“To learn Taijiquan means to educate oneself” Chen Xiao Wang
For me Taijiquan is something that cannot be taught in the traditional sense but instead something that must be learned by the student. So as an active Taiji instructor I feel that it is my job to facilitate this learning process rather than simply disseminating information. Please take my occasional articles as an exception that proves the rule! For information, while having its uses, is greatly inferior to knowledge. Knowledge is superior because it is practical and comes from direct experience and experience derives from trying things out for yourself (training), continually finding little mistakes here and there, adjusting as you go along and learning from the results. Following instructions or movements blindly or just regurgitating what someone else has said are best avoided as having little value.[ii] These points are particularly salient in regards to learning how to effectively train in disciplines such as Taijiquan, for as the old saying goes: “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is” [iii]
In the West many people relish the theory of Taiji and love to think about it and talk about it but never really get around to doing it. I suppose it is a bit like reading cookery books and thinking about food but never getting round to the actual eating. Movement is like food for the body, an essential requirement for life, and the awareness in action at the heart of Taiji makes this marvelous martial art perhaps the most nutritious food of all.From my experiences of training in China, it’s the other way round. Taiji players there just simply get stuck in to basic practise day after day without drama and thoroughly enjoy the results. It is very normal and down to earth. For the people who are really keen on Taiji, perhaps with the aim of competing or becoming a teacher, then 8 hours a day of serious training for years on end is a norm which rapidly results in a body/mind that is very relaxed, stable, balanced, resilient, agile, powerful and healthy. It is good for us teachers in the UK to have a high bar to aspire to.
“The more details you give people, the more they ask for details.”[iv] Nassim Taleb
For me teaching Taiji full-time has been and continues to be a very enjoyable and fulfilling job and while being self-employed has its own peculiar rigours and responsibilities, the positive aspects of teaching something you love on the whole greatly outweighs the negative. Having been a full-time instructor for about ten years now I have, upon reflection, learned a great deal about the many ways in which people perceive and learn Taiji and engage with the training. In turn, I have learned a lot about how to teach Taiji more effectively and as a sweet unexpected pay-off, improved how I learn myself. Now when my teachers demonstrate, I watch like a hawk. When they briefly explain a point I listen carefully; I am all ears. If they adjust my posture I focus wholly in order to feel it without thought. Then I go away and practise again and again until I understand more clearly through my own felt experience. After that, well I just go back for some more! Rinse and repeat as they say. This all takes a considerable amount of time and in order to learn something well we must not kid ourselves that there is a quick solution or method. We must embrace the process, seeking progress and not perfection. If you try to force the body and mind to change there is usually an undesirable pay off soon to come resulting in injury or at the very least extreme frustration.
“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand”[v] Confucius
In the late 90’s when I was at university and in my first few years of learning Taiji I attended a long weekend seminar with a prominent teacher. It was quite expensive and being a poor student at the time meant that it was a substantial investment for me to fork out so much for the event. Nonetheless I deemed it would be well worth it and conceded that I would have to live on beans and rice for the next little while in order to save the required fees. I was very curious to experience different teachers in my early days in a bid to tentatively piece together just what-was-what in the realm of Taiji and internal martial arts. So when the seminar finally came round I was really looking forwards to learning some top-notch ‘lineage’ Taiji as was clearly advertised. Imagine my disappointment when said teacher just talked continuously and manically for two and a half days (some of the things he said were outrageous) and we barely stood up let alone did any Taiji. I came away feeling cheated and ate my rice and beans in my cold student digs with much chagrin for the next month or two. All was not lost. In retrospect the experience was very useful in pointing me in what direction not to go when I eventually started to teach full-time. The expensive seminar was ram-packed with middle-class punters simply lapping up the psycho-babble but for me on both personal and professional levels results worth having only come from training and not from collecting/remembering intellectual information.
