21ST CENTURY TAI CHI
Tools and Ideas for updating your practice
21ST CENTURY TAI CHI
Tools and Ideas for updating your practice
Tools for learning tai chi or teaching tai chi have changed considerably over the last decade. Once upon a time, you may have saved up for a incense burner and a set of Ninja socks, but these days you are more likely to invest in a decent camera, create a WhatsApp group and find yourself a decent cloud storage option to store your martial memories.
In part 1 of this series of articles I took you through the essential hardware you need to start recording your training, exercises, form performances and drills. I covered the reasons why this is a good habit to develop - both for teaching purposes and self-evaluation.
In Part 2 of this 3 part-series, I am going to introduce you to some simple editing tools, which will help convert something crude and possibly unintelligible to others, into a clear message that the whole world will understand and appreciate.
I’m also going to introduce you to both paid and free apps - so don't think you will necessarily have to put your hand in your pocket to achieve these aims.
Are You Working for Yourself or for Others?
If what you are producing is for your eyes only, then who cares if it is not well edited, or that your dog appears in more frames than you do?
Who cares if you cannot hear yourself speak? However, if it is going to be seen by others, to be consumed or studied, then you will need to learn some simple editing techniques.
So let's first look at the tools you will need to do. I’ll assume you have some footage of yourself already, and that you now need to cut out all the mistakes - those moments when the tripod fell over or your brother walked inadvertently into shot, whistling the theme to Kill Bill 2
iMovie: For anyone with an Apple device, this is the basic video editing program bundled free with your laptop, phone or tablet. It’s a fairly good video editor, despite its lack of updates, awful filters and titles. But, it does the job. Although I have used it extensively on the laptop, I won’t use it on a phone as the screen is too small to work with. But you may have a larger phone than mine or better eyesight. Both are highly probable. With iMovie, you can easily create a new "project" and drop into that videos or images, then add a voice over or again, import an audio file. It's all pretty self-evident how to do this. It gets interesting when you start playing with the software, by dropping one video file onto of another, creating the possible for transparency or picture-in-picture or green screen work.
In brief, Imovie is a fine starting program and can do the basics, and do them pretty well.
iMovie Good Points
iMovie Bad Points
VN Video Editor (free)
The VN editor is a free alternative to iMovie. It offers both mobile and desktop applications that are surprisingly sophisticated, easy to use and are - at the moment - free to use on all platforms, including mobile devices too. Title work is better than iMovie, but that's not saying much. And it lacks green screen use and some multi-layer blending modes. But, for anyone that doesn't want this, it is an alternative that shows lots of promise and one I intend to explore more fully in the near future.
Pick up a copy of VN Editor here
Another free tool for all platforms is the well known Davinci editor. Super sophisticated and an editor that can do everything, including boil the kettle for a cup of tea, but, it does require something of a learning curve. Once again, it is on my back burner. If you are going to learn one program from scratch, then take a look at this for it looks well worth the effort.
Pick up a copy of Davinci here.
Speaking to the Camera Ideas
If you are creating a course and have a lot of text to speak, or are nervous and want to make sure what you say makes sense, they prepare a script and use that with a teleprompter app. These programs allow you to add a text file that is scrolled down one side of your camera screen, so that as it records you, it also displays the text for you to read out.
Perhaps, like me, you are are not a born actor that can memorise lines. If not I’d suggest getting a teleprompter app. Some are better than others, enabling auto-generated subtitles and other additions. Most or crap and expensive, but I have not tried everyone, but one I have come to use is Professor Hornet, not just because I like the name but because it is reasonably priced, updated and does a lot.
They can be a little tricky to get used to, and you certainly need to be sitting pretty close to make use of them - but they are very handing when you have some detailed explaining to do and don't wish to mess it up.
My go to app is Professor Hornet Pro by Malatesta. Check out the link below.
ONLINE STORAGE AND SHARING
Once you have the finished video, you may of course want to simply email your final edit to a friend or student - but only then discover that the size of your video file is too large to send. Your email program is unlikely to send files much bigger than 10 or 20 mb. If this is you case, then you’ll need to either shrink the video down using an app like…Compress (IOS Version here), (Android version here). Alternatively you can use a free file-transfer solution to share with others such as Wetransfer.
