Course Notes Back Online

Posted by Stuart Herbert on August 2nd, 2010 in Classes, Teaching.

My apologies to everyone who left comments or wrote to me pointing out that my T’ai Chi class notes were no longer online. I’m afraid I forgot to copy them back in the last time I upgraded the blog software. They’re now back, and available for download once again.

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Thoughts On Practicing

Posted by Stuart Herbert on February 21st, 2010 in Podcast, Teaching, Your Practice.

This blog post was originally published as a podcast in June 2009. Iā€™m slowly transcribing all of my podcasts, to share them with my readers who either cannot play podcasts on their computer, or who simply prefer reading instead of listening.

I’ve just completed tonight’s class teaching the beginners on a Thursday night, and there are two key lessons we’ve taken from tonight’s class.

First of all, no matter what the weather, no matter how hot or how cold it is, the class always goes easier if it is nice and lighthearted, and people are able to have a good old laugh as part of the class. It makes them enjoy themselves a lot more; as a result they actually find that they’re more focused. As a teacher, you’ll see that in the students because they’re not looking to escape – they’re not watching the clock; they’re here, they’re in the moment, and they are enjoying themselves.

And then the second lesson we’ve taken from tonight’s class is that there’s no substitute for hard work, no substitute at all. Repetition – going over the moves bit by bit, breaking them down and practicing, practicing, practicing 10, 15, 20 times a night in the class really helps people learn and re-enforces the teaching they’ve already picked up for each of the moves.

It’s amazing what difference you can see in two hours between everybody in the group, and it’s a real joy to see … it’s one of the things that as a teacher keeps bringing you back to class week in and week out.

And then there’s a third thing as well … as beginners, T’ai Chi is something that they cannot yet understand. They’re being taught the form because the form is a teaching tool [it’s also a martial fighting form – Ed] to teach true T’ai Chi afterwards. At this stage of learning the form all the movements are … they’re not flowing because it’s all muscular, it’s all hand and foot mentality, as my teacher would have said. It’s a case of always reassuring them and let them understand that they’re actually doing very well because at this stage they’re doing the best they can. It’s all you can ever ask from anybody. And encourage them to come back every week.

This is week 26 now for the Thursday group, and just seeing the difference from week 1 when they came in having not done any T’ai Chi before; and now they’ve played the form twice tonight, and we’ve done corrections on five / six separate moves, and had a good debate about how things should be and why, and such a short period of time really from when they first came through that door and this is just the start of their journey. It’s a real joy as a teacher, and as a student of the art, to share that with people.

You may be listening to this on the podcast and wondering what this has to do with T’ai Chi, and how does it help your practice … try and bring these things into your practice. Look for the enjoyment in your form and the moves and the principles that you are applying and the goals you are working towards. Put in the work to achieve those goals. Have a plan about what you’re going to do, what you’re going to explore. Stick to it: do the work. And then finally, accept that when you get there, what you really do is achieve a new level of understanding and a new set of goals to work towards. It never stops. You’re capable – everyone is capable – of infinite polishing; being polished more and more, improving more and more as time goes on.

And that’s just as true in solo practice as it is in a group teaching situation.

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Open Source T’ai Chi :)

Posted by Stuart Herbert on September 21st, 2009 in Books, News, Teaching.

Over the past two years, I’ve been working on a set of notes for my Beginners’ class. With the help of feedback from my students, the notes have been polished, tried and tested, and I’m now happy enough with them to share them online for anyone else who is interested in reading them.

To make my notes easy to find, I’ve added a new Class Notes page to the website which lists all of the notes I’ve uploaded. I still need to finish off and publish my T’ai Chi for Improvers notes, plus the notes I’m scribbling away about my own practice!

And, to make my notes as free as possible, I’m licensing them under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 (UK) license. This license allows you to re-use my notes, and to make your own version of these notes, provided you give the original author (me) credit and that you also distribute your own version of the notes under the same license.

This makes our T’ai Chi notes a Free Cultural Work.

Why am I doing this?

  • Our art has a tradition going back at least to Yang Cheng’fu in the 1930’s of sharing everything we know. This means you don’t have to take any modern teacher’s word on T’ai Chi; you can go and track down a translation of Yang Cheng’fu’s book and see for yourself.
  • When my teacher died, his surviving family chose to withdraw the two instructional aids he had made during his lifetime (videos of both himself and his teacher playing the form). This sadly means that my students (and, in time, their students) cannot compare their own understanding and practice to that of the teachers who went before me. My own work, such as it is, is now a Free Cultural Work and can never be withdrawn from my students when I die.

I hope you find these notes helpful, and I’m always keen to receive feedback to help me improve them still further.