“Those who talk don’t know and those know don’t talk” [vi] Lao Tzu
One of the best things about teaching is that it has greatly informed my own practise and research over the years by allowing me the privileged position of being able to observe the body movements and attitudes of thousands of people of all shapes, sizes and levels of ability. Yoga teachers, Pilates buffs, Ballet dancers, body-workers, various sportsmen and women, martial artists, avid meditators and not to mention all your average Joes all regularly pass through my classes. Some of them even stay for a while and the few that persist always go on to really achieve something valuable off their own backs: a quality of integrated movement, stability, strength and awareness that serve as an invaluable companion for life as long as they keep up a regular practise. My main and somewhat reassuring conclusion from these observations is that we are all human (what a relief!) and as such all exhibit similar physical and mental restrictions and weaknesses that the usual suspects of fitness training and alternatives like Yoga and Pilates, in my opinion, just can’t touch but Taiji can effectively remedy. For good Taiji training, once you kind of get the hang of it, leaves no stone unturned. A little bit of pushing hands or sparring soon dissolves any false notions one might have about being calm, centred and stable. No attribute isn’t dealt with effectively in Taiji because it is such a well rounded approach based upon awareness, bio-mechanics/biotensegrity,[vii] the laws of physics and natural phenomenon. It follows nature just as the wise old Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu asserts is best for humans to do.[viii]
“Everything in the universe is governed by the same basic laws of physics and always moves towards a state of balanced equilibrium and minimal-energy. There is no question about which way is best because the choice is automatic, like an apple falling from a tree towards the centre of the earth” [ix] Graham Scarr
Unfortunately, Taiji is still greatly misconceived by many people and these misconceptions are often very difficult to overcome. On the whole my classes are reasonably well attended but I am consistently surprised and concerned that Taiji is not more popular. I’m sure this is due, in part, to the gross misrepresentation of Taiji as most suitable for the elderly or inherently mystical/new age and so it gets dismissed by the majority of the more down to earth and perhaps younger people who just want to be fit and healthy. In China people usually start Taiji when they are much younger than in the West and at the latest when they are middle-aged. It is certainly not a last resort for elderly people when their body has finally given up on them! Having said that, anybody can benefit from Taiji training regardless of age but for older people the training has to be very heavily adapted. I think that somewhere along the line when Westerners first started to see and learn Taiji, they completely misinterpreted what was going on and perhaps this was because of the language barrier and a profound lack of understanding of human movement. I can speak a little Mandarin, it is indeed confusing and difficult to grasp, and unless you are well versed in being able to accurately ‘read’ body movement, then it would be quite easy to misunderstand Taiji completely from the outside:
“You see but you do not observe, the distinction is clear” [x] Sherlock Homes
If you see someone doing really decent Taiji in their 70s or 80s then without a shadow of a doubt they have been training for many decades or more probably most of their life. They didn’t just start last week! People like Chen Xiao Wang and Chen Bing have a lot of good work to help dispel these gross misconceptions. Check out Chen Xiao Wang in the video below:
These factors aside however, I do feel that the main reason that people can be a little put off by Taiji, is that it is quite difficult to learn to begin with, and ‘to begin with’ can mean quite a long time! People who want instant gratification may be a little disappointed at their first class. In Taiji we are concerned with how we move rather than mindlessly burning calories (what a waste!) or forcing the body to look, move or behave in a certain way. ‘Yong yi bu yong li – use mind, not force’ as the old classic phrase goes. Almost all other exercise systems begin by forcing the body to do something strange and unbalanced which usually only adds to our habitual levels of tension/restriction and takes us further and further away from awareness, natural movement and balance.
People attend Taiji classes for a wide variety of reasons and sometimes it can appear difficult to cater for everyone’s needs in a single class. However, regardless of whether a student wants to explore the martial side, improve their health, learn some cool movements or simply relax and calm down everyone has to train the basics over and over again until they are firmly ‘in their body’. Essentially this means engaging with the ongoing process of dealing with the basic Taiji skills, or ‘Jibengong’, and body method, or ‘Shenfa’, and it is here that the majority of the key benefits can be gleaned. Interestingly enough this seems to be what the majority of students find most challenging. For example, when we work on opening and closing the Kwa without collapsing the knees, a basic requirement for all good movement, people often complain: “It isn’t possible!” they protest, even though they can see me and more experienced students doing it and they know it makes sense intellectually and bio-mechanically. Then after only five minutes of practise they are bored…
Most of us live in our heads (even and sometimes especially people who exercise a lot) far away from our senses and accurate down to earth perception. Once we calm down and actually ‘find our body’ we start to experience our physicality as it really is and begin to learn how we move. This can be both wonderful and disconcerting all at the same time. After my first ever Taiji class I came away thinking “Hmmm, that made my body really tense.” when actually it was my first real experience of just how much habitual tension I had in my body. Similarly perplexing to me was that I didn’t seem to able to maintain a simple Zhanzhuang standing posture without my legs shaking from fatigue and instability, or stop leaning back. How infuriating! Up to that point I had always considered myself to have strong legs, good balance and decent flexibility but I was quite wrong. It was an excellent wake-up call and after I recovered I relished at the thought of how much both my movement and my mind would vastly benefit from training Taiji. To begin with it was quite challenging and I often thought of giving up but deep down I knew that persisting would be well worth it!