This site enables you to share files of up to 2 gig free with anyone - but they only have 7 days to download your file before it disappears off Wetransfer servers.
THE SIMPLE SOLUTION TO SHARING WITH YOUTUBE OR VIMEO
Alternatively you can set up a Youtube account or Vimeo account and host your videos there, saving them as private or unlisted. This way the general public don't get to see your work - only those you choose to share the link with.
Gifs - Yes those sometimes irritating looped snippets of video - are not just for social media sharing or shoving onto the end of a text message.
Gifs can be really useful for students that need to see a move, or part of a move repeatedly, and are fed up with having to pause, rewind, pause, rewind etc.
Is a free Gif creator for both desktops and mobiles.
For an alternative program, I like Gif Brewery (only for OSX) on a laptop as another free tool that enables me to save effects, for regular use.
If you are looking for a tool that will help organise your thoughts or layout for class structures then consider some of these options. Notion recently became free for all personal use and has both desktop and mobile applications.
Notion – The all-in-one workspace for your notes, tasks, wikis ...https://www.notion.so
Notion has recently become free for unlimited individual use, and although it may appear as just a blank canvas, don’t worry - that is it’s power too. Notion enables you to create what you want, how you want - documents, PDFS, web pages, data bases, spreadsheets and you get two publish online and share these with others.
A help file can be instantly converted into a web page to share or a instructional document.
Take a look at this basic sample page
Mobile Phones and Storage Platfroms
PHONE EDITING APPS
As I mentioned before, I try to avoid editing video on the phone due to limited screen size, and I have already mentioned VN that is available as a free editor.
Mobile Video Work. Another editor that has some special filming possibilities is Filmic.
Recommended by my friend and fellow instructor Jonas Bieri, this mobile (IOS only) suite of apps can not only give you a fine detail recording experience but enable you monitor your recording on a second device using another app. Why would you want to do this? Well, as Jonas pointed out to me, it enables you to use the back camera (often of higher resolution and with more camera lenses to work with, such as widescreen).
If anything, the best approach is probably to play with these apps you have and explore what you can do with them. Try to avoid taking on new ones, unless you are sure they will benefit you, otherwise you may be in for long learning curve.
Find out more about Filmic here.
Conclusion: Software skills for Training and Broadcasting
If, after reading all this you are wondering what any of it has to do with you as you don’t teach create video courses, then the answer is - not much... yet
For as our lives become increasingly digitalised, knowledge of how to edit footage, images, plan out strategies, courses or personal projects becomes an increasingly important work and life skill. All this content that we are producing on these new devices will eventually need organising and storing and perhaps, at some point, sharing or distributing.
These are the skills that we will need going forward, and the Sensei, the Sifu or the facilitator of the future will have to have these skills well honed if they wish to be able to communicate with their students on these new platforms.
PART 3 IN THE SERIES
Whatever your profession or field of work, you will need some basic skills in these areas. For that reason, in the final part of this series, now we have looked at hardware and software, I am going to take you through how best to get your final-cut out there and to be seen on the great big digital highway that is the internet.
It's the step up from posting on Youtube - a step forward that enables you to control the content, who has access to it and what they can do with it.
I’lll be investigating several different platforms and advising which is right for you to host your every increasing digital library of content.
All in part 3 of this series.
Got an question or want to know more about how this all plays out? Check out the Academy here for more complete examples of everything…..
A 3 part series about online resources, equipment and learning skills for the Tai Chi practitioner..
Traditionally, Tai Chi practitioners would chat about dojo decoration, incense-flavours, hair-cuts or Kung-fu slippers. Nowadays, the emphasis has shifted away from clothing accessories and glove sizes to more technical issues, such as cameras, microphones and green screens. In this 3-part series, the teapotmonk is going to explore 3 main areas of online resources for both the student and teacher of Tai Chi or other movement based practice: Hardware, Software and the Distribution Platforms. But first up, let's ask the most obvious question:
Why should we be recording our Tai Chi Practice?
What equipment do you need and how much should you pay for it?
Whatever reason you have for recording your progress, start with the equipment you already have in this 5-Point Essential Hardware Guide.
