Finding a tai chi class

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Finding a tai chi class may sound like a simple enough proposition, but there are many considerations to take into account.
Choose your class carefully:

  1. Are you looking for a tai chi class or a tai chi school?

  2. Authenticity

  3. 5 missing pieces

  4. Qi-based classes?

  5. Confusion

  6. Media

  7. Is it really tai chi?

  8. What makes tai chi 'tai chi'?

  9. What is the difference between tai chi chuan, taijiquan and tai chi?

  10. 4 styles

  11. Most classes are health classes

  12. Common approaches

  13. Specialist classes

  14. Very few tai chi classes are actually martial

  15. Does tai chi involve physical contact?

  16. What kind of qigong is being taught?

  17. What is the focus of the class?

  18. Isn't tai chi slow & boring?

  19. Can I train 2 different styles of tai chi simultaneously?

  20. Medical problems

  21. Partial knowledge

  22. The vibe

  23. Friendly

  24. Perpetual beginners

  25. Your own agenda

  26. Your personality

  27. Give it a chance

  28. Gratification

  29. Preconceptions

  30. Cherry picking

  31. Responsibility

  32. Professional

  33. The instructor

  34. Syllabus

  35. Experience

  36. Martial skill

  37. Form, but not substance

  38. Can you recommend a class in my town/area?

  39. Frequently asked questions

  40. How tai chi is taught in modern times

  41. Adult learning


Be careful when looking for a tai chi class... Often an 'instructor' only knows a few warm-up exercises and a short sequence of movements. They move their arms around and the class copies.
Synchronised arm waving is not tai chi. No matter how pretty it looks. Or how nice it feels. Or how popular the class is.
Do some research:

• Authenticity
• The essence of the art
• Tai chi principles
13 areas of study
• Common misconceptions

Faced with a major health crisis in the 1950's, the People's Republic of China turned to the old/classical Yang style tai chi for a solution. They wanted a form of exercise that could be performed by students of all ages.
The simplest way to achieve this was to remove the more demanding fitness component and the combat. Most modern tai chi classes are teaching an art that an old person could cope with...
By definition this cannot conceivably be a martial art.

5 missing pieces

Many tai chi classes lack 5 important elements necessary in order for tai chi to function as a martial art:

  1. Neigong (whole-body strength)

  2. Martial concepts (what combat constitutes and how to do it effectively)

  3. Chin na (the art of seizing)

  4. Shuai jiao (take downs)

  5. Jing (whole-body power)

Without these 5 components, tai chi is lacking something and may not work in combat.

Qi-based classes?

A lot of modern tai chi classes talk about 'qi'... They give the impression that a magical energy is going to transform your health.
In our experience, people who spend a lot of time talking about qi seldom have anything else to offer. They struggle when asked to produce more concrete proof of ability.
No syllabus. No methodology. No depth of skill.

It is easy to chat about life energy when no proof is expected. This hardly demonstrates a high degree of knowledge or skill. Taoism calls such behaviour "eating the flower and not the fruit".
Dreamers like to chat about qi, auras and so forth. When it comes to the actual work we do in class, they become flaky and struggle quite badly.

What does qi have to do with fighting? Absolutely nothing. If you want to talk about qi in the martial arts, I'd say that it doesn't have anything to do with the martial arts. They're talking about intention mostly, and they're calling it qi because it sounds more mysterious.

(Tim Cartmell)


When people look for a tai chi class they inevitably have expectations, ideas, notions, opinions and preconceptions. These will all hamper you in your search.
What you need is some idea of what tai chi really is... If you go looking for what you think it is, you may indeed find something that fits your requirement, but is it really tai chi at all?
Gratification is no proof that you have found a good class. You may merely have found a class that pleases you.


The media depict martial arts in an unrealistic way; either as entertainment in movies and TV shows, or as sport. Now and again tai chi is lauded as being wonderful for the health.
Somewhere along the way, people become convinced that it is easy to learn tai chi.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
It does not matter whether you plan to learn qigong, tai chi for health, tai chi, wing chun, ju jitsu or the countless other styles and systems available to you. Few things in life are actually easy to learn.

