I’ve been an Instructor of Tai Chi for a number of years now, and a student of Tai Chi much longer than that. Over that time my knowledge and understanding of what Tai Chi ‘is’ has changed and evolved from the first time I stepped into a class, and certainly from my idea of what it was before I took my first class. In hindsight, I can honestly say I had no idea what Tai Chi ‘is’, or what to expect from attempting to learn it. Today my only regret is that I didn’t start learning it many years before that first class!
Over more than 20 years involvement in Tai Chi I’ve seen a lot of students come and go. Of the ones that go, there is, in my observation, a lot of leave because the class they attend turns out to be something different than what they expected, or what they are looking for. Similarly, many people who I talk to about Tai Chi and encourage to take it on don’t because they’ve already formed an idea (bias might be a better word) of what it is and determined it’s not for them.
I’m known for saying, “if I had my way, everybody would do Tai Chi.” I say this as a Tai Chi Instructor, as a physical therapist, as a friend and colleague, as a parent, as a member of the community. In my personal and professional opinions – biased though they might be – Tai Chi (and Qigong) is one of the few things that can benefit everyone who does it.
So if you’re debating whether to try a Tai Chi class, or maybe you’ve just started or just about to start a class, I’d like to offer you six pieces of advice so that you can get the most from your introduction to Tai Chi.
Keep an Open Mind
Many people who begin Tai Chi usually do so with an idea of what it’s going to be like – and often, that idea is not at all what it turns out to be. I feel this is because our broader society has developed a preconceived idea – a stereotype, if you like – of what Tai Chi ‘is’. For example:
- Tai Chi is just for “old people” (it is not, it’s for everybody and the younger you start the more benefit you’ll get);
- Tai Chi is just slow movements/exercises (it is not; not only are there sets and styles where at least some movements are performed very quickly, Tai Chi requires attention and focus to understand not just the movements but the affect they have on the body, the mind and the spirit);
- Tai Chi isn’t a real martial art (it is – taijiquan, the Grand Ultimate Fist – even if the martial aspect is not always emphasized, the martial art is still there);
- Tai Chi isn’t really exercise (it is, and research is finding it’s just as, if not more, effective as other forms of low- to moderate-intensity exercises for building strength, balance, endurance and improving flexibility, reducing weight, benefiting mental and emotional states, etc.);
and the list goes on. The fact is: if you’ve never experienced Tai Chi for yourself, chances are you really don’t know what it’s about – and that’s a good thing! Even if you have undertaken some form of Tai Chi class, depending on the quality and experience of your Instructor, you may not have really been exposed to the essence of Tai Chi.
You must keep an open mind, and be willing to learn what Tai Chi is, and is all about. Forget the stereotypes. Understand that Tai Chi is as much about the experience as it is about performing the movements. In that respect, what Tai Chi ‘is’ becomes a very personal thing: you will come to realize that the question is not “what is Tai Chi?”, but rather, “what is Tai Chi to me?”. That way, you will get as much as you want to get from it – maybe even more.
It’s About Learning, Not Imitation
Starting a Tai Chi class is not like starting an exercise class. If you go to an aerobics class, or a spin class, or even some yoga classes, you are essentially just following along with the instructor or presenter. While there is an aspect of learning, especially if, for example, you need to follow a routine or perform an unfamiliar exercise, that learning often remains within the classroom. Few people would go home and practice what they did in class. Some might not even think about what they did once they walk out the door. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s more that these classes are structured in a way that you don’t need to learn the routines, because each time you come to class, you can just follow along with the the instructor says or does.
Tai Chi is different. Like any other skill set, getting the most out of Tai Chi means that you need to learn it; not just the what or the how but the when, where and why as well. This involves more than just practice (though as you’ll see below that’s important as well!) – it always requires some absorption and reflection of each lesson you take. If you only attend class and try to follow along with what the Instructor or the other students are doing, without giving the time and attention to learning for yourself what needs to be done, then ultimately you might be engaging in some useful exercise, perhaps even practicing some good Kung Fu, but you will not be performing Tai Chi.
One of my favorite sayings related to Tai Chi is: “How long does it take to learn Tai Chi? More than one lifetime.” Your initial reaction to this might be, “why bother then?”; hear me out.
Now more than ever, our society has instilled in us a sense, dare I say a need, for instant gratification. So many things can be offered and provided to us on demand, that it’s become an expectation that anything that we want or need we can have right now. This isn’t just about information: if we’re hungry, there’s drive thru, or microwavable meals, or snacks. If I want something, I go to a store and buy it, or better yet, order it online and have it delivered to me, sometimes within the same day. No money? Get it on credit. Want to lose weight? Don’t spend months or years on exercising – take this drug. While these things benefit us in many ways and can make our lives easier and more enjoyable, it also skews our expectations when it comes to things that take time and effort to gain.