1. The Smart-Phone Camera
THE OLD CAMERA PHONE
I used an iPhone 5s. (See images below) to create 2 complete Tai Chi courses - the Beginners Tai Chi Sword and the Complete Tai Chi Course. I've no great affiliation with Apple, so don't think you need to get one of their devices as most smartphones have pretty decent cameras these days. I'm just pointing out that the Phone 5s is now pretty old, but still can do a decent job. The important thing about a camera is quality of build and not just resolution. This is why iPhones tend to still be good cameras even when they reach a ripe old age. Obviously resolution is important and do try to record yourself at the maximum resolution you can, as you will always be able to reduce it if need be, but never increase it. Remember that these days, not everyone is watching on a small screen, some people (crazy I know) have cinemas inside their houses.
FRONT OR BACK CAMERA?
Though the back camera often has better resolution, the reason you'll want to use the front camera is to make sure you are in the shot. If you use the back camera - you cannot see if you are still in frame so may waste a lot of time and energy recording a wall or a sofa, as unknown to you, you have moved outside the screen area. You could of course get someone to film you and use the back camera, but be prepared to treat them to something nice after.
OLD CAMERA MINIMAL SPEC
This old 5S camera phone has a back facing camera of 8 megapixels and max recording at 1080p, and although the front facing camera is only 1.2 megapixels and records at only 720p (a laughable stat these days) it can still do a pretty good job and is ideal for sharing with other practitioners or for small classes. You can pick up a 2nd hand iPhone 5s on eBay for about £50 and with it create the sort of imagery, videos and gifs you can see posted below this.
USING AN IPHONE 11
For a more professional use, you would be advised to find something a little newer than the old 5s. I got an iPhone 11 a while back and am impressed with the quality of the image - both for photos and video work. It has a wide angle lens, and both the back facing and front facing camera are 12 megapixels - capable of recording at 4K, which is pretty much tv quality image. Watch out recording at the highest quality with these newer phones as your video files can be extremely large in size. (More on this in part 2 of this series). For my latest course online, the Cheng Man-ch'ing 37 Step Course, I've been using this phone-camera. Watch the video below to see an example of recording quality.
You can pick up an iPhone 11 for about £180 2nd-hand or between 4 to 500 pounds new on eBay.
Most cameras now come with a decent resolution, lighting, audio and a stabilisation to reduce camera shake - But, you may, like me, decide you can always do with an extra hand when recording - and if so you may want to think about a tripod.
Alternative Tripods 2 - the Gimbal
The thing about Tai Chi is that it involves movement. Qigong is not so bad as its pretty static in comparison, or should you be teaching mediation, then you probably won't need one of these. But with Tai Chi, there is always movement. If you need an example, think of trying to capture wide and extensive tai chi sword moves on a fixed tripod. You need to constantly make adjustment steps - unless - you have a gimbal. This is a new toy, that enables me to move around whilst the tripod rotates as it follows the movement of my face. Take look at the example video I shot earlier this year when recording the first stage of the Cheng Man-ch'ing 37 Step Form on the beach in south Devon (UK). See link - https://amzn.to/3AfmTWy
Lighting, for most people, will be a question of simply opening or drawing the curtains. And that is fine. But in the UK where it rains a lot of the time and the light shifts back and forth 3 hundred times a day, it can be disruptive for your filming. For that reason there are 2 light sources you might want to look at.
THE (INFLUENCER) RING LIGHT
These are the newest boys in town and every Instagram or Youtube "influencer" has one permanently in their face. They are light-weight, emit with a blue or yellow light and are easy to set up, very portable and cheap to acquire. See link.https://amzn.to/35Ncx2e
However, I’m not convinced they are that good. I find the supports unstable and build quality poor (certainly with the ones I have used) But, they are quick and easy to assemble, and give a decent lighting for head and shoulder shots, but not much good for anything else.
STANDS AND LIGHTS
These are for a more professional use, and vary in prices. They are more customisable and give stronger light and are well built. They enable you to alter and displace shadows by angling the light - but on a downside, they take forever to set up, are far more bulky to carry around (and they generally come in pairs) Check this link for prices - https://amzn.to/3dfp5Ud - You can pick them up, often bundled with a few backdrops for about £50. Now, Speaking of backdrops....
At some point, you will be faced with the problem of having to film inside due to bad weather and then, you are going to search everywhere for a wall that does not have a plug socket or portrait of granny in the middle of your shot. You may of course have a film studio in your house, but most of us don't so need to adapt what we have. And the is where a good backdrop comes in - especially a green screen.