Is it really tai chi?

Tai chi instructors seldom distinguish between tai chi for health and tai chi chuan. Most modern tai chi classes study tai chi for health but only a rare few practice the martial art.
It is common for classes to say that they are teaching 'tai chi chuan' when in fact they are teaching 'tai chi for health' instead.
Many students are exposed to tai chi for health and believe this to be the martial art.
In some cases it may well be, but in most cases it is merely tai chi for health practice with a threadbare smattering of martial skill thrown in for variety.
To train tai chi chuan (dynamic balancing boxing) correctly you need a highly-skilled instructor who can offer a very comprehensive syllabus.

What makes tai chi 'tai chi'?

Tai chi is not simply slow motion exercise. There are very specific qualities that need to be present for the training to be called 'tai chi'.
You cannot simply ad lib and think that you are performing tai chi.

The wisdom of famous tai chi masters came to be known as The Tai Chi Classics. These three are the most widely read:

  1. Chang treatise

  2. Wang treatise

  3. Wu treatise 

These documents provide a detailed outline of what tai chi is and how it should be employed. Correct practice of tai chi must follow the guidelines precisely.

What is the difference between tai chi chuan, taijiquan and tai chi?

Tai chi chuan is the old way of spelling the martial art in English (Wade-Giles). Taijiquan chi is the modern spelling (Pinyin). Tai chi/taiji is an abbreviation.
Tai chi may refer to
tai chi for health or tai chi chuan (dynamic balancing boxing). It depends on the individual teacher and class.  Most tai chi classes in the UK are only offering tai chi for health.

4 styles

There are 4 recognised styles of tai chi:

  1. Yang

  2. Chen

  3. Wu

  4. Hao

Within each style there will be a lot of differences between instructors, classes, approaches and emphasis. Ensure that the teacher is adhering to the essence of the art.
If the class you encounter is not teaching one of the 4 recognised styles, tread carefully. Find out more.

Most classes are
health classes

Virtually every tai chi school in the UK is teaching 'tai chi for health'. Classes offering tai chi chuan (dynamic balancing boxing) are very rare indeed.
Some classes may advertise themselves as 'tai chi' but are in fact teaching tai chi for health.

Common approaches

In the UK you may encounter:

  1. Tai chi for health

  2. Tai chi tailored for the elderly

  3. Tai chi tailored for specific medical problems i.e. arthritis

  4. Tai chi-style exercise

  5. Tai chi in a wheelchair

  6. Tai chi for people who need to use a walking stick

  7. Tai chi for children

  8. Tai chi for students with mental health issues

  9. Tai chi as performance art

  10. Numbered forms (i.e. 24 step)

  11. Tai chi as dance

  12. Tai chi as a form of therapy

  13. Tai chi as a New Age experience

  14. Qigong referred to as tai chi (shibashi)

  15. Tai chi offered alongside other martial arts by an instructor who practices a variety of external martial arts

  16. Tai chi classes offered by a so-called instructor who 'learned it from a book' or has a 'fast track' or 'long distance' qualification

  17. Tai chi as an add-on to something else, e.g. Alexander Technique "Let's do a bit of tai chi"

The differences between these approaches are worth some consideration.

Specialist classes

Some tai chi classes have specialist areas of tuition:

  1. Tai chi in a wheelchair

  2. Tai chi for people who need to use a walking stick

  3. Tai chi for children

  4. Tai chi for students with mental health issues

  5. Tai chi for the elderly

  6. Tai chi for arthritis

  7. Tai chi for people with medical conditions

  8. Tai chi as a form of therapy

These classes are specialist classes. The teachers will have received training in their chosen field of interest and know how to offer an appropriate learning environment.
They will be insured to teach these types of classes.

