I love teaching Tai Chi, and I especially love introducing this beautiful health promoting martial art to beginners. But many people start out with some ideas that are not only wrong, but prevent them from sticking with the practice long enough to benefit from it. This is not their fault. Unfortunately, bad teaching and popular but misleading ideas abound.
So here’s my attempt to set a few things straight and get people started off on the right foot (sorry for the pun.)
1. Tai Chi is a martial art. Yes I know, that sounds obvious. But many people come to Tai Chi thinking it can be stripped of its original function and turned into a relaxation/recreation exercise routine. The truth is if you’re not willing to work at Tai Chi like the kung fu practice it is, you not only won’t reap its benefits, but you’ll be frustrated and disappointed. It’s not that you’re required to develop it as a self defense practice. This just isn’t realistic in the age of guns. But you are expected to cultivate martial spirit, along with martial form and martial shapes. This is the correct (and I think the only,) pathway to Tai Chi’s famous health benefits.
2. Tai Chi is difficult. Many people have been sold a fantasy version of Tai Chi based on the idea that it’s just “swimming in air,” or some sort of Chinese version of freestyle dancing that will relieve their stress. These people always leave the first class in a state of shock. The basics of legwork, alignment, and posture are very difficult, especially for adults whose bodies have been shaped by a lifetime of contrived movement like sitting at computers and driving cars. The first task is to unlearn these movement habits. It can take years. And many people find the basic Tai Chi short set a challenge to memorize. I tell them over and over that Tai Chi is not about learning sets but about learning a new way to move. I’ve been doing Tai Chi for over 35 years. I still practice basics, not sets. It’s hard for new students to hear this. They beat themselves up relentlessly for not easily learning the set. So yes, you’ll learn the set; it’s just going to take a little longer than you probably thought.
3. Tai Chi is a comprehensive practice that will touch every aspect of your life, if you let it. This is not something you do for one hour a week in class. You’ll get no benefit at all if you’re not willing to change, and let Tai Chi change the way you live. You have to learn to think, drive, sit, walk, and stand in line at the bank, like a Tai Chi player. Tai Chi teaches you a level of sensitivity, awareness, and alignment with your center that makes your whole life different. But you have to be open to this, and not treat Tai Chi like recreation—something you do apart from your regular life.
4. You have to practice every day. Again, this might seem obvious. But if you think about your Tai Chi class the same way you think about your Jazzercise class (somebody leads you through a routine once a week,) you’ll miss the whole Tai Chi experience, and you’ll be one of those frustrated people who complains that they can’t memorize the form. Tai Chi takes daily practice. It doesn’t have to be for long sessions—in fact at first, short 10 minute sessions are better. Just go over what you learn each week. But do it regularly. Keep it fun and don’t worry about making mistakes—you’ll get corrected next time. One thing I can promise you though, is that if you don’t practice, you’ll never learn Tai Chi. The whole point is to be able to do this for yourself, at home, for the rest of your life. So don’t wait until you think you’ve got a better handle on things. Begin here, now.
I don’t mean to play the heavy and dissuade you from trying a Tai Chi class. On the contrary, I want everyone to learn Tai Chi and I’m relentlessly optimistic about everyone being capable of learning and doing Tai Chi. But I’m also a tireless promoter of the real thing. Authentic Tai Chi is Kung Fu, and Kung Fu is for the whole village. Just bring your openness, patience, and martial spirit to the floor.
See you in class!