So that concludes part 1 of this mini series. Part 2 is out soon on software for editing and video creation. Now, obviously do remember to shop around. I’ve scattered a few links for you though this article as examples, but prices change all the time. If you are working on a real budget - just use your camera-phone for everything - camera, audio, lighting and if need be, balance it on a wall or a table if you want to save money on the tripod. All this is possible, just take care not to let it fall and be prepared to edit out extraneous sounds. If you want to buy one thing, and you already have a smartphone, then I would suggest the tripod, or maybe a lapel mic. ( I know, that's 2, but hey). They will improve substantially the quality of your endeavours. Ok that's it for this part of the series. See you for part 2 soon.
Let me know what you are using and if this has been a useful article.
Next in this series will be software in which I will be giving tips on how to edit and create using (mostly) free software: If you liked this - you might want to check out the links mentioned in this article -
The first Tai Chi Q&A live webinar is going ahead Saturday 10th April at 6pm BST. Join me as I squirm uncomfortably and duck and dive my way through a series of questions sent in by members of the academy on the following -
This year the Tai Chi survey is not just focussing on platforms and courses, but exploring what we think the world will look like for teachers and students after the vaccination is rolled out. What, if anything have we learned, and what do we expect will be the new normal?
Have your say by filling out the Google Survey linked here and stay in contact if you wish to be notified when we discuss the results (anonymously given I should add) on a live webinar coming next month.
Thanks to everyone in advance for filling it out.
"Entertaining, easy to learn and of real value. It doesn't matter what style you practice these sessions are for everyone. "
FIVE FREE LIVE TAI CHI CLASSES FOR EVERYONE
As the world adjusts to local and national lockdowns, it becomes increasingly difficult to plan how and when to practice Tai Chi. If you are an existing student, your class may be been suspended, reduced to Zoom sessions or social distancing in a local park.
For anyone wanting to start (or to repeat the basics of the art), there are, however, other options. Back in the first lockdown I recorded live on Instagram and Facebook 5 sessions on different aspects of Tai Chi. These are recorded in Portrait mode, so they are good to watch on your smart-phone.
I've assembled these 5 Videos in order, labelled them and now offer them to you all as a mini-course that you can complete in just 5 Days. JUST CLICK ON THE IMAGE ABOVE AND YOU WILL FIND THE VIDEOS ON YOUTUBE.
There is no sign-up, no email required - nada. Nothing.
How has the mind/body community responded to the changes brought about by Covid, social distancing and the dependency on technology? Catch-up with the live Q&A that took place December 12th on Youtube (teapotmonk channel) or watch it below, in which a panel of 9 practitioners of diverse disciplines discuss a way forward from Covid and the domination of the tech industry. You can discover more about the guests over on this page - leave a comment below about future discussions or themes.
The Role of the Waist: Bruce Lee
Back in the 80s I started learning with Sifu Yin Yang Eyebrow and a style that was so flowery that you could have planted it in a window box. I loved its exotic hand and wrist moves that appeared to have been snatched directly from flamenco. Eventually, I dropped the style. It was obvious that the instructor had no clue as to how to teach anything as I began to realise that the arms should not move independently from the waist. Such movements reminded me of a back alley fight from Way of the Dragon and as much as I wanted to imitate Bruce Lee, doing so would not help me understand the role of the waist.
The role of the Waist: Sifu Yin Yang Eyebrow
At home, I perused the Tai Chi Classics and discovered that the Tai Chi Grandmasters said that the waist should "follow the mind", which if I'm honest, didn't help much. They might as well have advised that the waist follows the whim of Neptune's Trident or the breath of Middle-aged dragon.
In my next class I looked at Sifu Yin-Yang Eyebrow and in particular his waist and wondered of it followed nothing more than his rather dubious dietary habits. When I proposed the idea to him, he scoffed at me (as I'm convinced he did with pies and puddings before each class) and defensively pointed out that his belly was full of Qi. At which point, I changed classes..
Waist, Arms & the Mind.
So what does it mean for the mind to lead the waist or the arms? Because as much as it sounds very Eastern and profound, I'm tempted to say that we often do too much mind leading as it is. Shouldn't we be turning down rather than amplifying the sound?