Very few tai chi classes are actually martial

(i) Martial proof

It is easy to determine if a tai chi martial arts class is bona fide.
Ask the instructor about:

  1. Their syllabus

  2. Teaching methodology

  3. The Tai Chi Classics

  4. Tai chi principles (4 ounces, 6 balanced pairs, 13 methods, fa jing, folding, groundpath, opening & closing, reeling silk, shen, softness, substantial & insubstantial, sung, yielding etc)

  5. Martial principles and application

  6. Form application (7 applications for every pattern of movement)

  7. Combat

  8. Examples of shuai jiao, chin na and jing skill

A genuine instructor will be able to prove their skill to you quite convincingly.

(ii) Internal or external tai chi?

Some classes offer 'external' martial arts (i.e. MMA or karate) alongside tai chi. External martial arts use the body in a manner that contradicts The Tai Chi Classics.  
How internal is their tai chi likely to be?

Does tai chi involve physical contact?

Yes it does.

Tai chi classes feature 3 main areas of study: qigong, form and pushing hands/partner work.
Qigong and form are solo training methods. Partner work involves training with other students. If you are not undertaking partner work, you are not really training tai chi.
Physical contact is necessary in order to receive feedback (tense/relaxed/connected etc) and to practice the tai chi skills.

If you are not comfortable with physical contact, we recommend that you consider an alternative form of exercise.

What kind of qigong is being taught?

Qigong is a very diverse area of study and approaches can vary wildly.

(i) Strength building

Good classes seldom speak about qi. Instead, the emphasis is upon good body mechanics, balance, breathing, lengthening the muscles and relaxation.
If all of these factors are taught well, the body will become notably stronger. Expect a gently challenging workout.

(ii) Hippy classes

A 'feel good' qigong class may have all manner of so-called qi-enhancing practices... but are these bona fide or bogus? Does the student feel stronger?
Is their body stronger, more balanced, their emotions settled and the mind calm? Would your time be better spent walking the dog around the park?

(iii) Spend your time wisely

Qigong should ideally be infused with neigong (whole-body strength), and this will prepare the student for martial training and physical activities in every day life.
There is no need to talk about qi. A clear, tangible, scientific attitude is much wiser. Focus on how you use the body. 
Gain strength, ease of movement and mental clarity. Get the postural muscles to do most of the work rather than your localised limbs. Let your qi take care of itself...

What is the focus of the class?

The ideal situation is learn tai chi from a class that focuses exclusively upon tai chi. Expertise requires specialism. A jack of all trades is a master of none.
Does the class focus on tai chi or do they offer a selection of approaches (yoga, Pilates, zumba etc)?

Isn't tai chi slow and boring?

(i) Pace

Many of the beginner's exercises are performed slowly in order to relax the muscles, calm the mind and encourage awareness. Only one of the tai chi forms is slow. The rest are more vigorous.
Tai chi chuan (dynamic balancing boxing) training starts slowly and then speeds up as the student becomes more skilled.

(ii) Boredom

Tai chi is all about putting ancient Chinese wisdom into practice, acquiring superior body use, gaining inner peace and clarity. You will need to engage your mind as well as your body.
Contrast this with running on a treadmill or a static exercise bike. Which activity is boring?

(iii) Look deeper

A good class will always have a comprehensive syllabus in place; ensuring on-going development and access to new material.
The training challenges your mind with unexpected insights, skills and possibilities. No two lessons are the same. Tai chi encourages depth and understanding. Quality rather than quantity.

(iv) Stimulation

Modern culture encourages people to seek out stimulation and entertainment. This can lead to impatience and a diminished capacity for attention.
To make progress in tai chi, the student must engage with the training and work hard. 
A quiet resolve and a commitment to practice will lead to strong progress and the opportunity to learn increasingly fascinating, sophisticated skills.

Can I train 2 different styles of tai chi simultaneously

Sifu Waller is a traditionalist and does not believe in form collecting or mixing styles/approaches. All of our material is fully integrated.
'Form collecting' is a modern habit which arises when a student is unwilling to commit the necessary practice to mastering one style of tai chi.
In short, the student gets bored; which can be either due to the individual or the limited syllabus in a given class.

