding his ability and credentials. Some teachers find that the prospective students who ask the least questions and just join the class can be the best students because they are not hampered by negative thinking.
So, what are you going to do?
Invest some time and money in a month of classes. One class won‘t tell you much unless it is really bad. Then, if you are unhappy, you can try another teacher. Keep in mind that every teacher wants to find good students. They usually would not be teaching if they didn‘t love their art. Be aware that learning something like T‘ai Chi is not easy, although teachers try to help students work through the difficulties. Generally, if you have a good deal of desire and an intensity to learn, it will probably involve a lot of difficulty and frustration. That is not a bad thing. It helps to hone a better result. Remember, also, that the teacher is there to help you, but the learning is up to you. The best teacher cannot do the learning for you. Most importantly, the best teacher you will ever have is yourself. You need to cultivate the ability to have a dialog with yourself about what you are learning and motivate and encourage yourself to learn.
This doesn’t mean you can teach yourself out of your imagination or from a book or video. Just that you have to really apply yourself to what is taught. Also, your inner teacher has to be constantly looking for ways to improve what you are learning and practicing. This inner teacher has to be developed. Usually, the best students and teachers have this and the best teacher will teach directly to this inner teacher within you. Ultimately, a teacher can take you so far. Then you have to be able to develop yourself for yourself. As a student and teacher, most teachers have had to do this. If you can do this, too, your learning will go on endlessly.
Don’t ride in the taxi to nowhere. Why are you hurrying to get there? The rides probably not worth the price before you hop in think twice. The driver thinks he knows where he’s going, but he doesn’t even have a clue. He’s taken a seminar on two weekends, and now he’s “certified” as a Sifu.
Don’t get on the path to nowhere, because your time and money will fly. In the end, your studies may be worthless, and you will only be able to sigh. If you think “Oh, it’s all good,” you will be in for a shock, even with the best intentions, this Sifu can’t take you around the block.
Before you get into the taxi, open your eyes, look and see–you need to make sure your driver can get you where you want to be. It’s not about how fast you go, or even the scenery, it’s all about the skill and the heart of the one who drives the taxi.
With the right teacher, you have a chance of getting somewhere wonderful.
With the wrong teacher, well…. good luck, you’re gonna need it.
Well, not exactly how much do you weigh. But, are you balanced? I use this technique in virtually all of my classes. Try this at a practice session or class. To start, you will need two scales calibrated identically. You will also need one other person to measure the results. Then place both scales on the ground about shoulder-width apart, then stand on them, one foot on each scale, now staring straight ahead tried to place 50% of your weight each foot. Don’t look at the scales. When you think you are balanced let your friend know and they should measure the difference between both scales. So, if one scale measures 65lbs. and the other indicates 80lbs. they would write down 15lbs. Then, continue with your Tai Chi session like normal. At the end of the session perform the same procedure. I have found that 93% of the time (yes, I actually measure the results) the difference in practitioners’ weight has decreased more than 50%.
If you use the numbers from the example above The practitioner was putting 15lbs more on one foot each step they took prior to class. Not to mention all the alignment issues of the joints. After the Tai Chi session, the difference is less than 7lbs. This is tangible evidence that Tai Chi has immediate benefit for those who practice
This is obviously a play on the Frederick Nietzsche quote, “that which does not kill us makes us stronger”. This is obviously a very positive way of looking at struggles. Most motivational speakers will also say things like “it’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity” or “a problem is a chance to do your best”. But, sometimes a problem is just a problem. When I was growing up in grade school only focused on science so I didn’t develop much of an interactive skill with people. In high school and college, I was only focused on running. I spent years spending most of my free time alone on the roads of Nevada and Oregon running tens of thousands of miles. This beat my body up pretty good. From there I went into the military and volunteered for special forces that training all but destroyed my feet, back, and knees. After I was discharged I started to compete in triathlons again tearing down my body due to excessive use. I have been the poster child of the idea that you need to be the best, train the hardest and sacrifice the most in order to achieve your goals. All of these things that I strived to be the best at required significant sacrifice. Now that I have grown up a bit can take a clear look at how I have lived my life and there is one clear activity that has the benefit without damage, the practice of tai chi. I find that the more I practice my tai chi drive for competition is replaced by peace of mind and my need for approval from others is slowly dissolved as my body and mind are reintegrated. My credo for living life has changed from “be the best” to “be complete”. And from experience, I can tell you it hurts a lot less.
