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Immortal Musings

Why Is It So Hard To Find A Tai Chi Teacher?

by Ralph Kenney

May 08, 2015

Earlier this week I posted a blog on the benefits for tai chi for diabetics. I mentioned that it was important to find a well-qualified instructor. Several of you wrote me to ask what to look for in a tai chi instructor.

As I responded to that question, I realized that it is a subject I’m passionate about and that my answer was long enough to deserve a post or two. I realize it’s a little off-topic for me. If it’s not of interest to you, feel free to skip this one. I’ll understand.

Finding a good tai chi instructor is a challenge.
There is no nationally recognized certification system. (Before a bunch of you send me links to different tai chi teacher certification sites, let me say, I know there have been lots of attempts. Most of them are just money making schemes. A few are legitimate efforts but there are none that are widely recognized and accepted.) The nature of the art itself makes that impossible. And, sadly most people teaching tai chi have no business doing so. There are a number of reasons but in my mind it comes down to this…ego.

Tai chi is comprised of a series of deceptively simple slow movements, anywhere from 24 to 365 in a series. There is an unfortunate tendency for people to believe that once they’ve memorized the sequence, they’ve learned tai chi. Nothing could be further from the truth. Learning the sequence is just a prerequisite to the real learning.

Most people in the Western world take up tai chi later in life. It’s thought of as an old person’s exercise. Lifetime learners are rare. So, most people come in to the world of tai chi with a background in something else, most often some other form of martial art or yoga.

Not only does this prior experience make it harder for them to learn tai chi but they have been taught that learning happens in a linear fashion. Learn this pose, now learn the next one. Earn this belt, now start on the next one. Tai chi isn’t like that.

In tai chi you learn the basic movements then refine and refine again. The art unveils itself slowly in a series of plateaus. Just when you think you’ve learned it, another layer is made accessible to you and you go back to the beginning applying that new understanding to each and every movement.

If you can keep your ego in check, then you accept each new understanding with humility and gratitude and begin again secure in the knowledge that there are yet more breakthroughs waiting for you. But more commonly the student tells themselves, “Eureka! Now I’ve really understood it.”

So, unfortunately, most tai chi teachers in the West are people who learned the movements, practiced for a few years and then decided they “got it” and were ready to teach.

I feel sad for them, because once you decide you’ve “got it” learning stops and there was so much more them to learn. And, I feel sad for their students. If the teacher hasn’t mastered the art, what chance does the student have?

I am inspired and humbled by the example of my own teacher in contrast. He grew up in Mainland China. His father was a high-ranking person in the military and so he grew up surrounded my martial arts teachers. The times were such that most of his teachers had recent combat experience against the Japanese. Martial arts was not a hobby to these men, it was life and death. They could not afford to practice an art that did not work in the real world and they had no use for half-learned lessons.

He studies began at age four or five and continued his entire life. He is a true master of martial arts and of tai chi in particular.

For years people approached him and asked him to teach them but he always refused and instead referred students to other teachers (most of whom were not as qualified as he). It was not until after his comfortable retirement from a public service job in Canada in his 60’s that he decided to teach. Even then, he set aside two years of contemplation on the art of teaching before he decided to accept students.

He doesn’t have a school and he refuses to advertise. I discovered him by an incredible stroke of good fortune. He teaches seminars on rare occasions but most of his teaching is one on one, one student at a time.

And that’s the other reason it’s so hard to find a good tai chi teacher. The good ones don’t advertise.

But don’t lose hope. It is possible. My next post I’m qoing to give you 10 essential questions to ask a tai chi teacher before you accept him or her as your teacher.

See you next time.

1 comment

  • I first began to study Tai Chi when I was 18. I found an ad somewhere and went to a guy’s house. There were a few others there. He talked a bit about it, and at one point said, “Tai Chi is a metaphor of life!” I argued, and said, “No, it’s just this slow dance-like kind of martial art.” He repeated himself and smiled. It took me 25 years to figure out what he meant. He could have been the best Tai Chi instructor on the planet, and I doubt I would have understood what he said at that time in my life.

    I think I learned about half the form from him before I stopped going (mainly because I was the last one who hadn’t quit at that point). He said he lived in a Taoist monastery in China for 10 years and studied with several masters while he was there. I didn’t care; I just wanted to learn Tai Chi. And I’m glad he ran the ad, because I really had no idea where to look otherwise. If I could go back and change anything, I’d have paid more attention to what he was trying to teach us. But my mind was very full and not much could get in back then.

    There are several components to Tai Chi, the “form” being the most obvious. Anybody can teach you the form. You can even learn it from a video. That’s just the beginning. It’s said the essence of Tai Chi is to first master the form so you can forget the form. Only THEN can you begin learning Tai Chi. I think this is pretty accurate. And it applies to a lot of things in life.

    There are also principles that some masters teach. Ben Lo says there are five: “keep head up and back straight; separate yin and yang; sink down; move from the waist; maintain beautiful lady’s wrist”. He also likes to add, “Relax. Always relax!” That’s Ben.

    Abraham Liu has other principles. Interestingly, they both studied with Prof. Cheng Man Ching. Are they somehow wrong because they teach different so-called “principles” that don’t agree with the Professor? Would you avoid them because of this? They’re both masters of the art. They’re amazing to w

    David P Schwartz on

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