Medical problems

Qigong and tai chi teachers are not medical professionals. Tai chi for health was not designed to be a treatment. It was intended to improve overall health and wellbeing.
Many people have sought out our tuition in order to address specific medical concerns, but we cannot ethically claim expertise in medical matters.
Nor can we commit one-to-one time within a lesson for individual medical guidance..

Partial knowledge

There is an Indian folk tale about six blind men inspecting an elephant:

The first man encounters the side of the animal and believes it to be a wall
The second man imagines the tusk to be a spear
The third man thinks that the trunk is a snake
The fourth man considers the leg to be a tree
The fifth man feels an ear and believes it to be a fan
The sixth man finds the tail and is certain it is a rope

Having a limited grasp about a subject denies you any hope of having perspective. You judge according to what you personally understand or experience, and th
is can have some significant drawbacks.
Your knowledge has no context and consequently no meaning.

The vibe

When you enter a class, you notice all manner of things simultaneously. These factors coalesce to produce a vibe.
Ask yourself:

  1. Is the class friendly?

  2. Are people having fun?

  3. Does the instructor explain things well?

  4. Is there humour?

  5. Do you feel safe?

  6. Can you feel a change in your body?

  7. Is the lesson interesting?

  8. Are you challenged with new ideas?

  9. Does the material make you think?

  10. Are you making progress?

  11. Is the instructor calm or tense?

  12. Do they move with ease?


A teacher needs to cultivate an atmosphere of friendship, care and respect. The classes need to be akin to an extended family, with students feeling quite safe and comfortable with one another.
No matter what is happening in your life, the class remains a good place to be.

Perpetual beginners

tai chi students in the UK never get past the preliminaries of the art. They lack the knowledge and/or the tuition opportunities to explore tai chi properly.
Training at a basic level long-term is not good for your health and wellbeing. A crude understanding of tai chi can potentially
lead to injury
To avoid this, students need to make progress in a healthy, safe, fun environment. They must continually develop their insights, skills and awareness.

A proven, fully differentiated syllabus should be in place and the opportunity for each student to learn tai chi relative to their own ability.

Your own agenda

Everyone has an agenda. The more honest and open you are about your own, the more likely you are to find a suitable class.
Do you have health problems? Have you bad knees? A bad back? Are you concerned about being thrown on the floor? Does the prospect of combat training frighten you?
Is your age an issue? What are your expectations? Are you willing to commit to a weekly class? Do have previous tai chi experience? (Are you hoping that the new class will be the same as the old?)
Are you attending class because you really want to, or because you think you should?

Your personality

Being realistic about who you are and what you want is vital.
Are you:

  1. A martial artist? (Now or in the past?)

  2. A hippy?

  3. A performer?

  4. A talker?

  5. Looking for a hobby?

  6. Wanting something easy?

There are many different approaches to tai chi. Some classes are earnest and challenging. Some teachers adhere strictly to the The Tai Chi Classics. Some classes are popular, but sadly misguided.
Look for something suitable for you.

Give it a chance

The first lesson you have in tai chi will be hindered by your own personality. Even if you have trained tai chi before, you are unlikely to see past the veil of your own self-consciousness and fears.
It is usually worth trying a few classes. That way, you can settle-in a little and really observe what is taking place in class.
Pay particular attention to the more
skilled students: what are they training? How adept do they seem? Are they having fun?


People are usually motivated by the quest for gratification. They seek out things that please them and avoid things that fail to measure up to their expectations.
New starters sometimes commence a tai chi class and imagine that they can 'cherry pick' the syllabus. Typically, they are quietly instructed to get on with the training.
A tai chi class is not about gratification. This is a very important thing to recognise. It is not the 'service industry'.


