Learning tai chi

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Three factors

There are three factors to consider when learning tai chi:

  1. The art

  2. The instructor

  3. The student

The art has endured for centuries; this alone speaks of its value. The skill of the instructor will determine how well the art is taught to the student.
The attitude and ability of the student is the deciding factor.

The art

Qigong is fairly easy to learn but not easy to practice in an advanced way. Considerable stamina is required.
To some extent, tai chi for health can be as simplistic or as complex as the student desires. A crude sense of tai chi may be gained quickly but the refined art is the product of far longer study.
Tai chi chuan (dynamic balancing boxing) is another matter altogether. It is not easy to learn. Compared to other martial arts, tai chi is rather advanced.
The methodology, physical skills, sensitivity, awareness, biomechanical application and martial abilities are exceptionally in-depth. Patience and tenacity are required.

The student

A dedicated student aims to steal their teacher's skills. This is akin to acquiring a trade secret. Only by taking responsibility for their own learning can a student hope to learn the true depth of the art.
Motivation, commitment, intelligence, enthusiasm - these are all relevant factors. To quote the proverb: You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.


If you think about it, there are few things in life that are easy to learn. Should you decide to become a very good cook, you will need to put in a lot of time and effort.
How about learning to play a musical instrument? Drive a car? Speak a foreign language?
Many people have unrealistic expectations. About themselves. About the subject they are hoping to learn. About what learning involves.
Usually, students underestimate the amount of effort involved. The time it will take. The financial cost. Ambitions are easy. Fulfilling them is far harder.


As well as learning, we unlearn. Instead of forcing, we allow. The aim is not just to acquire new information, but also to remove what impedes us.
Typically, holding and fixity are the problem. We cling to things for security. Our attachments to people, places, memories and ideas prevent freedom of movement.
If you want to discover something new, it is necessary to shed the old. Although we teach many new skills, much of the training is concerned with unlearning ingrained habits.


It is quite common in tai chi classes for students to try and 'learn' the material by copying. The problem with copying is that the imitator has no real idea what they are doing.
They are not sure what to emphasise, what to prioritise. There is no sense of meaning. Learning is more productive than copying.


Most students do not listen. Whilst the instructor demonstrates, the student tries to copy along at the same time. This means that they are doing rather than listening.
Kindergarten children often have better listening skills than adults.

Take it home with you

You pay for driving lessons so that you can drive a car. You attend Spanish classes so that you can speak Spanish. You learn French cuisine so that you can cook better.
Why do you learn tai chi? You learn tai chi in class so that you can practice and use the principles and skills of tai chi in your everyday life.

If you can't do it, you don't know it.

(Mike Sigman)

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Page created 2 August 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023