January 2022

New Years symbolizes optimism, potential, hope and expectations.  It’s my hope that 2022 will be a year of growth and enrichment for all my students.

I’ve said before that my goal as a tai chi teacher is to get my students to a point where they need a better teacher than I am.  I stand behind this statement, and there’s a lot to unpack in it, but I only want to discuss one in this post.

I refer to the expectation that the student wants to improve.  Well, of course that’s what we expect.  But how do we do it?  How do we improve, and how do we know we’ve improved?  Tai chi is unlike many martial arts in that we award no belts and there are no gradations between one player and the next.  We are all teachers and students simultaneously.  Students learn how to be better tai chi players by paying attention to me, and I learn how to be a better teacher by paying attention to my students.  We’ll know we’ve improved, not by being awarded belts or moving into a new rank in the class formation, but by self-examination.

  • Is it easier to remember the order of the postures and transitions?
  • Do I feel more comfortable and confident performing the movements?
  • Do I feel less exhausted after a lesson?
  • Do I spend less time watching the teacher to know how and what to do?
  • Am I getting a deeper understanding of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it?
  • Is my art translating into how I move and go about my day?

These are things I look for too, in order to see whether I’m communicating effectively and sharing correct teaching.  So the questions above are relevant to student and teacher alike.

Since improvement in tai chi is recognized not by belts but by the student and teacher, this places more responsibility on both to pay attention to what they’re doing and what they’re feeling.  Since that’s one of the key points of tai chi, it only makes sense not to hinder this self-discovery by external and arbitrary “graduation” exams and ceremonies.  These things have their place, but not in tai chi.  

I’ve written before about the importance of practice at home.  It’s essential – half of one’s learning in tai chi is self-discovery, and we can’t achieve this self-discovery while we’re listening to a teacher.  We have to listen to ourselves, and this requires practice on our own.  I’ve been doing this since about 1995 or so, and I still make new discoveries in my daily practice.  

I also run into questions, which gets to the title of this entry.  Practice at home regularly enough and you’re bound to have questions yourself.  

  • “How can I make memorizing the sequence of postures easier?”  
  • “How is such-and-such a posture supposed to feel?”  
  • “How do I apply such-and-such Essential Principle to this-or-that posture?”  
  • “What’s this posture/transition for?”
  • “Which of the ‘Eight Energies’ am I expressing in this posture?”
  • “Why does your posture look different than Yang Jun’s?”
  • “Someone told me ‘Tai Chi isn’t a real martial art.’ What should I tell him?”

And so on.

One of the hardest things to do is ask questions like these in class.  We’re conditioned to keep our mouths shut in school, and simply receive information as a passive empty-vessel.  The other kids aren’t asking this question – they must understand something I’m too dim to grasp.  And the stern, condescending look I got from Mrs. Crabapple the last time I raised my hand ensures I’ll never do it again.

If only I could make all my students understand how wrong and harmful that conditioning was, or how gratifying it is to me as a teacher to have questions in class!  

When a student asks me a question, I know instantly that they’re enthusiastic about learning and want very, very much to do their best.  I also know that when one student asks a question, at least one other student has the same question in his or her mind but is either too timid to ask, or doesn’t know how to frame the question.  It also indicates to me the student’s level of understanding – do I need to find a new way of explaining something to make a point clearer? Am I challenging the student enough or too much?  Am I meeting the student’s physical/intellectual/psychological needs, and if not, why not?  I can’t know any of these things if I never get feedback in the form of questions or requests for clarification.  You’re not empty vessels – you’re valuable and important people and deserve better.

There’s a running gag in the 80s movie “Real Genius.”  It’s set in a lecture hall.  At the beginning of the semester, the hall is full of students, and there’s a reel-to-reel tape player on the desk at the front.  A teacher’s aide walks in, presses PLAY, and the professor’s pre-recorded lecture begins.  Presently, students begin to bring their own cassette recorders and leave them on their desks to record the lecture.  By the end of the semester, the lecture hall is empty but for the reel-to-reel player “lecturing” to a hall full of cassette recorders. Clearly, no one could ask the professor a question and the possibility exists that the professor decided to do this some time ago because no one was asking him questions in the first place.  

That’s not what a tai chi class ought to look or sound like.  I meant what I said at the beginning of your first lesson – if you have a question, STOP THE CLASS AND ASK IT.  Even if you don’t know how to form the question, simply asking for clarification or “showing it a different way” or even simply saying “Wait – I don’t get it” will usually lead to discovering what you wanted to know.  I’ve learned so much by “asking the wrong question” and, with the teacher’s help, figuring out what it is I really wanted to know.

At-home practice ought to bring out these questions and many more.  Write ‘em down and ask them in class or, if you’re on the Facebook group, ask there.

It takes courage to ask a question in class or on the Facebook group.  That conditioning we got when we were kids was deep and ingrained.  We don’t want to look like we’re stupid or incapable.  But remember what I said just a bit ago – a student with questions is an enthusiastic student, one who very much wants to learn and do well, and is helping his or her classmates in their own understanding!  Your questions are as valuable and important as you are.  You may not think so, but I do; and if you have the faith in me as a teacher to capably share my art with you, I now ask you to have faith in me that I’m grateful for your questions every bit as much as I’m grateful for your presence in class.

You pay far too much money and invest far too much time for me to let you leave the class with unanswered questions, or a lack of understanding of the concepts we’ve worked on.  Questions and feedback are the best way to ensure you’re getting out of the class what you invest in it, and at-home practice is the best way to ensure you’re getting as much out of the art itself as you possibly can.  

You deserve no less.