New starters often believe what they see in the movies or on TV It looks so exciting, so relaxing, so graceful... They want this for themselves.
The student expects to walk away with awesome skills within a few weeks. After all, the man on YouTube can do it... why can't they? Unfortunately, the student is typically unrealistic.
They seldom consider:

  1. Their own level of fitness

  2. Their capacity to learn

  3. The scope of their ambitions

  4. How much work lies ahead of them

  5. How long it will take to learn the desired skills

Cherry picking

New students often have a wish list of things they want to learn. They will even ask the instructor to teach them specific skills i.e. sword.
Similarly, the student may decline to do certain things because it may not please or gratify them. The problem with this approach is that the student has no idea what the scope of the syllabus is.
They do not know what skills must be acquired, in what order, how and why.
By seeking to focus only upon what they think is important robs the student of the opportunity to learn from the only person who actually knows what they are doing: the instructor.


Learning a martial art is not like buying a product in a shop. You make it happen. You do the work. Not the instructor.
It is common for a new starter to commence class with excited ambitions, only to falter almost immediately. Tai chi classes expect a high turnover of beginners.
Few students have the resolve to endure the journey. Most people never make it past the first step.


Seek expert guidance from a trained professional. Do not entrust your wellbeing to an amateur. The world is saturated with well-meaning, inexperienced instructors.
These instructors are teaching an imbalanced syllabus and fail to offer the complete art. The art is slowly being ruined, watered down to a point where there is nothing internal left.


Tai chi is a complex, detailed martial art and it needs to be taught in a thorough, methodical manner. Haphazard, piecemeal tuition will not work.
Expect a
syllabus that is progressive, differentiated and proven. 
Every class should be capable of showing the student where they are in terms of progress, what they should be working on, and what happens next.


Nothing beats
experience. A class needs to be run by an experienced instructor who is well-versed in teaching their art. They need to know it inside out. This will not happen overnight.
Experience comes from long-term practice, from looking deep into the tai chi, exploring it and understanding it for yourself.
A good instructor has probably been training for a decade or more in tai chi, and may well have an extensive background in martial arts.
It is worth determining whether or not tai chi is the instructor's sole concern. Be wary of classes taught by people who lack experience or who obtained a teaching qualification via some fast-track course.

Martial skill

A good instructor should be capable of demonstrating tai chi martial skills without hurting you.
- they can demonstrate striking power on a focus mitt
- they can seize or misplace the bones without any risk of injury
- they can perform a shuai jiao application without power

It’s certainly sobering when after all those years of training, facing Sifu Waller I feel about as effective as an old lady throwing marshmallows.


Do not be afraid to ask questions.

Gauge the effectiveness of what they show you:

  1. Did it work?

  2. Did they compromise themselves? Were they over-committing?

  3. Was there any adverse feedback?

  4. Did they allow for multiple attackers?

  5. What did it do to the opponent?

  6. Were they forcing an outcome? Or did it flow?

  7. Was it easy to perform?

  8. Smooth or jarring?

  9. Was it hurried and quick? Were they calm and composed?

  10. Can they evade an armed opponent?

If you doubt them, ask them to perform it on you. But remember that if you want proof of skill, you may well get more than you bargained for.

Form, but no substance

A tai chi school should offer you a system of exercise (and perhaps martial skill) that builds your strength and skill, gently and consistently. It should also balance body, mind and emotions.
In order to fully understand the tai chi, the instructor must possess an in-depth martial understanding of the art. Mere theory is insufficient. Self defence tips & pointers are plain useless.
There needs to be a fully comprehensive working knowledge of the system, and the capacity to use it spontaneously.
As a student, you may not care for combat at all. This is fine. Not everyone wants martial skills. But the instructor is different. An instructor cannot afford to have huge gaps in their understanding.
What the instructor does not know, they may assume or omit. This can be a dangerous and foolhardy approach to take.

Can you recommend a class in my town/area?

We cannot offer any recommendations. Every tai chi school has its own agenda. Each school has its own values, concerns and interests.
Our advice is to explore what is available in your area. Try out some classes. You may find something you like. Something that appeals to your values, concerns and interests.

Page created 26 August 1994
Last updated 30 November 2023