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10 Questions to Ask a Taichi Teacher

This post continues on a theme I started a couple of weeks ago on the difficulties of finding a truly qualified taichi teacher. I’ve got nothing to sell here. I don’t believe it’s possible to learn taichi from a video and I think seminars are a waste of time and money unless they are a part of ongoing studies in the same discipline.

I asked my sifu (teacher) once why he didn’t sell videos. He laughed and said, “You are right here in front of me and you don’t get it, how is someone supposed to get it from a video?”

He went on to explain that much of taichi is about sensation and feeling. You can’t watch someone and understand the feeling. Language of course fails to describe feelings as well. Try sometime to tell someone what a rose smells like?

But, if a taichi teacher is truly gifted, he or she can communicate the sensation through touch. Your body will then remember the feeling and when you finally recreate that sensation, you will recognize it.

Tip: If I were to teach something by video I would teach chi-kung instead. The movements are more specifically health oriented and shorter and, in my experience, you don’t have to be as precise to get the health benefits. So, if you really can’t find a good taichi teacher. I would recommend seeking out some good books or videos on chi-kung instead.

Now to the ten questions I suggest you ask a prospective taichi teacher;

    1) How long have you been studying / teaching?

    There is no “right” answer here but I would steer clear of anyone who hasn’t studied taichi for at least 10 years. (see my previous post for why I think that.)

    The teaching question is a little more problematic. My own teacher, for example, studied and practiced tai chi for decades before he decided to teach. On day 1 of his teaching career his “years teaching” would have been zero. But you still would have had an excellent teacher. But, by his own admission, he is a better teacher now that he has several years of experience. I’d say, as a guideline, look for someone who has at least a couple of years teaching.

    2) What style of tai chi do you teach?

    The answer should be one of the major “families” of tai chi. Yang is the most popular, followed closely by Chen. Wu, Sun and Guangping Yang are also common. There are a few others. But if the answer is not a Chinese family name walk away. Chances are this is one of the people who decided they could “improve” on or invent their own style of tai chi. Translation? a big ego and probably someone who never understood the core principles well, hence their desire to “improve” it.


    3) What is your lineage?

    If the teacher doesn’t know their lineage, it is a bad sign. All students of taichi should be able to trace their teaching lineage back to the style founder,e.g. I learned from Sifu Bob Brown, Sifu Brown learned from Sifu Suzy Smith etc until you reach the founder of the style. If a teacher cannot name their lineage they are likely a person who has not had proper instruction or whom lacks the intellectual curiosity to explore the history of their art.

    If their lineage is too far from the original family teachings, this is also a problem. After several years of teaching tai chi myself, I understand how easy it is for an art to be lost or distorted, all with the best of intentions. I see my own students trying to help each other. They explain or demonstrate some movement completely confident they’ve understood it but when I watch them I see it’s wrong.

    My own teacher says much the same about me. I have not once in years studying with him, demonstrated something without being corrected. And I mean anything, not even the simplest of movements.

    Its like the game of gossip we played in elementary school, with each repetition the story changes a little until at the end it’s hilariously different. Now think how much more opportunity for error there is in a long series of subtle and complicated movements.

    4) How long did you study with your main teacher?

    Look for someone who studied with the same teacher for most of their career. People who changed often (usually with the excuse that they were broadening their experience) are usually people with big egos and they probably changed teachers too often to ever deeply understand the teaching. Also, many teachers tend to hold back the “inner” teaching until someone has been with them a long time and earned their trust.

    5) Do you teach taichi applications?

    I once heard an interview with a taichi “master.” He had created his own style and supposedly had several schools around the country and thousands of students. The interviewer asked, “Is tai chi an effective martial art?” The teacher responded that tai chi was purely for health. If I could have, I would have reached through the radio and strangled the guy.

    Make no mistake, tai chi was originally a martial art. It does not need to be practiced as one and most people do not. But, in my opinion, any qualified teacher will know and be able to demonstrate the tai chi applications.

    The movements are very precise for BOTH fighting and energetic reasons. Without an understanding of the applications you cannot understand the details of the movements nor teach them.

    Unfortunately, very few tai chi teachers in America know the applications. Many, don’t even know there are applications. Trust me, in China all tai chi teachers know the applications to one degree or another.