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Taoist Internal Alchemy

Posted by Stuart Herbert on October 26th, 2008 in Teaching, Technique.

At the start of our form, we give the following instructions:

Set your feet shoulder width apart, and in your own time, lower your centre of gravity. Tension below the belly button, relaxed above the belly button. Eyes looking forward, and the tongue up to the roof of the mouth. Attention on tan tien. Deep breathing in and out, contraction and expansion of your belly.

In the beginner’s class on Thursday, I was asked about the purpose of the tan tien. I normally give the following explanations:

  1. It is a little bit below the belly button, and a little bit inside.
  2. According to Western science, it is the centre of gravity for the human body.
  3. According to Eastern philosophy, it is an important part of taoist internal alchemy.

But what exactly is taoist internal alchemy? That was an excellent follow-up question šŸ™‚

I don’t practice taoist internal alchemy myself, as it’s something that isn’t part of the system handed down to me by my teacher. It wasn’t that my teacher didn’t believe in chi and its cultivation per se, it was simply the case that my teacher rightly believed that we have no place teaching things we cannot demonstrate and put to the test. As a result, my knowledge on the subject is simply theoretical, and I have no formal teaching in it myself.

Taoism is one of the oldest surviving philosophies in the world, best known through the great work the Tao te Ching attributed to Lao-tzu. At the core is the concept of The Way (the do in Japanese martial arts such as akido, iaido, judo and kendo) and how we can all find our own harmony with The Way. Practitioners of taoism are known as taoists. As a way of living, it has a lot to offer us Westerners, and it is said to be the underlying philosophy that Tai Chi is based on. (More on that in a later article!)

Man everywhere is obsessed with his own immortality, and taoists it turns out are not immune to this desire šŸ™‚ The difference I guess is that some taoists believe that real immortality is not only possible, has actually been achieved in the past (by such as Cheng San-feng, the legendary creator of Tai Chi). Just as western alchemists attempted to turn base metals such as lead into pure gold, so taoist internal alchemy is concerned with practices to turn the base energy into a refined spirit.

One of the practices of taoist internal alchemy is to turn ching (generative energy) into chi (vital energy), and then to turn the chi into shen (spiritual energy). The area we call tan tien in our class is actually the lowest placed of three separate tan tiens (the second is at the solar plexus, and the third between the eyebrows). The lower tan tien is used to refine ching (generative energy) into chi (vital energy); very appropriate from a western point of view given its location at our centre of gravity, at the place in Tai Chi where all our movement is controlled from.

This is a gross and decidedly ill-informed over-simplification of the subject, I must stress! Anyone interested in learning more should seek out a qualified instructor on the matter, or failing that start with reading Eva Wong’s translation of Cultivating Stillness.

I freely admit that I’m not all that comfortable talking about my own experiences with the mystical side of Tai Chi. Part of it comes from my teacher’s own understandable feelings on the subject, and part of it comes from my own training as a scientist and qualification as an engineer. There’s also the important matter that, if we tell our students what feelings to expect, the mind has a funny way of manifesting those feelings whether or not the work has been done to make them real! And, as if that wasn’t enough, I’m sure that there are some in our community who exploit students’ interest in and (dare I say) desire for such experiences. I do not want to become one of them, even unwittingly.

But what it comes down to is this. At the end of the day, how can you share your experiences with someone else? You can’t, not without a common frame of reference (a teaching tool I need to write a lot more about!) As teachers, it must be our role to direct our students through a programme of learning that will result in our students having these experiences for themselves. How to achieve that is perhaps the ultimate question of teaching, and it was the last question my teacher and I discussed before he left us.

And, as I experienced on Tuesday night watching my Improvers’ students explore the principle of Relax the Waist, on those rare occasions when we pull it off, there are few pleasures in life more satisfying šŸ™‚

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The Role Of Books

Posted by Stuart Herbert on October 15th, 2008 in Teaching.

In last week’s Beginners’ class, we enjoyed a great discussion about the books I recommend on this website, and which books are of any use to someone just starting learning the art.

My own experience with books over the years is three-fold:

  1. As a beginner, I simply had no common frame of reference to understand the great advice available in the great Tai Chi books. Looking back in recent years, I can now see that many of the answers I’ve sought were there under my nose the entire time, but I simply didn’t understand enough to see that.
  2. There are a great many Tai Chi books that (imho) are utter rubbish. I don’t mean that they are written badly, but that the advice they contain is demonstrably wrong. Much to my wife’s disgust, I collect these almost as avidly as I do the better books, and my students can look forward to the day when I share these books with them, and ask them to pick out the many flaws they contain šŸ˜€
  3. The books that could be called authentic are a great source of advice. I was taught to take nothing on faith, to always seek out and verify everything I was taught by Robert. New information can promote a path of experience to new understanding, and in the light of new information things must change.

