If you’re curious about how the Tai Chi form can be used as a martial art, head on over to Luminous Moon’s blog. She’s just posted a video showing some of the martial applications of Tai Chi, created by Master Jesse Tsao from Tai Chi Healthways in California. The video is about 3 minutes long, and manages to fit in a number of different moves from the form and their applications.
Well worth a look.
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This week was week 16 (out of 30) for my beginners’ class. It’s the first week back after half term, and it’s bloody freezing (well, for the UK anyway) outside by 6pm on an evening. It would be more than understandable for folks to drop out … but they haven’t. In fact, they’ve been spreading the word about the class, and our numbers went up again this week. If our new beginners come back next week, that brings the class up to 15 regular students on a Tuesday night. I’m really grateful to my students this year; this is my first year of teaching a public class on my own, and they continue to be fantastically supportive as I get to grips with things.
I think I’m going to need a bigger hall for next September, if I’m going to run the Year 2 class alongside next year’s beginners’ class!
Robert often told me that one of appeals of Tai Chi is that beginners stuff is the advanced stuff. If you’ve been playing the form for years, or its your first night in a class, what you’re learning is the same stuff. It really helps with a mixed ability class, because you can do something like a walking drill and everyone benefits. Walking drills are the first thing I teach anyone joining the class, and even those who have been with us for a couple of years now need a refresher and some pointers for improvement 🙂
We did a walking drill last night, and I broke the class up into three groups.
- Those enjoying their first night with us were simply concentrating on the three main stances that we teach (cat stance, back stance and front stance).
- The rest of the beginners were asked to ensure that they stepped toe to heel and shoulder width apart at each step. (“Ensure” is a gross over-simplification; I must remember to elaborate on that in a future blog post).
- My intermediate group were also asked to ensure that they picked up their legs to waist height with each step.
The usual explanation for picking up the leg to waist height is that you’re stepping over the fallen foe that you’ve just dispatched (well, it is a martial art after all :), and for those uncomfortable with the martial aspects of the art, there’s always the explanation that picking up the leg is good for your health and range of movement (the use it or lose it principle).
They’re good reasons, but they’re not really why we do it.
The group has walked down one end of the hall, and they’ve turned around and are making their way back towards me, when Leon comes to a halt. Although he’s in the middle group, he’s been doing the waist-high stepping as he walks. It’s one of those lightbulb moments, and they’re the reason anyone who teaches loves their vocation. Excitedly, he catches my eye, and the ear of everyone around him, and explains what he’s just discovered.
The reason we lift our leg to waist height is because, when we put our foot back down on the floor, the foot goes into the right place every time.
It’s simplicity itself. We standardise our movements so that we get consistent results. We measure our movements against our own physical dimensions, because that works for everyone. And we internalise the movement (pick up the leg to waist height) because it’s much less effort / workload to execute consistently than externalising it (step over the corpse in front of us).
These points apply to everything we do in our daily practice, which is far easier to say than it is to actually do 🙂
As teachers, we can’t always tell our students points like these. We have to do our best to create the right circumstances for the students to experience the rule for themselves. As Robert told me just before Christmas, a rule has to be felt for it to be truly understood. Wise words indeed.
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It’s half-term this week, which means no teacher training class on Monday night, and no Tai Chi class on Tuesday night. This gives me a week off to work on the class notes for the next half term, and get everything organised for when (not if) my class is inspected.
I’ve been into Staples and picked up three of their excellent new hard-wearing ring binders. At 4.99 each, they’re very expensive, but the new rubber coating and the four-hole binder inside will ensure that my notes survive the effort of being lugged to and from class for 30 weeks every year. All I have to do now is fill them 🙂
Why three binders?
- In Year 1 – Beginners’ Tai Chi – I’m teaching my students how to play the form. I already have lesson plans prepared for each of the 30 weeks that they’ll be studying with me; these lesson plans double up as the notes that the students get at the end of each half-term. So, folder #1 will have my copy of the lesson plans, plus additional sheets so that I can scribble down notes about what needs changing for next year.
- In Year 2 – Intermediate Tai Chi – the plan is to teach my students the ten key principles behind our form. That’s quite ambitious for a 30 week course! During the summer break, I’ll be working on lesson plans for each of the 30 weeks, and these will go into folder #2, along with the obligatory sheets for scribbling down notes about how to improve the lessons for next year.
- The final binder will hold the Individual Learning Plans and attendance records for each of my students. No, I’ve no idea what an Individual Learning Plan is (more on that in a minute), but I do know that it’s something we’re asked to produce when we’re inspected.
Whoever said that UK teachers had too much free time on their hands? 🙂
To be honest, I don’t mind the paperwork as such. I’ve chosen to teach Tai Chi through the Lifelong Learning programme, and that means accepting the paperwork that goes with it. When you’re involved with government (either local or national), bureaucracy is part of its nature. Accepting something’s nature is part of how I practice the Taoist philosophy that sits behind Tai Chi.
What I do mind is just how badly prepared we are for it. There’s a lot of room for improvement, specifically in designing and running a course that provides practical support and advice to new tutors joining the Lifelong Learning programme. We need a detailed induction course that covers a wide range of practical issues that aren’t covered in the teacher training course.
