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.
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