    6)What is the format of your classes?

    Tai chi cannot be taught at a deep level to many people at the same time. You can get the basics but deep understanding requires one on one instruction, at least at some points. More than half of the teaching comes from feeling the master.

    If the class is so large that there is little one on one time with the instructor then look for another teacher. Leave even faster if the majority of the teaching is done by other students.

    7) Do your students learn push hands?

    Push hands is a two person taichi exercise in which two practitioners cooperate in learning to be soft and accurate in their tai chi. It was originally created to give beginning martial arts practitioners a physical “vocabulary” of attacks and defenses. If an instructor is not well versed in push-hands, it means their own training never advanced beyond the most basic level.

    In my opinion, push-hands are essential for understanding the movements of taichi properly. Besides, it’s fun!

    8) What else do you teach?

    I talked about this in the previous post. Most teachers of taichi came into it after studying something else like yoga or a hard-style martial. In my opinion learning taichi deeply requires pretty much all of your free time. Anyone who is trying to stay fresh in another very different art and tai chi, is probably doing neither art justice.

    Also, most good taichi teachers will be well versed in other Chinese Taoist arts. It’s a good sign if the teacher also knows Chinese medicine, accupunture, Taoism, meditation , chi kung or one of the closely related Chinese internal arts (for example, Hsing-I, Bagua, or I-chuan)

    9) Can I touch hands with you?

    Ask the teacher if you can touch hands with them . What should you feel?…nothing. You should have the odd sensation of seeing that you are in constant physical contact with the teacher but you can’t actually feel them. You wont’ have the sense they are running away form you nor that they are resisting you. A person qualified to teach taichi will be able to match the energy you give and the consequence is that you feel nothing at all.

    If they feel hard or you feel resistance, then the prospective teacher still needs to study some more before they teach. If you feel the person completely limp (I call this noodle-arm syndrome) then they also are not ready to teach. Proper taichi is filled with energy, active but empty of intention.

    A lot of teachers have the idea they should be “soft”. (This is especially common of people with a yoga background). Taichi is not “soft” it is “empty”, there is a difference. A good tai chi teacher will always communicate the sense of being full, in control, perfect balance and ready to move in any direction.

    I once pushed hands with a person trained in yoga who also taught taichi. He could yield to a push by bending his back over to a very impressive degree and still maintain his balance. It was cool. BUT, it was also impossible for him to move or take a step from that position. It was an excellent display of flexibility and balance, but it was not taichi.

    TIP: Some traditional taichi teachers find a request to touch hands equivalent to a “challenge”. Be very respectful when you request this and be clear you want to just feel what taichi feels like not to “test” their abilities.

    10. May I watch a class ?

    Most teachers will invite you to observe a class without hesitation. I suggest you pay more attention to the students than the teacher. Are they respectful, to both the teacher and each other? Are they calm and energetic at the same time? Are there people in the class who, to your eyes, look like they have the “spirit” of the teachers movements? Do the students get one on one time with the teacher? Does the teacher allow some students to grandstand or boss other students around?

    Most importantly, are most of the people there people you’d enjoy hanging out with?

    I hope you found this list helpful and interesting. I wish you all the best of luck in finding a good teacher. Taichi is an art I treasure and I am personally very grateful to have found my teacher and I wish the same for you.

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    Post by Mike on 06 Jan, 2015

    Excelent advice,

    Some additional things that can help prepare a long and healthy tai chi ‘career’

    - be prepared to travel some distance for training, good teachers might be hard to find but training 20 years with a bad one is pointless.

    - be open about your health and mental state. i found that my teacher not only acts as advice giver, also some excersizes might not be benificial to you. In fact, serious tai chi quite some work

    - Dont shop around, i mean here, dont go from teacher to teacher, try to stick to 1 teacher as long as you both enjoy it.

    - learning material, ask your teacher what you should read / watch / learn. Several reasons: many different styles, they dont always mix well. Much material out there is, softly said, not that good. and lastly, your teacher will know what type of information you are ready for.

    - Take your time, but train daily. If you want to learn this, be prepared to do something each day.

    - ENJOY it!!