Why We Do Things The Way We Do

Posted by Stuart Herbert on February 20th, 2008 in Teaching, Technique.

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.