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A shaky start
When a new starter begins class they bring with them all manner of baggage:
Bad habits of body use
Very poor bodily awareness
Usually the student is
completely unaware of these impediments.
They engage in practice without
allowing for these problems.
This situation is anticipated by the instructor and the student is taught relative to their capacity to learn.
In most cases this means that the tuition is extremely basic, with only a gross outline being offered.
A new starter tends to have very
tense muscles and
limited flexibility in the hip and groin.
Elbows and shoulders are lifted, and the knees bent deeply instead of the
The back is commonly stiff and rigid. With this mind, the student cannot hope to be ambitious. And yet they frequently are.
It is common for a student stumble through a form without the slightest grasp of alignment or relaxation, and then ask to learn something more challenging. A polite response is necessary.
Getting it right?
Beginners occasionally ask: "When will I get it right?" or "Is this right?" after only a few short months of training. This may seem like a reasonable question.
Unfortunately, the student is yet to realise that they are missing about 99% of the syllabus. Given that there is still so much to learn, how can even the most simple exercise be correct?
Everything must be refined. Again and again and again and again.
One is taught in accordance
to one’s fitness to learn.
(The Silent Flute)
The cultivation of bodily awareness is paramount. For the average student it can take a couple of years before the individual begins to recognise good and bad body use. This is just the beginning.
Removing the old habits and acquiring new ways of standing and moving is the real challenge facing the student. It is an on-going concern.
Beginners always begin large. The arms are extended quite far from the body and the weight shifts and waist turns are large. Sweepings arcs are necessary.
This gross stage of learning is unfortunately necessary. Subtlety, grace and intricate nuances would be utterly wasted on the student.
Even if they could see the detail, their body has yet to possess the biomechanics required to perform the task correctly.
Beginners start by learning the 'pattern'. This is a crude rendition of the exercise or form and serves to familiarise the student with the approximate shape of the movement.
The student is expected to practice the pattern until the movement becomes easier. When the pattern has been remembered adequately, refinement can begin.
The pattern of a qigong, form, martial set or an application is not the final product. It is the initial introduction to the material.
Many practitioners never progress beyond the pattern and remain perpetual beginners, regardless of how many years they practice.
It is vital that a student does not remain at the lower echelon of skill. In order for the tai chi to improve, the pattern must be revised, corrected, improved-upon - not once - but as an on-going process.
There is no final product, no graduation. Even an expert practitioner continues to explore and tinker with their practice.
Every qigong exercise is studied crudely at first, in order to gain simplistic coordination. This enables the student to move the body in a gross way.
Tendons and ligaments are stretched and basic connection principles are introduced. Significant attention is placed upon alignment, positioning, structure, balance, mobility and good body use.
Optimal usage is encouraged. Every action should be natural, comfortable and not exaggerated.
Beginners are given a qigong ticksheet when they join the school and this is used throughout their training. The onus is upon learning the crude pattern.
Gain the outline of the exercise, with no real refinement. This is what the student is capable of performing when they begin lessons.
Advanced practice requires accurate, controlled performance and learning to incorporate neigong qualities. Alignment and joint relaxation are paramount concerns. The main emphasis is peng.
Eventually the student accomplishes a deeper internal stretch without taxing the joints.
There are 8 stages to studying any form:
Shen (fighting spirit/martial intent)
Martial applications (7 per movement)
Whole-body strength (neigong)
Whole-body movement (form)
Whole-body power (jing)
Natural-feeling body use
With the advent of tai chi
sport forms emanating from modern
China, many modern practitioners never
proceed past stage 1.
Indeed, few people even realise that there is more to form than the outward show. The sad part about this is that the pattern is essentially incorrect unless augmented by the other 7 stages.
Refining the pattern
Once the pattern has been crudely memorised, the student cannot consider it 'completed' or 'learned'. This is simply too naive. Working through the 5 stages will drastically change the pattern.
The sequence of movements will not change, but the way in which they are performed will continue to change for as long as you train tai chi. Do not stagnate.
If you videotaped your form during your early weeks of practice, and then filmed it again periodically you should see significant changes occurring over time.
Over the course of many years the form will evolve. If this does not happen... you are not making any progress at all.
A student only learns one form to begin with: the Long Yang form. It takes many years of practice to achieve a reasonable reproduction of the form. But it is still riddled with faults.
The advanced level teaches new forms, along with a wide range of additional material. These new forms draw principles and movements from the initial form and enrich the practice.
In terms of the Long Yang form, the focus is primarily upon understanding the meaning of the movements. The student must apply every pattern of movement martially.
Every martial set and partnered drill is taught in the same 5 stage way as form: the student moves from coarse to refined as their practice and skill develops. The key to progress lies in awareness.
A beginner may feel that a set is comfortable and familiar. This is fine initially. But, as the student becomes more adept, they will realise that the pattern is not entirely correct.
Necessary adjustments must be made, and without these alterations, the martial set will not work in practice.
Martial sets are taught in 4 stages initially:
The 'sequence' is
just the pattern of movements: the framework.
It must be performed quite well.
The final learning stage is concerned with how to use the set in
Subtle changes and corrections enhance the set, making it much more versatile and functional in combat.
Martial sets and form application represent the first steps toward a refinement of the more abstract-seeming Taoist and tai chi principles. They offer a degree of specificity without narrowing the scope.
The syllabus eventually dismantles every martial set and form application, increasing the potential once again.
We must continually take the abstract and consider specific applications, and then return again to the abstract.
Technical skill can refer to the accuracy of your form, the refinement of your combat drills and the study (and incorporation) of neigong qualities. However, there is more...
'Technical skill' also refers to specific combat insights/tactical fighting skills that require considerable training and practice to understand. These are not taught in the beginner's class.
A beginner focuses only on the basic pattern/outline.
Refinement of character
In traditional Chinese culture, tai chi was seen as a means for refining character. It enabled the individual to balance all aspects of their being.
The challenge of learning tai chi removes conflict, macho urges and aggression. A student learns how to move in a graceful, balanced, harmonious way and maintain composure at all times.
Constant correction, revision and progress
Refinement is on-going. There are no plateaus or stopping points. Students are challenged every lesson to hone their existing material and learn new skills.
Regular challenges aid the student in recognising the worth of what they have learned.
18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023