A great example of this are Individual Learning Plans. As best as I can tell, they are not covered at all during the 12 week teacher training course that we all have to attend. (The course is great, by the way, and when the time comes, I’ll be requiring all of my senior students who want to teach Tai Chi to attend). They are definitely not covered in the recommended course textbooks. They are frequently mentioned in Ofsted reports, but they’re not mentioned in the brand new Lifelong Learning UK standards. I was invited to a seminar on ILPs this month, but as I work full-time during the day, it wasn’t possible to attend at all. Thankfully, somewhere on the net, there’ll be the information I need to design an ILP template that I can use with each of my students. But I’m one of the lucky one on the course; I’m comfortable using a computer. I’m not certain how many of my colleagues would be able to track these down online.
If there’s one point Robert absolutely hammered into me (in the nicest possible way, I must quickly add!) about teaching Tai Chi, it’s this: I am to teach what I do, not what I say. The students must be able to look at me and see me doing the very things I’m asking them to learn. If I cannot evidence it, then it doesn’t exist for all intents and purposes. This is why, in my class, we don’t specifically teach anything about the manipulation of chi. We can’t evidence such manipulation. (At this point, fellow Tai Chi players around the world are planning to burn me at the stake for such heresy 🙂 )
The nature of Yin and Yang means that some experiences will be good, and some will be bad. No experience is good all the time, and no experience is bad all the time. There’s always a little bit of Yin in Yang, and vice versa. If we are suitably prepared, we can learn from the bad as well as from the good; but only if we learn to tell one from the other, and to accept both for what they are.
My experience with ILPs helps me understand why Robert’s point about teaching Tai Chi is absolutely spot on, and why it is something that I must never ever deviate from. We can learn from the bad, but given a choice, we’d rather learn from the good.
On a different topic, I’m planning on using next week’s blog entry to talk a bit about the benefits of playing Tai Chi. Whether you already play Tai Chi or not, I hope there’ll be something of interest for you.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s still ten more minutes left today for me to get some paperwork done … 🙂
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Good news again this week … we’ve had another new starter join the class. I think that brings us up to twelve regular students in the class now. If you’re in the Barry or Cardiff area, and you’re looking to join a friendly and relaxed Tai Chi group, you’re most welcome. I’d better put together a page with details of the class!
I had a lucky find at the weekend. Whilst sorting through a (rather large!) pile of unopened mail, my wife found a Tai Chi book that I’d bought some time ago and completely forgotten about.
The Complete Book of Tai Chi, by Wong Kiew Kit, claims to be a complete guide to the principles and practice of Tai Chi Chuan. Although I think it falls a little short of this, it’s still one of my favourite books, and there’s plenty in there that I hope will help me gain more benefit from my personal practice over the coming years.
The book essentially covers the following areas:
- Tai Chi history
- Chi and Chi Kung
- Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art
- Explanations of the forms of the five main Tai Chi styles (Chen, Yang, Wu, Wu, and Sun)
It’s this breadth of content that gives rise to the “complete” claim, and it certainly packs a lot of detail and illustrations into its 317 pages, but I think the combination of both a lack of depth in some areas and commentaries that repeat more than they explain (an honourable tradition in these type of books 🙂 ) means that this book complements rather than replaces other essential Tai Chi books. To be fair, I can’t imagine a “complete” book of Tai Chi even being possible. My teacher Robert Earl Taylor can easily spend many hours looking at and lecturing on just one move in the form; it would take many volumes just to capture that level of information on paper.
Although it has come up in other reviews, I’m not going to criticise the book for being difficult for beginners to benefit from. I keep recalling my own experience when starting out with Tai Chi. My teacher told me what I needed to know, and when I checked my library of books I could always see that the books agreed with him. (I was always impressed by that, as I knew that Robert had had to work out many of these things for himself from first principles). But I didn’t have the experience to really “get” what he was telling me in those early years, and it definitely wasn’t because of the language he used. We “get” things through experiences over time, which encourage our brains to remodel their neural connections to help us in our pursuits. It’s an extremely difficult challenge to create a book on any subject that has substantial meaning for both the beginner and the adept as a result.
So what do I like about it? First and foremost, I like the practical advice in the stances, chi kung and application chapters of the book. As a student of the art, I have many many gaps in my own knowledge, and this book is going to point me in the right direction for plugging one or two of those. Although I’m not sure of the practical value of it, I’m also taken in by the documentation of all five major Tai Chi styles. I’m a sucker for scraps of information about Tai Chi’s history and evolution, and this book feeds that appetite amply!
I have to say that this is also one of the most beautifully presented books I’ve ever read – martial arts or otherwise. It’s a small point perhaps, but it does make reading the book that little bit more effortless!
I’ve setup a little Tai Chi book shop on Amazon, where you can order any of the Tai Chi books that I personally own and would recommend. Over the coming weeks, I’ll blog about each of the books in the shop, and what it is about each book that does it for me.
If you’d like to recommend any Tai Chi books that I haven’t listed in the shop, please mention them in the comments below, and I’ll take a look. Although there’s no substitute for practice and experience, I get a lot of pleasure out of reading Tai Chi books, and I’m always interested in hearing about books that I’ve not come across before.
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