Exuberant play

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Playing tai chi?

It is common for students to say that they are "playing" tai chi... This notion of 'play' must be considered carefully. Most adults perceive play as tooling around - insincere, light-hearted and carefree.
But is this play at all?

Children at play

When a child plays, they seldom behave in the manner described. A child at play is usually engrossed in whatever they are doing; their minds are in the here and now.
It can be quite difficult to distract a child who is playing.

What play means to you

Can you see the danger here? If you think that play refers to an opportunity to behave an irresponsible, carefree, childish manner... then you have got the wrong idea about tai chi.
Play is about immersion in the event itself. Beginners who want to talk rather than train (or dance around and act foolishly) are not in earnest. They are not focused at all.
An inexperienced student cannot talk and train competently at the same time. If they are talking, then they are talking. They are not training tai chi.

Their aim was to discover the essential nature or real constitution of things,
which they called 'physis'.
The term 'physics' is derived from this Greek word and meant therefore,
originally the endeavour of seeing the essential nature of things.

(Fritjof Capra)

The necessary balance

A student needs to concentrate in some respects, and be unselfconscious in other regards. Both facets of this requirement are addressed through the act of playfulness. 


When a child discovers their universe, they do so through play. A playful mind is not tense or uptight. In tai chi we learn in the same way.
Students are encouraged to explore every neigong, application and jing in partnership with other people. This approach is cooperative and experiential.
By practicing with others we can find out what works and what does not. Other students can offer assistance and obstruction - both of which require you to adapt, change and progress.

Find out for yourself

The beauty of play is that you do not have to believe anything. You can find out for yourself. If something works, examine the physics behind the success. Why did it work? Can it be improved upon?
If something fails, figure out why it failed...


Adults forget the advantage of play. Once you remove the barriers of right and wrong, approval and disapproval - you can totally relax. If you make a mistake, so what? It is only play.
When you can relax and just be yourself, your mind will open to new possibilities. You can see the wonder of things and laugh. You may start to play in other areas of your life...

Martial science

Our tai chi cannot be learned by copying somebody else. You need a profound understanding of what you are doing and how it works. The imagination must be engaged.
Without play and exploration, you will have tai chi classes filled with students who possess absolutely no grasp of what they are practicing.

Most of us experience a sense of being 'on edge' or jumpy. This is really a habitual over-reaction to our environment. One way of deepening your understanding of this is to experiment with habitual patterns of reacting to a familiar stimulus, such as a door-bell or a telephone ringing.

(Michael Gelb)


Sifu Waller's approach to tai chi has no interest whatsoever in fighting - there will never be competitions or full-contact bouts.
Fa jing, shuai jiao, striking and chin na are not toys to be treated carelessly. No sensible person would allow you to snap their joint just to prove that it can be done.
You must be far smarter than that if you want to learn tai chi.


Nobody actually wants to be hurt. Broken bones, concussion, bleeding and damage are not going to be found when training with Sifu Waller.
Aggressive martial arts classes can cause their students more harm than a real life attacker would - instead of learning to defend yourself, you are beaten up every week.
Be honest with yourself: what do you really want from your lessons?


Many studies have proven that 'exuberant play' is the most effective learning medium. With the stigma of violence, pain and injury removed, students are free to relax and explore at their leisure.
The paradoxical physics associated with tai chi emphasises the importance of relaxing and letting-go.
Play encourages this.

Prove yourself worthy

In order to complete the lower grades you must prove that you can play. You are taught new skills when you have proven that you can handle them responsibly.
Trust must be earned, respect must be shown and consideration must be demonstrated. This is a safeguard for all school members.


Playing is the first step in mastering your own ego and overcoming your conditioning. Lao Tzu wrote: "master self before attempting to master others".
If you lack the control necessary to employ the tai chi safely and carefully, you are still a
Humour is the greatest contribution you can bring to the practice; be good-natured, kind and light-hearted. When you stop taking yourself too seriously, you can begin to play in earnest.
If you can play for the fun of playing, then the syllabus will be an enjoyable experience.

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Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023