You can’t learn from a book. Knowledge comes from a book, but understanding only comes from experience. Books can’t replace a good teacher, but they can certainly validate good teaching. And they can expose bad teaching too.

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How Do You Organise Your Notes?

Posted by Stuart Herbert on October 5th, 2008 in Teaching.

With the brand new Tai Chi for Improvers course having just kicked off, my evenings and weekends are once again taken up with turning my notes from each class into teaching aids for the course.

I’d appreciate the advice of my fellow Tai Chi teachers on what teaching aids work best for you. Have you found written notes work best, and if so how have you organised them? Videos make boost income, but what style of video best helps students learn? Have you tried any audio CDs at all?

Let me know in the comments below.

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With the academic year over, I’m now focusing on planning the Tai Chi courses that I’ll be running from late September 2008. I feel that the Beginners’ Tai Chi class went very well, and it only needs a few tweaks here and there. This will be the first year I’ve run the Intermediate Tai Chi class, and there’s a lot of hard work to be done to prepare the syllabus for this class.

The students enrolling for Intermediate Tai Chi have all successfully completed the Beginners’ class. They can all do the warm-ups, and they can all play the form from start to end under supervision. They haven’t begun to incorporate the Ten Principles yet, and they haven’t done any push hands yet. These are things that I’ve deliberately not included in the Beginners’ Tai Chi, because I believe that it’s simply too much all at once.

My current thinking (which will doubtless change as I refine my plans over the next two months) is centred around my desire to enable my students to take their Tai Chi and enjoy it for the rest of their lives without having to come back for regular classes. I would love for them to come back (we all get on very well), but I don’t want them to have to.

Proposed learning outcomes for the Intermediate Tai Chi class:

  • Students should be able to perform the warm-ups with minimal instruction.
  • Students should be able to perform the form with minimal instruction.
  • Students should be able to demonstrate an understanding of the Ten Principles.
  • Students should be able to perform the static push-hands drills.

What do you think?

I’m wondering how to incorporate both learning the principles and getting enough time at the push hands drills in just 60 hours of contact time. When you take away time for warm-ups, playing the form at least twice each class, and breaks, at the very best that leaves about 40 minutes each week to introduce students to new material (principles and push hands). Will that be enough to cover both topics sufficiently?

Today, I don’t know.

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What’s In A Move?

Posted by Stuart Herbert on March 19th, 2008 in Teaching.

In the Ng Family Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan that I practise, we have the following sequence of moves:

  • Squatting single whip
  • Snake creeps down
  • Golden pheasant stands on one leg left

I’ve been preparing written notes for my students this week, and two questions have been on my mind as a result. Where do each of these moves end (and the next one start), and why does it matter?

It matters to me because I don’t want to be the latest in a lengthening line of instructors who leaves the art in a worse state than I found it. Yang Luchan, the founder of Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan, seems also to have been its greatest practitioner. Those who have come after him have passed on a lesser art each and every time, and it has gotten to the point that much of what is taught as Tai Chi today does not stand up to scrutiny against the Tai Chi classics. (Pick up any modern book on Tai Chi, look at the photos, and tell me whether or not you’re seeing fundamentals like single weight being evidenced).

The thing that always impresses me about my teacher is that he’s always insisted on trying to get down to the core of the art as we understand it, to improve on the information we have. Something is the way it is until new information comes along. In light of new information, things must change. We don’t own the art – it is our duty to hold it in trust for the next generation. Whilst it’s in our care, we should not make it worse!

In classical Yang style, squatting single whip seems to be nothing more than another name for snake creeps down; two names describing the very same move. We break the move into two parts – squatting single whip where we lower our stance by pivoting on alternate heels and toes, and snake creeps down where we use the left arm to defend against a kick. Should we use the one name for both parts? And where exactly does golden pheasant start?

However we decide, we have to start with the questions.

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Reflection In Action

Posted by Stuart Herbert on March 13th, 2008 in Teaching.

It sounds bloody obvious, but when you’re teaching something, it’s essential to keep gauging the mood of the room to understand whether or not the students “get it”, whatever “it” might be. If they don’t get it, then it’s the teacher’s responsibility to change tack and on the spot come up with another approach, another description … to make whatever changes are required; and to keep changing it until the teaching is successful.

This is what teaching courses call reflection in action, and it’s something I’m going to be spending a lot of time doing in my classes through to the summer.