As an Instructor I see it a lot. There are always people who join the class and are constantly wanting to move things along, to learn the next movement or next section or next form, even though they don’t know what I’ve already shown them! I call this the “I want Tai Chi now” mentality.
It doesn’t work like that. Unfortunately, there are people out there who take advantage of this mentality in society and promise to be able to teach you Tai Chi in weekend, or become an Instructor in two weeks. Again: it doesn’t work like that. Yet for some people, when they don’t get Tai Chi “now”, they get frustrated, and then discouraged, and then give up.
Learning Tai Chi is a process, and as your understanding of it deepens with experience, you will come to realize it’s an ongoing process. There is always something more to learn, something more to explore, something that can be improved upon or refined further. I’ve been fortunate in my lifetime and experience to have worked with a number of martial arts Masters who, after 40, or 50, or even 60 years of practicing their art still refer to themselves as “students”. As my Master often said, “when you think you’ve got it, go deeper.”
Understand this: you are not expected to understand everything, and perform your Tai Chi at a Master level, after your first class. Or even after your tenth, or hundredth, or thousandth class. It is not about “getting it right”. It’s about growing, developing, and improving over time. A good Instructor will understand this and demonstrate the patience needed to achieve this by allowing you to work at your own pace. You just need the patience to continue to want to strive for it. I often tell my students that every time I perform my Tai Chi, I learn something new, and my hope is I never stop learning.
Were you one of those people at school that didn’t like to ask questions? Either because you thought you already knew it, or your classmates would laugh at you, or your were afraid of looking stupid, or for some other reason that probably seemed important at the time, but on reflection really wasn’t? I was, and it took time and effort for me to overcome that. However, if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this article for you to read today.
The only way to learn something, to strengthen your understanding and become proficient at something, is to ask questions. This is more than just putting up your hand in class and asking a question, though that is important and something I definitely encourage. It’s about seeking out the information that you need in order for the thing your learning to become meaningful to you. This might mean putting up your hand, however it might also mean having a discussion with your Instructor and/or your other classmates, or reading a book or online article, or watching a video, or even just some self-reflection. It might also mean that instead of an answer you’re left with more questions – that’s great! It’s that kind of thinking that will lead you to more knowledge and a greater understanding.
If you want to learn Tai Chi, ask a lot of questions. As I often say to my students: the question you have is probably one that ten other students have, yet if none of you ask it, all of you miss out on the opportunity to learn.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
A previous Master of a different martial art style used to reflect on his Master’s response when he got something correct: “Good! Now, do it ten thousand times!”
If you want to learn and become good at anything, you must devote time to practicing it, and Tai Chi is no exception. Elite sports agencies – those involved in top-level professional sports or events such as the Olympics – have determined through research that to achieve an ‘elite’ or ‘master’ level in a sport, an athlete needs to train for at least 10,000 hours. To put that in perspective, if you practiced for one hour every single day, it would take about 27 years and 4 months to achieve ‘elite’ or ‘master’ status – and that’s before we even look at the quality of your practice. I can assure you that blazing fastball you see a pitcher deliver came about from thousands of hours and tens-of-thousands of pitches prior to that one. Similarly, that stunning ballet performance that looks so strong and graceful and effortless came from thousands and thousands of hours practicing different positions and learning new choreography.
I’m not saying you have to devote that much time to your Tai Chi, however it is important to understand that you do need to practice in at least some capacity in order to be able to learn it effectively.
In the first instance, you need to learn the movements, and the sequence they are performed in. A typical Tai Chi class will seek to teach you more and more of the sequence with each class. This means that with each successive class, you are expected to remember (at least for the most part) what the previous movement you learned was. Unless you have an exceptional talent for learning new skills, or an eidetic memory, you are going to need to practice what you’ve learned in order to be able to retain it and then build upon it from class to class.
Once you know the sequence well enough to perform it from start to finish, the real work of finding your Tai Chi begins. There is always refinement to be done, always things that can be improved. My Tai Chi today is different from the Tai Chi I was doing when I was competing years ago, which was far different from the Tai Chi I was doing when I first started. You can only achieve this growth through practice.
Though I put this last, in could also be the first thing to consider. Arguably the most important piece of advice I can give you to learn Tai Chi is: enjoy it. Take pleasure in learning something new, in performing your forms, in seeing how the Tai Chi affects your body, your mind, and your spirit over time. Enjoy the challenge that comes with learning Tai Chi. Make attending class the highlight (or at least one of them) of your day. When you can enjoy doing something it becomes less of a chore or a task and more something you want, even desire, to do. It becomes part of your life, part of who you are. Your Tai Chi should be a positive thing in your life, something that you look forward to, and feel great for having done it.
I look forward to seeing you in class!