Written by Rachel

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Every week we receive an e-mail from a well-meaning individual asking for a few tai chi "tips & pointers"...
They are usually a physiotherapist, Alexander Technique teacher, nurse, school PE teacher or a care home worker.
The person explains that they use tai chi in their professional duties but would like a bit more detail. Could they borrow some material?


When people send an e-mail asking for tips & pointers, they are usually surprised when we ask whether or not they are seeking teacher training.
They quickly point out that they are not a tai chi teacher and do not wish to become one. At this stage, a conundrum is evident.
The person isn't a tai chi teacher, doesn't want to become one, and claims not to be teaching tai chi. Yet... they are teaching tai chi albeit in an amateurish manner.


We decline to share tai chi material with amateurs. And discourage them from continuing their bad practice. We invite them to leave tai chi tuition to professionally qualified instructors.

What's the big deal?

Apologists argue that learning tai chi from an amateur is better than not doing tai chi at all. How so?
Would you entrust an amateur dentist with your teeth? A partially trained optician with your eyes? An unqualified physiotherapist?


There are a lot of tai chi practitioners in the world with bad knees. This is the outcome of major misconceptions and shabby teaching. Other risks include shoulder joint problems and lower back pain.


With the widespread appeal of tai chi there has emerged a growing trend towards amateurism. Some groups actually train without a tutor...
Others are led by an unskilled amateur who is not qualified to teach.

The danger of amateurism

Imagine that you have a serious illness and seek the reputed health benefits of tai chi... Who would you rather study with: A) a skilled, experienced instructor? or B) a well-meaning amateur?
Training any exercise system or martial art under the guidance of an amateur/charlatan is dangerous. It can lead to injury, and will inevitably cause mistakes and misconceptions.

Simplistic mentality

When learning any in-depth skill or art, a teacher is needed.
There are very few people in the world who can learn to play the piano by themselves, cook like a French chef, become a doctor, speak Spanish or perform tai chi properly without professional help.
If you imagine that learning tai chi is any different to learning how to play the piano... your understanding of tai chi is woefully simplistic.

What is commonly being taught in a tai chi class

According to The Journal of Asian Martial Arts, most tai chi classes in the world offer solo form (a sequence of moves), and a bit of qigong. Not many classes actually do pushing hands.
Some do sword form. Occasionally, teachers speak of self defence applications. Things like 'san sau' are very, very rare, and rarer still are classes that teach anything approaching an actual martial art.

Tai chi is more than form

With the advent of performance art tai chi people have begun to think of tai chi purely in terms of 'form'. This again is simplistic. Form is just one facet of the art.

Stages of skill

Within form practice there are 8 distinct skill levels. Most tai chi people never get past stage 1.

Form collecting

Rather than progress through all 8 stages with one form, the tai chi amateur learns a new form - again at the most fundamental, simplistic level.
Form collecting is a sign of limited understanding and boredom.

No instructor?

Training in unsupervised groups or being self-taught is essentially the blind leading the blind. No one has a clue what the 'big picture' is because no one possesses the necessary knowledge or skill.
Wild misinterpretations and misconceptions hinder any credible hope of progress.

We're all students...

Amateurs who possess limited knowledge will tell the doubting student that everyone is a student, that we are all on this journey together... OK. So, why am I paying you money?

In my opinion

Amateurs have opinions about tai chi based upon their ideas/notions. The martial arts have no need for opinions.
An opinion will not help you to deal effectively with an assault... only knowledge, experience and real skill will prevail.
A theoretical grasp of combat will not prepare you for the reality, any more than some sense of tai chi biomechanics will enable you to use the body in an optimal way.
Real knowledge is not based on opinion.

The instructor

The role of the instructor is to guide the student.
They are responsible for implementing the syllabus, correcting mistakes, suggesting new considerations and generally moving the student in a forwards direction.
There are no plateaus in tai chi; you can always look deeper into the art.

Qigong & tai chi teacher

Expect a teacher to have:

At least 5 years experience
A professional teaching qualification/long-term extensive teaching experience under the guidance of a reputable instructor
At least 10,000 hours of practice behind them
10,000 hours of continued improvement, insight and development

Tai chi fighting method

An instructor will take significantly longer than a tai chi for health teacher to gain the necessary skill and experience. Once skilled, they can commence teacher training.

Beware of amateurs...

Tai chi is great providing it is taught with skill and integrity.
It is a sad truth that most tai chi for health teachers are not professionals. They are often well-meaning amateurs potentially doing more harm than good. Be cautious.
Find out more about the art for yourself. Gain some measure of understanding before attending a class. Ask the teacher about the style being taught, the methodology behind their teaching.
Ask to see their syllabus.

Don't take our word for it

Find out for yourself. We strongly encourage you to read:

The Essence of Tai Chi Chuan - The Literary Tradition by Lo et al
The Sword Polisher's Record by Adam Hsu
Tai Chi Theory & Martial Power by Yang Jwing-Ming
The Power of Internal Martial Arts by Bruce Frantzis
Chinese Boxing by Robert Smith
There Are No Secrets by Wolfe Lowenthal

Tai chi is a
recognisable fighting style

If you watch wing chun applied in combat, it looks distinctly like wing chun. The same could be said of judo, aikido, ju jitsu, pencat silat etc.
By the same reasoning, the martial art of tai chi must look like tai chi. What does tai chi look like in combat? Tai chi looks like tai chi. The form, pushing hands, you know... tai chi.
If the martial expression of tai chi does not look like tai chi, it is probably not tai chi.

10 questions to ask a tai chi teacher

Try asking these 10
metacognition questions:

1. Which treatise(s) would you consider to be The Tai Chi Classics? Which author is most accessible to you? And which parts do you struggle to put into your practice?

2. What role does 'shen' play in tai chi?

3. Explain the significance of 'folding'.

4. The name of the art refers to the 'yin/yang' diagram... So, how does tai chi use yin/yang?

5. Illustrate the difference between 'jing' and 'li'. What bearing does this have on 'peng'?

6. What does the expression 'invest in loss' refer to?

7. Explain the difference between the first 4 powers and the second 4 powers.

8. Which of the Taoist Classics do you find most relevant/pertinent to tai chi? And why?

9. What is 'mutual arising'?

10. How does '4 ounces of pressure' operate in practice? What are the active/passive manifestations? And how do they differ?

If a tai chi teacher cannot answer every question comprehensively - verbally & physically - they are not skilled enough to be an instructor. Look for somebody who can provide good answers.

13     adult learning     amateurs     assistants     authenticity     fit to teach?     levels     syllabus     teacher training course     teaching tai chi

Page created 18 March 1997
Last updated 06 September 2023