Ultimately, I suppose, whatever explanation you find, whatever style you practice and under whomsoever's tutelage you eventually study, you have to decide for yourself.
Exercises to Connect Your Arms to Your waist
Connecting the movements of the limbs to the centre axis of the body makes sense to me. Forget thinking about it, just relax and let your waist express itself through your limbs. If you want to really understand this, try practising with a sword, as - paradoxically - using an object in your Tai Chi really helps you take your mind out of your limbs and back into your centre.
And being centred will help with any mind/body activity - and by that I don't just mean tai chi, yoga or meditation, I mean washing the dishes, walking the dog or overthrowing a corrupt regime (there rare plenty out there to choose from).
Obviously, some may point out that the easiest way to connect your arms to your waist is though birth. This is true, but If that's out of the question, then surgery might help. Failing that you could try these few simple exercises that will help reconnect your disparate limbs to your body.
Water, Friends and Liking them all.
Then when you are moving as a single unit and ready to take on the world with loose shoulders, a loose tongue and slippery hips, try this yielding exercise below. In these days of social distancing it may prove useful when confronting mask-less crowds in supermarkets, coffee queues, or when storming the Winter palace with your local vanguard friends.
Check out more the Tai Chi Academy for more exercises and mini-courses including the 5 Day Balance course (free)
What is the next step for teachers and students of mind/body practices such as Tai Chi, Qigong, Yoga and many of the martial arts? Faced with restrictions on traditional class sizes, locations and with a "hands-off" curriculum how is the community responding to these new challenges? After six months of experimentation there are two broad responses - the first has been to try and reproduce the classroom experience, using all the new technology available, and the second, to listen to our hearts and rethink it through from scratch.
A short history of technology and the arts
Not too long ago, "serious" Tai Chi instructors spat on the screen of online schools, mocked their methods and swore that only marketeers would dane to step in front of camera. These critics felt that they should only teach in the same way they had been taught - unwavering from the original 18th century scrolls, or engraved tablets by grandmasters from generations long passed. Consequently, new schools were created based on a photocopied list of attributes, copied and then pasted onto the lives of new students,
However, it was only ever the expression of an art from another time, another place. Some of course loved it, others questioned it, asking themselves, "where is the beating heart of this ancient art?"
That Was Then
Now, of course all has changed for everyone has to adapt. These schools still hope that yesterday will return tomorrow, but in the meantime, they reluctantly offer Zoom classes or private Youtube channels. But is it a worthwhile effort? In trying to simply reproduce the classroom online, are we missing something important? Could we not rethink not only how we do the things we do, but also why we do them the way we do? After all, our arts are meant to symbolise the notion of change. It is, let's not forget part of the lifeblood and energy of everything we teach.
When everything fragments
Even before our present dilemma, some argued that Tai Chi practice had stagnated. This was due mainly to teaching methods culturally and chronologically appropriated that proved incapable of responding to the needs and circumstances of diverse communities. What was relevant in 17th century feudal China, may not be so relevant in an urban 21st century city.
So now is a good time for revaluation. Now, when we can no longer simply reproduce the old structures, we have time to ask ourselves what were are trying to teach? What are the lessons behind the forms and can they now be taught in other, more creative and relevant ways?
If ever there was evidence that something needs changing, you'll find it in the ferocity and defensiveness of the old order. When concepts are tenaciously clung too irrespective of changing circumstances, then that is the red warning-light. If our training methods, teaching practices, language, means of communication are not updated with each new generation, then complacency and stagnancy inevitably creeps into the art.
This doesn't mean ditching the old, rather than engaging with an ongoing process of evaluation. And let's be honest, arts like Tai Chi have a tendency to wallow in such pools, shrouded by mysticism, shackled by rigid structures of lineage and styles for a simple reason: it sells well on these very qualities.
But now times they are a changing.
It is no longer valid (if it ever was) to judge competency by the ability to emulate someone further up the hierarchy of authority. The closer you resemble Sifu, should not be a shortcut for obtaining that sash or teaching certificate. Unless you get your kicks from authoritarian regimes and practices cleverly concealed as ritual and tradition. Let go of the nonsense. Diversity and individual expression are the new kids on the digital block and it is this that will feed the spirit of the curious practitioner. in these challenging times.
