New students to Tai Chi often tell me that they find themselves in a Catch-22 situation when they seek clear and direct answers about Tai Chi. What is the problem new students encounter and what can they do to counter the vague answers they often get? How much is this the responsibility of the school or the teacher? Read on and discover the top 5 tips for new students starting a Tai Chi class.
For most new students the different names and variations between styles are at best academic and at worst dogmatic. When students ask about styles they are looking for simple answers. Instead they get something like this:
"In our Tai Chi school we practice the Modern 57 Big-Small, Yang-Chen, Traditional but Modern Style. This is characterised by our practice of the 8 Pieces of Brocade/Bit-Coin Farmers-Set of Animal Play Qigong. As for weapons, we train in the broad-narrow-sabre wooden 32 Beijing nunchaku. And as regards our illustrious Teacher, you should know he was taught by the top student of the last teacher who learnt from the inner-temple disciple from the final generation of the last descendent of the eldest cousin of the man who once lived next door to the Soup Stall that sold outside the Shaolin temple"...and so it goes on.
For the certain teachers, these answers are perfectly clear, but for new students such details make as much sense as a holiday greeting in Vulcan. New students want to be reassured and told about the benefits they can expect and how the classes are conducted. It’s very simple really, but few schools offer such clarity. So what can a new student do to find out this information if all they get are messages in Vulcan?
First up is to understand that some Tai Chi teachers do like to talk about themselves. You will find this out pretty quickly if you meet one, and they can be spotted by their tendency to adopt other names than that which appears on their birth certificate: Bob or Fred my be scratched out and replaced with Sifu Simon or Guru-Gary. This is a big give-a-way and should send warning shots across your bough. Of course, they may or may not call themselves gurus, some plumb for the more humble title of “master” or equivalent. But try not to get distracted by titles. You can always undermine such nonsense by refusing to acknowledge them. For example, when in a doctors surgery, instead of calling him/her Doctor, try calling him/her by their first name. Say “Well, Bertrand, I’d still like to show you my boil….” and see how they react. If they go all wobbly and point to their name plate on the desk and insist on the use of Doctor, you can rest assured you have found a genuine guru and someone who’s sense of themselves is truly grounded in superficialities.
If your suspicions have been aroused by the adoption a title, you can move on to asking a question about your training. If the answer starts off fine by referring to your question but quickly reverts to an anecdote about his/her childhood or a demonstration of a lethal neck hold, this may be another warning. S/he will of course try to convince you that such techniques are essential to understanding Tai Chi, but truth is most of the time they just like showing their favourite moves as this brings the subject back to themselves.
3. WISE SKILLS
If the subject has moved on to skills, then you can try the following two-prong approach to discover what sort of teacher you are dealing with. Ask for a demonstration of a Form posture - a complicated one such as Snake Creeps Through Grass. See if it is demonstrated to you as you might hope to learn it during your first few months of training - or - see if it is demonstrated to you as though s/he was entering a World Tai Chi Form competition and you were a judge. If the former, then good news! S/he is doing their best to adapt and refine their response to your level and expectations. If the latter however, they are just showing off and now might be a good time to back out the door before you sign anything.
If unsure, you could always try the second approach which consists in asking for a little wisdom on Tai Chi. If you get oodles of data about Form positions and meridian channels try not to look disappointed. If you get data about personal lineage and years of practice under specific grandmasters, try to look interested as best you can and fight the tendency to yawn. Sadly, this sort of “Knowledge” is too often mistaken as “wisdom” when it is merely the memorisation of dates and names. Not the same thing at all.
You could of course cut through all the “facts” and go for the final real test. Try to see if your Sifu or Guru stops talking when you you begin to speak. Don’t be fooled by appearances, for proficient Gurus have mastered the art of appearing to listen when they are in fact only rehearsing what next to say. Want to know what to look for? Read on…
5. THE POSTURE
You can check if your guru is really listening by looking at his/her stance. The Non-Listening Guru-Stance is easily recognisable for one finger will most likely be cleaning an ear whilst the other hand drums on a table top. The mouth is generally open and closing, issuing words and sounds that for all purposes appear relevant, but constitute nothing but pure gobbledygook. Eyes tend to hold a far-away, other planetary look. Possibly Vulcan. The head is either fixed to the clock on the wall to check how many minutes are left in the session, or nodding, as though riding a bouncy train, whilst simultaneously checking their phone for retweets or Instagram hearts.
THE POWER OF SILENCE
So to recap, what you are looking for as a new student to Tai Chi (or any other skill for that matter) is the presence of the secret skill of silence. It is a secret because it is hidden in the word. Rearrange the letters of the word SILENT and you get LISTEN.
Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom, said Francis Bacon and it is in this contemplative moment that we discover the value and the meaning behind words. Now, I’m not talking here about the silence of a monastery, or a meditation room. No, I’m merely referring to the silence of a quietened mind. One that stops for a moment the eternal process of thinking of what it is about to say.
Now, at last you can go armed into the world of Gurus and Sifus with your list of 5 checkpoints, no longer defenceless but ready and prepared for the power of silence. Good Luck. Peace and Long Life as someone with rather shapely ears once said.
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Contrary to popular belief, the teapotmOnk (paul read) is neither a mOnk nor a teapOt. He is, however, a writer on Tai Chi, course-creator & teacher with more than 25 years of experience. He can be found wandering between Andalucia (Spain) & Devon (Uk). More here.
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