Many of the folks who I have taught Tai Chi to in my career have moved over from external martial arts. They have seen the exhibitions of great strength and Olympic quality gymnastics from the Masters, and they trained diligently to see how far they could advance in the arts. These martial artists come to Tai Chi usually when they are a little older and still want to participate in the arts but have lost a little range of motion, gained a pound or two and realize they will probably not need to pummel four thugs at the same time.
However, most of the people who walk through my doors have no martial arts background and just want to improve their quality of life and they have heard that Tai Chi can help them. One hurdle is that the media including me, promulgate the stories of Tai Chi masters pushing people through walls, breaking bricks without touching them and actually changing the weather just to name a few! Now, how is this going to motivate “Mr. Greene” to join my class who is rehabilitating from back surgery. Well, it won’t. This brings me to a recent TV commercial about some drug where an elderly couple are standing in a sand trap of a golf course, the husband states that he plays golf badly and he wants to continue to do so and this drug will help him. Being a golfer myself I totally understand. I was fortunate enough in my younger days to have a job photographing pro golfers in tournaments. What they could do with a golf ball and club was almost magical. We can compare this almost directly with Tai Chi. The benefits of Tai Chi for most of us our enjoyment, better balance, coordination and inner peace. Anything beyond that is gravy.
Jack London’s credo was:
I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out
in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom
of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.
This is a great quote. However, it doesn’t work too well for tai chi. In tai chi we want to be a sleepy and permanent planet. Many students have come into tai chi expecting to be the master in six months or less. Hey, there are some martial arts schools that promise that, why not tai chi? Well, I call that, “taking the Bruce Lee pill”. People start and they want to know how they can change every aspect of their lives to improve to learn and to experience this mysterious art. They want to change their clothes, change their diet, change their gods, these are the “meteors” of the tai chi world. I do my best with some success in slowing them down. I tell them what they need to do is to go to a local nursery and buy a little tree. Then I tell them to put that tree where they’re going to be doing most of the training. They are still very excited at this point. Then I tell them their tai chi will grow as fast as that tree. This is when I usually get some resistance. Tai chi develops over a period of years. You can’t rush it. If you try speed up the growth of that tree by pulling on it you will only uproot it and it will die. That’s the same as our tai chi evolution. It is a journey. I was once asked by my first mentor, you’ve heard the expression “the ends justifies the means, and the means justifies the ends”. He continued, “but I urge you to live by this phrase, the means is the end”. This idea that each day we practice is our goal. What comes tomorrow is based on today. So, let’s focus on the now. Put 100% of yourself into your project right now. I challenge you to be a uni-tasker. Multitasking is not what it’s cracked up to be.
While practicing tai chi you may find yourself thinking, and my doing it wrong. This is natural. You just need to refocus on your tai chi and try to be in the now. I am reminded of the times my Buddhist friend would come by my home at four in the morning and tap on my window to wake me up for our session of meditation. At the time I was teaching at three schools and working a full-time job at a restaurant. My mind was very full. He told me it was natural for my mind to be full of doubt as I meditated. When that happened I was to refocus on meditation, that was it. He encouraged me that I would be able to focus longer the more I practiced “no mindedness” during our meditation. As soon as I stopped worrying that I was meditating wrong it became easier and I was able to focus. It is natural to feel that your movements are different than your instructors while practicing alone in your backyard. The most important thing is that you are practicing. Even if you are practicing your movement differently than the instructor showed you, it is a lot easier for them to correct you versus teach you the movement again. Because most likely they will be learning a new movement during your next class and having to learn the old movement again plus the new movement you could feel overwhelmed and the urge to quit will enter your mind. So, in summary practice, practice, practice. Right movement or wrong movement both are right.
I am often perplexed by those individuals who need noise around them the entire time they are awake. The subtle awareness needed to experience the vastness of how tai chi can benefit us comes through a sense of peace and quiet. I say this not to preach but because I need to practice it myself. I have plenty of my own demons. I need to practice tai chi. Some of the scariest times I have experienced have been looking into myself. I have tried to learn from them. But I can only get to that point when my mind quiet. My mind is like a mud puddle. When I can’t see clearly through the mud the only way to attain clarity is through peace, quiet and time. The particles settle to the bottom of the puddle. Then clarity is achieved. Take the time the quiet. Avoid distraction. You might be surprised at what you find.