Opportunities in Teaching Online
Evolution is long overdue.
Let's not wait for the return of yesterday, but instead grasp the moment now and make that the best of it. Let's do it with enthusiasm, energy and a sense of play. For who amongst us, be honest now, ever wanted to teach or Ward off Left, ad infinitum? (insider tai chi joke).
Now, technology enables us to record it once and let our students play it back as and when necessary. And the time that is restored - can be invested in sharing knowledge, skills or exploring in greater depth the idiosyncrasies of our practice. We can connect with each other, spend more time with new students, dismantle the walls between schools and slowly learn to build new bridges.
Where lies the beating heart of Tai Chi?
Listening to Your Heart
If you are like me and see more benefits in cooperation that competition, then there are no limits to what we can do together. There is a wealth of ideas and practices springing up everywhere that we can all benefit from. Join the FB group or add your contact details below and I'll get back to you with details of how we can connect. One of the first proposals is to bring people together in an online conference to hear how everyone is adapting to the new times. Real strength was never found in individual campaigns, but in the sharing of ideas, help and support given to one another. If this is you, and you want to connect with a wider and more diverse world, then get in touch.
Flow is an evasive concept in Tai Chi, and one that teachers often talk about as though it will simply occur at some point, like a credit card bill or getting old. But it doesn't. Flow needs to be teased out, prised open and encouraged to play. But what is it you need to encourage and what is it you need to develop?
8 qualities to develop your FLOW.
1. Ligament Strength:
This may seem obvious, but you need to work on holding those tai chi postures, gently moving through the transitions and trying to slow down. They won't strengthen with speed, you'll need to take it easy. But that's what we are trying to encourage, so that the ligaments and tendons in the ankles, the knees and the hips will get stronger and enable you in time to glide, rather than stumble from move to move.
2. Movement and Breath:
Coordinate the two. If they are out of sync then your movements will be fragmented and you will always shift from one position to another like kangaroo rather than a dolphin.
3. Be HERE now:
Obvious really, but your teacher can tell if you are thinking about the next episode of Peaky Blinders rather than the next posture. Focus!
In order to find flowing movement, look to the quality of stillness. It may seem a contradiction, but it is only in stillness that our minds quieten and the nonsense bubbles to the surface. When it arises, let it go, let it slip slide away. Glide on.
5 & 6 Echoes of others
When the mind is quiet, and the nonsense far away, you will hear your own voice coming clearer and clearer. The nonsense that makes up the echos of our mind, and even the words of our teachers (mine too...watch out!) begin to fade when we are quiet. Once more, when you practice , just practice. Don't get distracted by that last tweet you read.
7 & 8 Laugh and Play
If we study too much, we only become stiff and unyielding. When we play, we experiment and taste the pleasures of both success and failure - two sides to the equation of learning. When we let go of "trying to be good" and just "do" we live in the moment and we laugh and we play. And in those qualities, we discover the torrent of energy within us to glide over the obstacles of life.
Enjoy the video below. If you want to learn Tai Chi in another way than through the echos of others, and discover the Tai Chi within you trying to come out, then this may be for you. The video is extracted from a small documentary on FLOW, PLAY and STRENGTH that is part of just one of the 12 Workshops on practice and theory that make up the Tai Chi Home Study Course. Find out more here.
Here are two simple exercises to help you explore and develop your sense of Spirals in Tai Chi.
What is Spiral Energy?
The energy of a Spiral can be found within our DNA, within the expression of a galaxy or the shape of a lightbulb. And that should be a clue for us to take with a pinch of salt the claims by many in Tai Chi that the use of spiral energy is something bordering on the mystic. More often than not, this is just a fanciful demonstrations of structure and compliant students rather than a special energy force generated by secret practices. Spiral movements simply prioritise actions that are curved rather than angular and they prefer to utilise the opening and closing of the joints in sequence rather than all together. In effect you get something that resembles a snapping force, like that of a whip as opposed to that of a hammer or a stick.
Irrespective of style, temple, cult of the personality of satin suit, you can work on sequencing your joint action by taking things slowly and adding movements one by one, until you feel comfortable with the technique. Take a look at the two video snippets below. They are part of a session I gave on Spiral Energy as part of the Single Whip Workshop. (Find out more below).
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