Much of what we discover from our first steps into Taiji training, if we are open minded enough to observe it, is that we all have a lot of physical and mental weaknesses that would otherwise go unnoticed unless we slow right down. Doing the most simple of things can be quite tricky. For example, as people decelerate they usually notice that a large part of their mind is very noisy and any sustained body-awareness or concentration is nigh on impossible. All of this can be challenging to anyone and especially so to people who already have years of experience in another discipline that purports to offer the same results as Taiji. The flip side of this, and the secret to learning anything well, is that weaknesses and mistakes are absolutely priceless if you capitalise on them. In fact, they are essential for success but first you have to be aware of them and if you choose to ignore them after that than that is up to you.[xi] Teachers can encourage students to relax, keep practising and simply take it all in their stride for like a meaningful life Taiji is all about steadily overcoming obstacles.
I frequently ask myself how can I teach more effectively and there is no one simple answer for there are many different elements and factors to consider. My main aim as a teacher is to encourage students to take up their own regular, independent training so that when they come to class they have already built their own frame of reference to work with and can consequently ask the right kind of questions, pay more attention and find out how to resolve their ‘deviations’. Without independent practise and regular class attendance it is pretty much impossible to learn Taiji and engage with it fully and thus enjoy its many benefits. So I gently and persistently encourage this on a regular basis. Again, it takes time for students to get to grips with building their own training regime. It often infers a lot of challenges on a personal level but it’s all part of the learning process. In short, you have to take responsibility for yourself because no-one else can do it for you. You just have to crack on with it!
I am certainly driven to further enjoy and improve my own Taiji training. Regular input from my teachers helps me to find the mistakes that slip under my radar and retain that ‘beginners mind’ which is really healthy for a teacher to have. The main rule of teaching I have for myself is that I must practise as much as time will allow (but without becoming miserably monk-like or a recluse). If I do not practise what I preach then I have little integrity as a teacher. Don’t get me wrong, I am not brilliant at Taiji but I do practise consistently and I really love it. My health and fitness have improved continuously and considerably over the years as a result and I will be seeking to further enjoy and improve my Taiji for the rest of my life. If I had not started Taiji as a youth then I dread to think what kind of trouble I may have ended up in, but that’s another story! The final thing to mention is that I feel it is important is to facilitate a hard-working but light hearted atmosphere in class. Hard work is an obvious requirement for learning anything and a few laughs along the way really helps to grease the wheels. For when you laugh, you relax, and then everything is a bit easier. Over the next few articles I will explore some of the main common elements that people find difficult to get to grips with in their Taiji, starting with posture, or rather, the illusion of posture.
“I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures” [xii] Lao Tzu
Sam Moor teaches Chen Style Taijiquan across Sussex: www.sussextaichi.co.uk
First published in No.47 edition of Tai Chi Chuan and Oriental Arts Magazine
[i] Xiaowang, Chen. The Five Levels of Taijiquan. 2012, Singing Dragon.
[ii]Empirical evidence (such as sense experience) is a source of knowledge acquired by means of observation and experimentation.
[iii] Many different people are cited as the source of this quote.
[iv] Nassim Taleb talks about this kind of thing in: Antifragile – Things that Gain from Disorder.’ Penguin, 2012.
[v] Confucius. The Analects. Penguin Classics, 2007.
[vi] Ursula K Le Guin. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching. Shambala, 1998.
[vii] Check out Graham Scarr’s new book: Biotensegrity – The Structural Basis of Life. Handspring Publishing, 2014
[viii] Ursula K Le Guin. Ibid
[ix] Scarr, G. Biotensegrity – The Structural Basis of Life. Handspring Publishing 2014
[x] Doyle, A. C. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. 2007. Penguin Classics.
[xi] To a certain extent this relates to the four stages of competence, or the “conscious competence” learning model often bandied about in Psychology i.e. the psychological states involved in the process of progressing from “unconscious incompetence” to “conscious incompetence” to “conscious competence” to “unconscious competence” in a skill.
[xii] Ursula K Le Guin. Ibid.