19 weeks through the 30 week course, we’ve finally reached the parts of the Tai Chi form that I’ve rarely taught before. Nearly all of my teaching up to now has been teaching beginners the first parts of the form. This year is the first time I’ve taught a class by myself, and had the opportunity to see them all the way through to the end of the year. It’s both a steep learning curve and a thoroughly enjoyable test of my own understanding of our Tai Chi form šŸ™‚

I had a good example of having to reflect in action on Tuesday evening. The new moves this week were low pat right, high pat right, low pat left, high pat left and punch low. The stances for these are almost the same stances that our students have been using for the previous 18 weeks – front stance, back stance and cat stance. (The differences are in the two heel pivots in front of each high pat). So that’s where I started, but after a couple of minutes it was clear that it was the wrong approach to teaching these particular moves.

What was wrong? The first place to look is always to the students, to try to learn what their take on the teaching experience is. (As teachers, we have our own opinions, but they’re not the whole story. We must take into account how our students feel, otherwise we are ignoring half of the teacher/student equation!) Their feedback was clear: without the accompanying arm movements, the stepping on its own seemed harder to absorb. But, we’d already tried arms and legs together a little earlier, and that hadn’t been much success either.

But the students were absolutely right. The underlying problem was that the stepping didn’t make any sense for these particular moves. With the arms, the stepping sort-of makes sense, because you’re peforming the whole move. Without the arms, the stepping seems aimless, because you shift your weight forward, back, and then forward again before actually taking a step. Up to now, all the footwork the students have learned has been about actually stepping forward, sideways, or turning around. With its rocking back and forth, this footwork is both the same (it’s the same stances) but different. And I hadn’t grasped that in advance šŸ™

How to find a fix it? Robert always told me to teach what I do, not what I say, and it remains excellent advice to this day. When I’m teaching, I’ll often answer a question by attempting the particular move first, and then by talking about what I’ve just demonstrated. I’ve also added the advice (happily stolen from watching Robert teach) that I should always make the demonstration relevant to both aspects of Tai Chi – health and martial (i.e. put the learning into context). Sometimes it helps to exaggerate the move; the (often unintentional) humour can lighten the mood of everyone, and it stops us being constrained by the strict formality of the form. I guess you could call it trying to look at the move out of the box.

The solution was to stop talking about stances and focus instead on actually rocking forward and back. This change in the instruction better reflected the purpose of the move, and within a few minutes the class was able to add the arm movements back in. By the end of the class, everyone was able to run through the form from the very beginning all the way through to the end of punch low. I’m really pleased with everyone’s progress, and I’m looking forward to that magical evening when we all play the entire form through together for the first time. It isn’t far away now.

So that’s reflection in action. It’s a small thing, and like I said, something that’s bloody obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many teachers stick to one approach and are unable to think on their feet and adapt as they go along.

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Cognitive Science and Google

Posted by Stuart Herbert on March 5th, 2008 in Teaching.

I picked up a copy of Stephen M. Kosslyn’s Clear and to The Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations recently. Professor Kosslyn is Chair of the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and a leading authority on the nature of visual mental imagery and visual communication.

These are two areas of cognitive science that are particularly useful to anyone who teaches Tai Chi. As instructors, we teach primarily by demonstration – we literally communicate visually with our students. What we communicate, and the way we do it, make or break us as effective teachers. A key aspect of teaching the martial aspects of the form to beginners is to get them to imagine that they are applying their technique to an opponent who is standing in front of them (or beside them, depending on the technique, of course). We ask our students to have a visual mental image of their opponent at all times. Without that image, the techniques practiced will miss the mark.

His advice on escaping from PowerPoint Hell is built around eight key principles:

  1. The Principle of Relevance
  2. The Principle of Appropriate Knowledge
  3. The Principle of Salience
  4. The Principle of Discriminability
  5. The Principle of Perceptual Organisation
  6. The Principle of Compatibility
  7. The Principle of Informative Changes
  8. The Principle of Capacity Limitations

I’m going to explore each of these principles (and how they can be applied to teaching Tai Chi) in a series of follow-up posts, but I can already testify that they work extremely well. I used these principles to design the 20 minute assessed microteach that I did on Monday evening, and I passed with an ‘A’ grade! (The 20 minute assessed microteach is part of the grading for the Adult Teacher qualification I’m currently studying for, on the ET01: Introduction to Teaching course). If you have to present or teach, I can’t urge you enough to go out and get this book.

What does this have to do with Google? Er, nothing, really šŸ™‚ Just that Google’s part of the other news for this week.

I’ve finally registered tenprinciplestaichi.com, and over the summer I’ll be building a website for the Tai Chi school. The plan is to keep it simple: a few pages about the school and our classes, and then a protected area where my students will be able to download electronic copies of the course notes and some videos too. Rather than create all the web pages and underlying software by hand, I’ve decided to build the website using the new Google Sites. I’ll let you know when the website is up and running.

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